Authors: Susannah Sandlin
The characters and events portrayed in this book
are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental
and not intended by the author.
Text copyright © 2013 Susannah Sandlin
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Montlake Romance
PO Box 400818
Las Vegas, NV 89140
ISBN : 9781477857571
To Roger and Isabelle, who’ve followed every book and blog post, every step of the way. You’re what makes this journey worthwhile.
Table of Contents
The windows on the outside wall bowed slightly, as if taking a deep breath and then releasing it. Texas governor Carl Felderman’s first thought was that an earthquake had hit somewhere to the south. It wouldn’t be a first — a big earthquake in Mexico City back in the eighties had caused the sixty-four-story Williams Tower on the west side of Houston to sway.
Then again, the outside air was so damned hot, it was probably an optical illusion, like when a parking lot seems to shimmer from the heated air bouncing off the scorched steel of the parked cars.
No one else in the plush conference room on the fiftieth story of Houston’s Zemurray Building seemed to notice, so Carl continued his well-rehearsed spiel. “Gentlemen, I can assure you the State of Texas will provide whatever tax incentives and open access you need to turn the far-northwest side of the city into the country’s biggest manufacturing hub. We can even build a fast-access road to Bush Intercontinental Airport so your people can get in and out more easily.”
The German CEO of a large biochemical firm leaned forward and propped his elbows on the long, polished conference table. “What about the environmental protesters who have been outside this building every day? Can you guarantee they will not cause us problems? We cannot make this commitment and have our reputation damaged by rabble.”
Felderman looked at the balding billionaire, whose sweat beaded on his head despite the cranked-down air-conditioning. In another time or place, he would not like this guy very much. God knew Carl Felderman had no love for the tree huggers who’d been littering the lobby with anti-expansion flyers. If a few coyotes and sand spiders got nudged farther west in order to create thousands of new jobs, well, sorry, coyote. But those were at least people who believed in something beyond the dollar.
He’d long ago accepted that politicians sometimes had to sell their souls for the greater good. Texas needed the cash influx and the jobs. “I can assure you, the environmental groups will be dealt with. In fact…” He trailed off, frowning at the muffled, booming sound coming from deep inside the building. Had a transformer blown?
Everything went to hell within seconds, blurring with frantic noise and movement. More booming sounds from above and below propelled everyone around the table to his or her feet. Carl watched with morbid fascination as the windows didn’t bow this time but crumpled, the crinkled pattern of broken safety glass seeming to spiderweb outward in slow motion.
“Governor, come this way — we’re under attack.” A young man he’d never seen before pulled him toward the hallway as white flakes drifted into his eyes, and he had the absurd thought that snow was falling. The hottest August on record in years, and it was snowing inside the fucking Zemurray Building.
“The ceiling’s coming down!” a woman screamed, and the room disintegrated into a maelstrom of plaster dust, wiring, and chaos. Even the floor jittered and shook. The young man who’d clamped onto the governor’s arm continued to pull him toward the hall, into a stairwell, and down the steps. The stairwell filled with hordes of people from other floors, oddly silent in their determination to descend fifty stories — forty-nine, forty-eight, forty-seven — clattering down step after step after step.
A collective gasp echoed through the stairwell as the lights went out. Everyone froze. A few seconds later, harsh emergency lighting washed the surreal scene in a yellow glow, and the swell of people began descending again, moving faster, eyes on the steps, tongues silent.
Being swept along with the crowd, Carl was unsure but thought he went down two or three steps at a time without actually touching the ground. Still the young man held onto his arm.
Funny, the things one focuses on in a crisis
, Carl was to think later. He’d let himself be pulled down the stairs behind a young man he’d never seen, but whose hoodie was on inside out, the seams showing. He’d fixated on that detail, wondering why the kid had been so rushed that he didn’t dress properly. He wondered why the kid needed a hood inside the building on a hot day.
What he hadn’t thought to wonder — not until he was shoved into the back of a waiting sedan with dark-tinted windows near the emergency exit, his hands bound and a rough blindfold jerked around his head — was who the hell the kid worked for.
Kell spotted the bird as soon as its wing tips cleared the edge of the cypress stand at the eastern rim of Bayou Cote Blanche. For a moment, he indulged a hope it might be a hawk in search of fish, or a pelican, or a cormorant, or a fucking giant mutant hummingbird.
Anything but an eagle.
Gator raised his spotted head and focused sharp, mismatched eyes on the horizon, barking furiously in his Catahoula hound big-dog voice, usually reserved for alligators and swamp rats.
Kell had been sitting on the porch of his cabin on Cote Blanche since Nik’s phone call from New Orleans more than two hours ago, waiting to see who’d arrive first — the man or the bird.
Should’ve known it would be the freakazoid eagle with the deceptively sweet name of Robin. He’d come to think of her as Razorblade Robin. Nik would have to rent a boat in Jeanerette and navigate the serpentine waterways of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Swamp to get here. Razorblade Robin could just sprout feathers and soar.
The midday sun glinted off the glossy reddish-brown wings of the golden eagle as it swooped over the smooth, murky water of the bayou. It landed with a harsh caw at the end of his dock, spurring Gator to rise to his feet and look up at Kell, asking permission to chase.
“Sorry, buddy. You don’t want to mess with that one. She can take you.” Hell, she could take both of them.
Kell took a final look at the pile of papers he’d been reading — notes about his team’s new assignment. Mostly, he’d been studying the photo on top of the stack. The woman, Emory Chastaine, an environmental activist known for her anti-industry position, had been shot from a distance with a telephoto lens that gave the image a grainy feel. The quality of his generator-powered printer didn’t help the photo’s clarity. But he could tell she was tall, with an athletic build and shoulder-length blond hair. Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, she was pretty in an all-American kind of way.
Not his image of a terrorist. Which made her even more dangerous.
Gator sprang off the porch as the eagle strutted down the dock toward them. He approached the bird in a crouch, his growls echoing off the still water. Damn dog never did listen worth a flip. Kell leaned back in his chair to watch the show. With a screech and a blur of feathers seconds before Gator reached her, the eagle morphed into a petite, waifish brunette.
Make that a naked, waifish brunette with a snarky attitude. She arched an eyebrow as Kell’s vicious watchdog turn into a slobbering, tail-wagging fool, jumping up and down so vigorously his black-and-white spots seemed to blur. You’d think the hound saw birds turn into people every day.
If Gator went the crotch-sniffing route, Kell might have to die of pure humiliation.
Not like the naked bird-woman came as any big surprise. He reached for the T-shirt he’d thrown across the other porch chair and lobbed it to her as she approached, Gator dancing around her legs. “Put this on.”
Robin Ashton, five foot nothing of shape-shifter and the tracker for Kell’s new Omega Force team, caught the shirt and used it to wipe the sweat off her face. “It’s like a sauna out here. Pretty, though, if you’re into the primordial.”
She turned to study the bayou, a minor niche in the massive Atchafalaya basin, and Kell made it a point to keep his eyes away from her ass. It wasn’t that he wanted to look at it, exactly, but he was a guy, and it was right in front of him.
“Put on the shirt.” He paused and gritted his teeth. “Please.”
Robin turned back to him with an expression more smirk than smile. “Why? Does nudity make the big bad soldier Jack Kellison uncomfortable?”
“Absolutely.” Kell realized his military background — ten years as an Army Ranger in active duty, which had involved life with hordes of guys — made him unfit for many things, like dealing with naked female shape-shifters. But he was trying. Sort of.
He pulled a bottle of water from the cooler next to his chair and tossed it to Robin as soon as she’d pulled on the T-shirt. Thank God she hadn’t argued about it this time.
He’d spent the past three months with her and the other four members of their new Omega Team, going through the physical and mental torture of Army Ranger School to help bond them as a unit. Afterward, they’d undergone special coursework on profiling and investigation. It had been his brilliant idea. He’d gone through Ranger training ten years ago, and it had been life changing. The guys in his unit had remained tight because of what they’d survived together.
He figured his new team needed the bonding time. Ninety days ago, he hadn’t known things like shape-shifters existed. Ninety days ago, he’d argued that such creatures, if they did exist, had no business being on teams with Rangers who’d spent the last decade building trust through hazardous duty and deprivation.
Ninety days ago, he’d been wrong. The three shifters on the team — the ironically named Robin and a pair of cougar shifter brothers — had breezed through the Ranger course, while he and Nik and Gadget, the experienced human badass veterans, starved and suffered from insect bites and pulled muscles.
The whole situation was beyond fucked.
Omega Force was a collective of new human-paranormal special operations units. Kell’s had been one of several formed to investigate domestic terrorism cases that needed quick resolutions. Resolutions that might not be strictly obtained “by the book.” The first team had come out of Alabama and experienced such success that the program was expanded.
They might or might not be part of Homeland Security. Kell figured they’d never know for sure who truly signed their paychecks. He had a single contact, a former Army colonel and Ranger instructor named Rick Thomas. Kell had picked his two human team members from among his former Ranger command, and the colonel had assigned Robin and the other two shifters.
Their territory encompassed Louisiana and Texas, two states that tended to be short on terrorists but long on garden-variety nutjobs. He could say that; he’d grown up ten miles from here on the edge of the swamp and now lived in Houston, which was nothing but reclaimed swampland with a lot of tall buildings on it.
“What do we know about this new case?” Robin took the other chair and propped her feet on the porch rail. She was flashing a lot of leg, but at least Kell’s T-shirt covered the most distracting parts. Her short dark-auburn hair stuck out in spikes. Kind of feather-like.
“Might as well wait until we get everyone together so we don’t have to go over it twice. Have any trouble finding the cabin?”
She gave him a calm, maddening look. “Nope. You said ten miles south of Jeanerette, so once I got in the vicinity, your heat signature glowed like neon. Humans are easy.” She cocked her head and scanned the water. “He’s coming. Boat motor is skipping a little.”
Kell ground his teeth. He didn’t hear a fucking thing, but he wasn’t going to tell her that. These shape-shifters were giving him a complex.
He stared at the bend in the open water that lay to their north and didn’t change his expression when the buzzing of a boat engine eventually preceded the small flat-bottomed aluminum skiff churning slowly toward them.
The boat’s single occupant, Nikolas Dimitrou, tied off at the end of the dock and jumped to the wooden pier, greeted with much fanfare by Gator. Nik spent as much time at the Cote Blanche cabin as its owner, often with Gator for company. Life was solitary out here, which meant the voices in Nik’s head died away and let him sleep more and drink less. At least that’s how Kell interpreted it. After being official Ranger Buddies since they’d gone through training the first time, he figured he knew Nik better than anyone.
“Hey, you got AC in that cabin yet? This is the hottest, thickest air I’ve ever tried to breathe.” Nik propped his hands on his hips and grinned at Robin. “How long you been here?”
Robin looked over her shoulder and blew Kell a kiss. “So long that Kell got scared he’d lose control and ravage me, so he made me wear a shirt. I’ll break through that iron control of his eventually.”
Not if he could help it. Kell tossed Nik his last chilled bottle of water.
“Kell’s got a soft underbelly; it’s just hidden under a thick layer of steel abs.” Nik’s even white teeth flashed in the tanned face he’d gotten from a combination of sun and his father’s Greek heritage. He’d grown up in New Orleans and was as big a Yat as the next guy, but he had the Greek playboy look women loved.
At least until he saw enough of a woman’s past and future to ruin any chance of a relationship. Nik was the Omega Team profiler and tactician, along with Kell, and none of the other team members knew for sure whether he was a brilliant reader of body language or an honest-to-God psychic.
He was the real deal, and Kell knew the price he paid for it.
“Computer’s charged and set up to Skype with the others. We’ll keep things general in case the connection’s not as secure as it’s supposed to be and work out specifics once we get in place. I have more notes here that were delivered to Jeanerette last night.” Kell slowly rose to his feet, lagging behind Nik and Robin as they entered the cabin.
Sharp pain shot through his lower back, into his hip, and down the back of his right leg as he took the first step. The second one came more easily. Three or four, and he could walk without the stiffness that set in after more than a half hour of rest. Of course, if he stood too long, the pain shifted to a different area. It never completely went away.
Robin frowned at him from beside the desk in the one-room-plus-bath cabin. “You’re injured. Does the colonel know?”
“Not injured, just a little stiff — nothing big. It’s a human thing.” Kell exchanged a look with Nik, who’d shoved the industrial-sized bottle of ibuprofen behind the generator-powered mini-fridge before Robin could see it.
Kell kept Nik’s secrets; Nik kept Kell’s. It had been that way for a decade. The compression fracture in his lower back had happened six months ago, in a fall while scrambling out of a village raid in Afghanistan. It was why he was back in the States, why he’d jumped at the chance to lead this new force. He was thirty-two and not ready to hang up his boots, so he needed to prove he still had value. That he could still handle active duty because, frankly, he didn’t know how to make a life without it. Didn’t remember how to be a civvy.
“Poor old frail humans.” Robin walked around the one-room cabin, stopping to examine the sketches tacked to the paneled wall — scenes of the bayou, dripping Spanish moss, cypress forests, birds — and the assortment of carved wooden animals atop the bookshelves full of military history and fictional thrillers.
“You do all this drawing and carving?” Robin picked up a wooden pelican that was one of Kell’s best pieces, detailed and delicate.
“Carving’s mine. Drawings are by a friend.” Kell eased into the office chair behind the wooden desk, which he’d built of reclaimed cypress like everything else here. The art was Nik’s work, but if he wanted Robin to know, he’d tell her himself.
Kell opened the Skype connection on his laptop and hooked his computer to the one belonging to Gadget, aka Garrett Foley, the team’s intel guy and a Ranger who’d served with Nik and Kell on their last tour. If there was Internet chatter, Gadget could find it.
The image of square black geek glasses filled the screen, wrapped around a prominent nose. Blond hair in a background blur gave the whole thing a fun house vibe. Kell still treated computers with the suspicion they deserved, but the laptop and cell phone allowed him to hang out in Cote Blanche without being out of touch. He’d been able to cocoon himself here in the month since Ranger School, letting his back recover and popping ibuprofen without an audience.
Kell adjusted the screen so Nik and Robin, sitting behind him, could see and hear. “You got the kitty-cats with you?”
Gadget shifted to the side and a huge face framed with a mane of black hair came into view. “Meow.” Archer Logan grinned. “This kitty-cat ate your lunch last course at Ranger camp, old man.”
“Ranger School.” Kell grimaced. Nothing he hated worse than a smart-ass shape-shifter, although it seemed to come with the territory. But everyone was accounted for. If Archer was there, his brother Adam was nearby, as quiet as Archer was gregarious. Purely muscle, those two, and virtually indestructible as near as he could tell. They wouldn’t be involved in the tactical end of things, but needed to know what was going on.
“Got a call from the colonel yesterday, as you know.” Kell leaned back, pulling the sheaf of papers onto his lap and flipping through the notes he’d transcribed after getting the assignment. “You’ve all heard about the bombing in Houston.”
“Told you we’d get that case!” Gadget whooped and high-fived Archer and Adam, or at least that’s how Kell interpreted the jostling images on the screen.
“Shut up and sit down, guys. This is bad shit. Seven bombs brought the Zemurray Building down, at least two hundred and fifty dead or unaccounted for, including the governor of Texas. They want us in there by tomorrow.”
“How come us and not the Houston PD or Homeland Security?” Nik leaned over Kell’s shoulder and scanned the notes written in small, neat script.
“We’ll be working alongside them — they just won’t know about it because we don’t exist.” Kell handed him the notes. “Gadget, there’s been some online chatter about another strike being planned, so you need to start monitoring the channels I’ll be sending you as soon as we finish the call. It’s obviously a terrorist attack, but nobody’s claimed it so far, although there is a lead.”
Robin had been aggravating Gator, but stopped flipping his ears inside out and looked up. “Another bombing is being planned even though no one’s claiming the first one? Weird. What kind of lead?”
“Anonymous tip, with enough detail to be deemed credible,” Kell said. “Including hints that another bombing by the same people is being planned for Labor Day in New Orleans. That’s two weeks away.”
Kell leaned in toward the laptop’s camera. “Gadget, you and the kitties need to set up base in New Orleans and see what’s planned for Labor Day weekend that might make a target. Look for something involving business, manufacturing, expansion, oil. Something with the potential for mass casualties. The info’s pointing to some kind of ecoterrorism. The governor’s big industrial expansion meeting could have been the target in Houston.”