Steele entered his brother’s, King Conan’s, opulent office. He bowed. “My liege.”
Conan, seven years his senior and a head shorter than Steele, reigned over the American packs. Only the alpha council could overrule his decisions. Conan sniffed twice. “I’m happy you have not come to harm, brother.” He gestured. “Please, sit. I’ve made a decision.”
Steele lifted a brow. “Oh?”
“You will resign from Team Greywolf and take your place here at the castle as Prince Steele.”
“Why? I’m not in line to be king.” Conan had a son and daughter to rule upon his death.
“Agreed, but it’s unseemly that the king’s brother risks his life as a soldier for Team Greywolf.”
Conan wanted Steele to serve his castle instead of Team Greywolf, which he hoped to disband. As far as his brother was concerned, the team worked too closely with humans. Except for the minimum needed connections, the king desired to cut all ties with humans. Steele raised a brow. “Do you not think we have the responsibility to protect our society?”
“Yes, the team does well dealing with humans who want us dead. Yet, why must we help them with non-werewolf issues?”
“Whether you like it or not, corrupt humans are capable of destroying the planet. If the earth goes, so do lycans.” Steele recently returned from a successful mission to stop terrorists from kidnapping several important heads of state. The FBI received the credit, but it didn’t matter. Lycan kind preferred to remain in the shadows, helping for humanitarian reasons and only when completely necessary.
“I have no problem with you commanding a team, but not volunteering to work alone with U.S. military units. What would happen if you were wounded and turned wolf in front of them? They’d see us as a threat and, with the Keep’s help, annihilate us all.”
Steele snorted. “The Keep is even more secretive than we are. They hunt us without the help of any human governments.” Especially since they had a hand in all global governments.
“So why must you, prince of the realm, volunteer for dangerous missions?”
With the exception of Cricket, a runt beta who was practically human, Steele was one of the few alphas who could remain human for a week. “My unusual ability not to shift every few days makes me the ideal candidate for working with humans. And thus far, no one suspects I’m anything but an elite soldier.” With the exception of the enigmatic Mr. H.
“Nonetheless, it’s improper for a prince to do Rylee’s dirty work. Are you not a commander? Better to send others into the field.”
Aside from having the advantage of staying human for longer periods, Steele displayed a stronger than normal need to protect. Dr. Becker, who studied lycan genetics or luponomics, said Steele had a double dose of what the doctor called a shepherd gene. As a result, Steele refused to place his team in danger. He inherited his gene to protect others from his eccentric grandmother, Belle, who spent her life saving humans after natural disasters. “After our father betrayed our kind, it’s the least I can do.”
Conan growled. “You will not speak of our oath breaking father.”
The shame of their father helping a notorious mob to rid his opponents forever stained their family name. “Yes, my liege.” Neither he nor Conan ever spoke of Maccon, his younger brother who suffered from the taint of Griswold of Bedburg. Werewolves who inherited the gene tended to become serial killers.
“I am ordering Rylee to release you from Team Greywolf. It’s about time you solidify the bond to your chosen mate.”
“What chosen mate?”
“Duke Milton’s daughter, Princess Kiara Melle.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Kiara, like her father and his brother, was an isolationist who wanted to cut all ties with human society. In their worldview, no humans joined packs. Lone wolves were forced to live within pack territories. And a strict adherence to status remained the norm. The pack termed their type anti-humanists. Lycan for racists.
The gorgeous raven-haired alpha could have any mate, but she wanted him. Kiara treated lower ranked lycans abysmally. “We tried a few years ago, remember? We had nothing in common.”
“Kiara will have no other. Politics aside, the two of you will make beautiful royal pups.”
“Not appealing after she had her omega females spayed.” He thought about how happy Slade was with Cricket, a runt. Kiara would have drowned Cricket before she underwent the change.
“Rylee has polluted your mind with her foolish notions about giving every omega beta status.”
“Kiara was also the only one in the council who refused to recognize Mia as Dominic’s legitimate mate.”
“If not for our loss of so many during the change, I too would have voted no against the Stallo woman.” He poured a drink. “At least Lev turned his human into a she-wolf.”
Lev’s mutant bite had caused Rachel’s change. “Naturally, I would never consider a human or an omega, but not one alpha she-wolf appeals to me. I would be just as happy with a beta.” Not to boss around, but one who enjoyed the simpler things in life. Fishing. The hunt. Movies from the 80s. No drama.
“With the exception of rebellious Slade, no royal prince has mated below alpha status, so you better remain single if that’s your attitude. Kiara has agreed and that’s final.”
No point arguing. “Fine. If Kiara wants to go on a few dates after my mission, I’ll do it.” Could he persuade her to lean toward his more liberal politics? Why not give the attractive alpha one more chance? At least for a few dates. Maybe she’d mellowed out. Despite what Conan wanted, Steele didn’t plan on leaving Team Greywolf. Even if Kiara changed her attitude, royal duties bored the hell out of him. He couldn’t imagine the princess would be okay with him as part of the team. She was the daughter of one of the most power-hungry pack leaders, Milton; who, if he could, would gladly usurp the king of his crown.
“I’m sorry, bro, top secret.”
“I was going to talk to Rylee tomorrow about your resignation, but I’ll do it today.”
“Too late. I can’t back out. If I do, it could cost millions of lives.” Conan wouldn't care about the loss of life, but he might care about the family's loss of respect by going back on his word.
“Who else is going?”
Steele had prepared for this assignment for months. Alone, he would work with the CIA’s special operation group or SAD-SOG. His ID, as ex-Navy SEAL, was fake. None except a mysterious operative known as Mr. H. knew he was a werewolf working for the LIA. Ironically, the LIA modeled itself after the special operations group. “Top secret.”
Conan growled. “Damn it.” He released a long breath. “When do you return?”
“I’ll be back no later than two weeks.”
“Very well. When you return, I’ll order a banquet for you and Kiara.”
Dining with the haughty princess wasn’t the ideal homecoming. “Agreed.”
Gaby frowned at the caller ID, Director Rick Giles. What now? She’d only been gone a week. He promised to let her have a month break. She looked forward to working on her wildlife paintings. At age twenty-five, she’d finally been allowed to live in her own cabin a mile from the gates of SABER or Strategic Animal Behavior Research Center. Better known as Project Sabertooth. Isolated from the rest of society, Gaby didn’t mind living alone. She and humans never mixed. Every moment with a person outside her world felt awkward. She preferred animals. They understood her and held no judgment. Besides, no matter where she lived, she remained bound to Project Sabertooth. One did not make friends when leashed to people who got rid of acquaintances if they thought they exposed the project’s existence.
Any minute, a driver would take her to the sprawling hidden research lab. She read the message. “You are needed immediately in the canine lab.” She texted back. “I’m ready.” She put away her paints and soaked her brushes in the sink. At least it was mid-morning and not the middle of the night. “Come on, Oz.” Gaby sighed. Habit. She missed her Cairn terrier, Oz. He died in her arms of old age only a month ago. Still grieving, she wanted to wait at least a few more months before getting another dog.
The black SUV pulled up her driveway. Gaby stared at the dry paint on her hands. No time to wash, she’d scrub off the stains in the decontamination room.
The honk meant, “Get your ass out here.”
Gaby grabbed her coat.
She smirked at the stone-cold man who opened the backseat passenger door. “Nice to see you, too”
The driver and the other guy riding shockgun didn’t even nod. Robots. Such were the tough black ops men who worked for Project Sabertooth.
Gaby got in and buckled her seatbelt.
They drove through the isolated forest to the secret compound. Which dog acted up? Or maybe they brought in another dog for training. The place had the best behaviorist and trainers. They only called on her services when the problem was big or they needed her for an assignment outside headquarters. Often a deadly mission.
The secured gate opened and they entered the underground parking. The driver opened the car door and she stepped out.
“Director Giles wants you in the zero-level kennel isolation room.”
Inside the elevator, a camera watched her every move. Once the elevator touched level zero, a robotic female voice said, “Retinal scan.”
Gaby placed her chin on the scanner and stared straight ahead.
Gaby walked down a long tunnel. The soldier dogs barked, but then quieted. As always, they calmed in her presence. She entered another door that required her palm scan for entry. She pressed her palm to the scanner and it said, “Decontamination room.” This was not the hot zone where biological weaponized animals were housed. In that area, she had to wear a bio suit.
Nonetheless, Gaby took off her clothes, bagged them, and showered with a mist to kill any ecto-parasites she might inadvertently bring in. She stepped out of the shower, went to the sink, and scrubbed off the paint from her hands. Gaby grabbed green coveralls, lab slippers, and entered the kennel isolation room.
Director Giles stood next to a medic inside the large steel cage. She stared at the largest grey wolf she’d ever seen. The size of a bear. Unconscious. Breathing steadily.
Gaby lifted her brow. “Is it a genetically modified wolf?”
Giles turned to her. “You have no idea what we discovered.”
Gaby gazed at the beautiful creature. Two years ago, she coaxed a pack of wolves from a cattle ranch back into Yellowstone. But she’d never worked with wolves for military operations. “You want me to train him for a mission?”
“First, know that his presence is above top secret.”
“I know the drill. Will he be used for assassination or germ warfare?”
“Nothing yet. He’s been in a coma for three weeks.”
“A wolf in a coma? Was he hit by a car?”
“No. He alone survived a helicopter explosion that killed three undercover CIA agents and the terrorist who planned to use nerve gas to attack a major city. A recovery team found the wolf floating in the Atlantic. The CIA thought he might have belonged to the terrorist as some sort of pet. I picked up the intel and thought if the wolf survived he’d be of some use to Project Sabertooth.”
She moved closer to the massive wolf. “Why would they use a wolf and not a dog?”
“Because he is not a wolf.”
Familiar with the many subspecies of wolf, this one didn’t fit in any one group. Too large. “Umm, pretty sure he’s a wolf. I bet someone shot him with experimental growth hormones.”
“You are looking at a werewolf.”
He turned on a screen. “What do you see?”
“A man lying on a gurney.” Good heavens. A drop dead gorgeous man with wide muscular shoulders. A stylized wolf tattoo adorned his rock-hard bicep. Tall. Late twenties. Light brown hair. His beard gave him a ruggedly handsome appearance, reminding her of a lumberjack. Yet, she sensed something feral about him. A wolf presence. Odd. A sheet covered the rest of his body, saving her the embarrassment of her drooling with lust.
“Yes, a man who finally woke from a coma. Disoriented, he claimed no memory of his identity. He tried to get up, but collapsed and turned into a wolf. We sedated him and ran more tests.”
What mind games was Giles up to this time? She glanced at the wolf, then back to the man on the screen. “That’s crazy.”
“Dr. Tomlin saw him shift three days after we brought him here. Shifting every two to three days seems to be a pattern for the last three weeks since he arrived.” The doctor was their veterinarian specializing in canines and second in command of Project Sabertooth. Not a man easy to fool. He never even had more than one beer, let alone mind-altering drugs.
“And no ID of any sort?” Their canine team had a chip to identify them.
“Nothing. No tag. No chip. Just that wolf tattoo in his human form.” Giles rubbed his chin. “Then again, if he was one of ours, he’d be in our top secret files. He’s not.”
Gaby scrunched her face. “You are joking, right?”
“I don’t joke.”
True. He didn’t have one drop of humor in his cold blood. “I’m sure the CIA can identify him.”
“We kept his transformation a secret. I informed U.S. intelligence the wolf died of his injuries. As far as they are concerned, the wolf was an anomaly. The report states everyone onboard died in the explosion. No mention of a wolf.”
According to the CIA and other government agencies, Project Sabertooth didn’t exist. Nor did she, at least not since she came here. “I can’t believe it.”
Giles fast-forwarded the video. “Watch.”
The man, still unconscious, shimmered into a half-man-half-wolf hybrid and then into wolf form.
“That’s fake.” Hollywood special effects; well done, but no way real.
“I witnessed the transformation myself. Three nights ago, he morphed to human form. Again, he demanded to know who he was and why he was here. I told him the sedative would let him rest and possibly return his memory. Early this morning, he returned to wolf form and while still sedated, we ran the second MRI. No clue why he claims amnesia.”
“I guess there was no point calling me last night since I can’t influence a sleeping animal.” Had a terrorist nation manipulated DNA to create such a creature? Were the rumors about animal-human hybridization experiments at the Dulce lab true? “He looks American.” One with a creepy wolf aura.
“The intel on the ISIS terrorist group states they never worked with canines or any other animal. We hope when he wakes this time, he’ll remember who he worked for.”
If he refused, they would certainly persuade him one way or another. “Hope so. He probably wants to get home, wherever that might be.” Maybe Transylvania with Count Dracula.
“He’s not going anywhere.”
“He’s an asset to Project Sabertooth.”
“Just like me.” Meaning the poor man would never leave.
“Precisely.” Director Giles used a remote and lowered the gurney to the floor. “Dr. Tomlin said the cranial bleeding has stopped. Once the tranquilizer wears off, he should regain consciousness.”
“Should I come back?”
“You stay here until he wakes up.” He handed her a tablet. “Read up on everything we have on Specimen Zero W. Including all his severe injuries that miraculously healed. When he wakes, keep notes on him.”
The name Specimen Zero meant this creature did not exist elsewhere. Gaby took the tablet. “Here?”
“Yes. I’ll have a cot brought down.”
She’d slept over to tend to an animal in the past, but never a creature from the horror genre. “Wait, you want me to stay here when a werewolf wakes up?”
“You are a wolf charmer, are you not? Besides, the cage was built for a grizzly bear.”
Her ability to charm not just canines but also other animals earned her title as a wolf-segen. Such people with her gift once existed in Europe where they received payment to lure away wolves and other predators from farming communities. Having animals do her bidding was the reason she’d been brought to the facility from the last abusive foster home. After what she had done. Would her charm really work on a bona fide werewolf? According to myths and legends, it should work on any beast. “He is just as big as a bear.”
Giles paced in short spans. “I must find out his true identity, no matter what it takes.”
“You mean shoot him up with truth serum?”
“He might cooperate since we know his secret.” He threw her a sinister smile. “If he doesn’t remember, perhaps you can fill in his memories. You can be a girlfriend or better yet his wife.”
Lie to a possibly dangerous man/wolf? “No way.”
“Why not? You do find him attractive.”
Boy did she ever. Not just his hot over-the-top masculine body. Something about the tormented man appealed to her. Yet, her experience with romantic relationships sucked. She wasn’t a virgin, but the men she’d dated were limited to scientists and animal handlers who worked in the lab. None had panned out. The one man she slept with turned out to be married. The man on the video was out of her league. With his good looks, he was married, taken, or more likely played the field. Although, how would one tell his significant other his propensity to turn into a wolf? Either way. Totally awkward. “That’s beside the point. For one, how can I fake loving him? And two, eventually, he will regain his memory. Imagine how pissed he’ll be then.”
“Good point. However, I’m not opposed to you seducing him.”
Her cheeks burned. “I’m not seducing a wolf or werewolf, period.” Gaby stepped closer to the cage and knelt. “Hey, buddy.”
The wolf whimpered.
Giles frowned. “How is that possible? We gave him enough tranquilizer to sedate a much larger beast. He should sleep for another hour or two.”
She scoffed. “Someone gave him the wrong dose.”
The massive wolf rose to a sitting position and cocked his head. Confused, like a puppy trying to figure out where the ball went. Was it because of his confinement in an unknown place or because he was a wolf? One who still suffered amnesia? He turned his attention to her. Feral amber eyes.
A clear alpha stare. The kind that penetrated one’s soul and demanded submission. Shivers crawled up her spine. No animal had ever challenged her for dominance. He must be more man than wolf. Gaby lowered her gaze.
Director Giles smiled. “Good. Ask him to return to human form.”
“I’ll try.” Her charm compelled an animal to submit to her, or worse, kill for her. Gaby concentrated. Not sure if I can influence a wolf to become a man.
The wolf continued to focus only on her and then collapsed on his side. He groaned and closed his eyes.
“How injured was he?” Gaby asked.
“When he arrived, he had a crushed skull. A severe concussion and bleeding in the brain. Surgery relieved the pressure, but we don’t know how much mental damage he sustained or how long his amnesia will last. The interesting thing is he healed faster than man or wolf after such an injury.”
“When he regains consciousness, he may not be so cooperative.”
“Whether you seduce him or not, use your wolf charm.”
“Only if he stays in wolf form. As you know, I can’t influence humans.” Nor did she want to deal with such a good-looking one.
“I’ll leave you alone. When you get hungry, let the cook know.”
“Fine. But what if he gets hungry?”
“We have plenty of meat, raw or cooked.”
“And if he prefers human meat?”
“No wolf has ever attacked a wolf charmer.”
“Yeah, but what about the man?”
Director Giles and the medic left.
Gaby turned on the tablet and read the medical report. Huh? She re-read it, slowly. No wolf healed that fast. Not from such substantial injuries.