Gaby tensed as the small helicopter landed and shut down its engines. Did Tomlin suspect a trap and come prepared to ensnare her? The fact he didn’t bring a military helicopter gave her hope. Maybe, he really only meant to talk. She breathed slowly, her anxious nerves struggling to surface like a charging shark navigating a thick kelp forest. In wolf form, Steele hid in a thicket. Only his amber eyes peered from the greenery. Knowing Steele had her back eased her fear.
Tomlin stepped out of the helicopter. He wore a white suit and carried a black briefcase. Two men in dark suits and sporting dark shades followed him. The pilot remained inside the helicopter. Not bad odds: four armed men against one werewolf and a lagoon full of alligators.
Tomlin frowned and rubbed his neck. Good. Even the bugs seemed to have a grudge to settle with him. She lifted her chin in defiance. “You can step forward, but your men stay back.”
The splash of alligators surfacing reinforced her demand. His men drew out their guns, their full attention on the shore. Dumb jerks didn’t even think she’d have attackers on more than one side.
Tomlin laughed. “You’ve wised up since leaving Giles’ unyielding thumb.”
Gaby pointed to a table. “Place the briefcase on the table and open it.”
He did as told and lifted his arms. “I promise the money is there.”
She lowered her tone. “Show me.”
“Very well.” He obeyed as if she had a gun to his head and took out wads of money. Who knew if there was a venomous snake, an airborne toxin or some other deadly trick inside? She glanced at the bundled money. He smiled. “Shall we leave?”
The plan was she would go inside the cabin and meet Steele in the backyard. Eventually, Tomlin would enter to find out what took her so long. She closed the briefcase and tucked it under her arm. “I’ll get my carry-on.”
Tomlin pulled out a gun. “No time.”
Plans never seem to go my way. “I can’t go wearing shorts and a t-shirt.”
“You’ll get appropriate clothes on arrival.”
From the corner of her eye, she noticed the shadow of the wolf ready to leap out of the brush. Not yet, Steele. Ten alligators edged out onto the bank. His guards stared at them. “The alligators and I request your patience.”
Tomlin laughed. “Three minutes.” He radioed the pilot. “Ready for a fast exit.”
Gaby dashed inside and locked the door. No way in hell I’ll board that helicopter. She closed her eyes, sending a command to the alligators. Attack!
Shots rang out. Gaby peered out the window. Four alligators locked their jaws on the helicopter’s landing skids. The huge reptiles dragged the helicopter into the water. The craft tipped and the pilot fell in. The reptiles must have divided and pulled him under before he had a chance to swim or scream.
Tomlin shouted to his men. “Forget him. Get the girl!”
She slammed the back door behind her and followed Steele’s instruction as she ran into the Everglades they had mapped out.
The sound of gunfire and men screaming amongst the fierce snarling of a wolf made her turn to look.
Gaby stepped toward the cabin. Her heart pounded with each step. Had Steele killed them all? Or worse was he mortally wounded? Werewolves healed, but how many bullets could he take before succumbing?
Steele in a half-man-half-wolf hybrid form opened the back door. He shifted to human form. Blood speckled his body.
“Oh my god!” She ran to him. “Did you get shot?”
“Not my blood. Come in.”
Gaby entered and gasped. She cupped her mouth, about ready to lose her breakfast. The two guards appeared gutted.
Tomlin sat on a chair tied up with a rope around his arms and legs. His eyes wide with fear. Seeing her, he flared his nostrils. “You lying bitch!”
Steele snarled at him and displayed his fangs.
Gaby lifted a hand to Steele. “I’ve got this.” She pulled a chair and faced him. “Did you really think I would return and murder for you?”
Tomlin sneered. “Why should you when you have an attack trained werewolf to do your bidding?” He quickly lowered his gaze.
He just didn’t get it. She didn’t want this. She didn’t want death. For now, his fear served her purpose. Gaby snorted. “Good point.”
“Take the money. I promise to never bother you again.”
“Not that I believe you, but how about we get some answers first?”
“Give me the name of the werewolf that hired you.”
“I don’t know. Only Ken worked with one of his kind, a man.”
“And why was there a hit placed on Emma York?”
“What the fuck do I care?” He spat out. “I just took the assignment.”
Steele donned his jeans. “Sweetie, it’s my turn to interrogate.”
Gaby took out her phone to record the conversation. “Go for it.”
Tomlin eyed the recorder and shook his head. “I’m only the middleman.”
Steele narrowed his eyes. “New leader and head research veterinarian for Project Sabertooth doesn’t sound like a middleman to me.” He glanced at Gaby. “Does it?”
She scoffed. “Most certainly not.”
Steele met his eyes. “You will answer each question truthfully.”
Tomlin nodded. “Yes.”
“Who hired you to assassinate the werewolves on Wildwood Island?”
“A werewolf, but he never gave us his name. He wired four million dollars to our account in the Bahamas.”
“A man, not a woman?”
Gaby wrinkled her brow. Naturally, Kiara would send one of her men to arrange the kill. If it was her.
“I only saw just the one man. He was big. Wore sunglasses, but when he took them off and told me what to do, I obeyed.”
“And you sent Ken?”
“Yes, he too was made to obey.”
“So the werewolf went with him to Wildwood Island?”
Steele glanced at Gaby then back to the wolf-hypnotized man. “Did they plant evidence to frame Gaby?”
He nodded. “At first, our job was to kill the two women on the island and all their guards, but…”
“Before we left, we were ordered to add Gaby’s scent from a scarf to Ken’s clothing. To make it look like she had come with him.”
“Ordered by the same man or rather werewolf?”
Gaby’s heart raced. She recorded his confession, but was it enough evidence to free her from the accusation? They went to a lot of trouble to add her scent to the scene.
“Close your eyes and sleep until I wake you,” said Steele.
Instantly, Tomlin closed his eyes and dropped his head in sleep.
Gaby stopped the recording. “Any chance this will clear my name?”
“Hard to say. Rylee compelled you to speak the truth and accepted your answer, but the council prefers to eliminate betraying humans. An alpha such as me or Rylee can compel you to lie and make you believe you spoke the truth.”
“But why would Rylee do that?”
“She wouldn’t. The problem is she has many enemies amongst the royal packs and some members of the council.”
Steele faced Tomlin and sniffed. “We better continue; we don’t have much time.”
“What’s the hurry?”
“Unfortunately, he’s been poisoned.”
“He looks healthy to me.”
“It was done recently. He’ll feel the effects soon enough.”
Steele opened Tomlin’s eyelid. Bloodshot. “Tomlin, wake up.”
He lifted his head. “Yes.”
“Did you feel a pinch or poke sometime today?”
“Yes. In the helicopter. A wasp maybe.”
“On my neck, near my left shoulder.” He stared at Steele as if in realization. “The pilot took the insect off, but he flung it away before I could look at it.”
“How do you feel?”
“You will continue to answer all my questions.”
“Who hired you to assassinate Emma York?”
“A man I don’t know.”
Gaby furrowed her brow. As far as they knew, Avery, who headed the Keep had returned to the shadows, in order to remain hidden from Team Greywolf. Had Emma learned about his faction? “Was it the Keep?”
“I don’t know,” said Tomlin.
Steele continued. “You don’t know why she was targeted?”
“We are guns for hire. No need to know. He just wanted her death to look like an accident.”
“Like Mr. H.?
“The other CIA agent. The one Ken killed with venomous snakes.”
Tomlin swallowed and nodded. “His name was Sam Smith.”
Steele nodded. “One of many aliases Mr. H. went by.”
A bead of perspiration gathered on Tomlin’s forehead and he moaned.
“Should we take him to a hospital?”
“Won’t make it,” said Steele. “The pilot, was he one of your men?”
“A merc. Ken hired him a few months back.” He began to shiver. “The ass must have injected me with poison.”
“Did he ever work for the Keep?”
“No. He flew Ken with the other werewolf to that island. He answered directly to Ken until a few days ago.”
“Is the pilot human?”
“As far as I know, yes.”
Tomlin did so. His breathing more labored.
Gaby’s eyes widened. “The pilot knew about your island?”
“And he no doubt intended to kill you when he had the chance.”
“Unfortunately, I didn’t get a look at him to see his aura.” She frowned. “I bet he was werewolf.”
“Let’s go to the lagoon.”
“You’re right.” Steele brushed back his hair. “Fuck. I am just picking up his scent.”
“The gators probably buried him in the muck by now.”
“We saw him fall in, but it doesn’t mean they killed him.”
“They were commanded to kill.”
“They might have tried.”
“Who could survive a gator attack?”
“A werewolf. He’d put up a real fight.” He scowled. “An oath breaker.”
“You are only now picking up his scent?”
“Just residual. He used cloaking vaporo in case he ran into a werewolf. After landing, he must have picked up my scent.”
Steele was wrong. Not even a werewolf could survive an attack by what looked like ten alligators. Gaby ordered the alligators to leave the area, while he entered the water to look for him. Pieces of the male beta proved his theory about their invincibility wrong. He dragged the leavings, his torso, head and leg to the beach.
Gaby knelt and threw up. He sighed. “You were right, no one, person or were could survive a gang of alligators.”
She stood and wiped her mouth. “It’s a congregation of alligators not gang.”
Gang fits better. “Sorry about the mess. I’ll have Team Greywolf send a cleanup crew.”
“Even though we are technically banished?”
“Doesn’t matter. We have to cover all evidence of werewolf involvement.”
“What about his two guards?”
“Them too. I went Hollywood werewolf on them. No way can we let forensics get a hold of what I left of them. Imagine the confusion on finding unusual DNA and claw marks.”
Gaby looked at the patrolling alligators rather than the mauled remains. “Do you recognize him?”
“Nope. I suspect he worked for our mystery werewolf who hired Tomlin.”
“So he’s not Camden?”
“No, he’s not. However, that doesn’t clear Camden. Only Lev will do that.”
“I better check on Tomlin.”
“Good idea.” Steele knelt and examined what was left of the mystery beta.
Gaby shouted, “Steele!”
He dashed in. Tomlin’s glazed eyes stared back. He checked his pulse. Dead. No more answers.
Gaby shook her head. “Let me get this straight. Some unknown man hired Tomlin to kill a CIA agent, a werewolf hired him to take out a princess and now a werewolf hit man silenced him.”
“Tomlin was dead anyway since he knew of our kind.” He removed his coat and ripped the shirtsleeve off. “No wolf marks to indicate he took the vow.”
“Wait, maybe Rylee had him poisoned.”
“No. Not our style.” He’d rather not explain they normally decapitated and buried. They never worked with poison.
“Obviously, we are dealing with two opposing enemies against us. A mystery man and a werewolf bent on murdering his or her own kind and framing me to boot.”
“Call Rylee while I check the helicopter for any clues,” said Steele.
“Yes. Tell her everything and that you recorded his confession.”
Steele waded back into the water to search the wreckage and Gaby returned to the balcony. The cabin was beyond getting a cleaning deposit back. Would the cleanup crew be capable of leaving this place like the picture perfect getaway as shown in the brochure? She took in a long breath and then dialed Rylee.
“He’s fine. We just have a bit of a mess.” Of ghastly epic proportions.
“Tell me exactly what happened.”
Gaby told her every detail and all the mystery players involved. “Steele says you can send a cleanup crew.”
“Now that it involves a dead werewolf, I’ll send the crew straight away.”
“Should Steele and I leave?”
“No. You two come back to us.”
“What? I mean—what about Kiara and the price on my head?”
“I’ve cleared you.”
No one had heard Tomlin’s confession. How had she convinced everyone? “Really?”
“I’ll explain when you two get here. Hand the phone to Steele.”
“Yes, ma’am. Give me a second.”
Steele left the helicopter, carrying a box. Could it contain something important? She waved and pointed to the mobile.
He rushed over and she handed him the phone.
Gaby watched the sky for signs of more helicopters. Tomlin was the head of Project Sabertooth, but there must be somebody ready to take his place. If she could locate where they kept their trained animals, she could end their horrible operation.
Steele put the mobile away. “She’s sending the cleanup crew and having a pilot pick us up.”
“What about the banishment and order of execution issued by the Edict of Segner?”
“Rylee said we’ll be debriefed with the latest information.”
Gaby frowned with worry. He took her in his arms. Her heart raced like a sparrow. She nuzzled into him and he rubbed her back. No one or nothing would ever harm her. She was safe.
Gaby and Steele entered the debriefing room in the deepest underground floor of the LIA. The blue calming light emanated throughout, and though she was not lycan, she too relaxed. Rylee, Lev and Manny the techie sat at the situation table. She bowed to Rylee, keeping her gaze on the floor. Steele lowered his head and kept one arm wrapped around her as if announcing to the world, touch her and you will meet a great force.
Rylee wore all black. Attractive with her blonde/gray hair swept in a tight bun. She radiated authority, but afforded Gaby a smile. “Please, sit. We have a lot to discuss.” She gazed at Steele. “Don’t worry, the king has rescinded her execution order.”
Steele slowly sat after Gaby took her seat. “What about banishment?”
“He’s allowed me to recruit Gaby for the team, that is, if Gaby wishes to join.”
The prospect of killing for a team of werewolves wasn’t any more palpable than killing for Project Sabertooth. “And if I don’t, ma’am?”
“The choice is completely yours. I won’t assign you to a hit squad. Only to help manage wildlife around our property and perhaps, training canines for our missions.”
“So I would be required to live here?”
“That would be for the best. For your safety.”
“What about Project Sabertooth?”
“A team went out early today. We found their hideout. You’ll be happy to learn we re-located the animals to a pack ranch.”
“Although Project Sabertooth has been disabled, an unknown werewolf almost took you out.”
Steele snorted. “The pilot hired by Tomlin.”
“Maybe he wanted to kill me just for the reward?”
“I’ve kept tabs on all lycan activity. This guy might have been an off-the-grid rogue for hire.”
“How do you know he didn’t belong to Kiara’s pack?”
“That’s still a possibility. Once the cleanup crew brings back his remains, we’ll have his DNA analyzed and this werewolf identified.”
“Interesting he poisoned Tomlin instead of ripping his head off,” said Gaby.
Rylee shook her head. “Our mystery werewolf assassin didn’t want to expose us.”
“Part of me thought it would be Camden.” Steele turned to Lev. “Did he admit to anything?”
“No. Hard to talk when you are dead.”
Steele stiffened. “What?”
“We found him in his room. Dr. Beck is doing a toxicology scan to determine what killed him.”
Steele shook his head and looked up. “What about Paige?”
Gaby nodded. Paige had also been a member of Kiara’s pack and if she was the real mole, she could have murdered Camden.
Lev answered, “Paige told the truth. She stated Camden being mated to Makayla might have turned him against the LIA in favor of Kiara’s pack.”
Steele clenched his jaw. “So Kiara framed Gaby?”
Rylee sighed. “It’s far worse.”
Gaby and Steele looked at each other before returning their attention to Rylee.
“Kiara and her father Milton viewed Gaby as an obstacle to their bigger goal.”
Steele frowned. “Power?”
“Precisely. Milton planned on Kiara marrying you, and eventually, taking out King Conan.”
“But first they had to remove all the heirs,” Steele said.
“And any future heirs through King Conan’s line,” said Rylee.
Steele raised a brow. “What do you mean?”
“Makayla, Kiara’s midwife and herbalist, created a potion to sterilize the queen.”
“What the fuck? Does my brother know?”
“Yes. The team brought Makayla here to compel her along with Camden. While security was lax, she poisoned her mate and then almost escaped.” Rylee stared at the door. “I caught her. Lev used his alpha mesmerism to get her to talk. She revealed everything.”
“So Kiara, her father and his pack should be tried as oath breakers.”
“Problem is they vanished.”
“As soon as Makayla was brought in for questioning, they went rogue. We believe they left the country, but where, we don’t know yet.”
Gaby blurted. “Do you think the Keep would form a truce with a rogue pack?”
“Not according to Makayla. She said Milton was connected to a rogue pack, but didn’t know who or where,” said Lev.
“Was Emma York’s near assassination related to the pack’s betrayal?” asked Gaby.
“That’s still unknown,” said Rylee. “Emma is Mr. H’s only heir and the last of his line to have an association with us.”
Steele cocked his head. “She is the new Mr. or rather Ms. H.?”
“Her death would be in the best interests of many, from the Keep, enemy spies to packs that want to cut all ties to humans, including Milton’s pack and…”
“My brother.” Steele frowned.
“King Conan is not a fan of human involvement, but understands the necessity of having a human spy watch over our best interests.”
“Where is she now?”
“The Bay Area. California, some horse competition. She left right after her father’s funeral. We are short on available team members, so I ordered Nik to leave Prague and take Emma to a safe house.”
Gaby swallowed. If Tomlin had his way, Emma’s horse would have crushed her, most likely in front of an audience. “I take it she agreed to keep the lycan secret?”
“From the age of sixteen,” said Rylee. “At the funeral, she thought we failed to protect her father.”
Gaby had found the entire werewolf society shocking, yet, how well had Emma taken it at such a young age? “And marked as well?”
“Yes, she’s my human,” said Rylee.
Gaby absently rubbed the gooseflesh on her arms. Why couldn’t Rylee say she worked for her instead? How did Emma feel about being owned by a werewolf? Technically, Steele owned her, but that was just a formality. Nonetheless, she’d overlook the semantics to avoid going crazy.
“How many amongst us know her true identity?” Steele asked.
“She will be formally introduced to the LIA soon enough. For now, just us, my archivist Jesper and Nik know of her.” She narrowed her eyes at Gaby. “You will not speak of Ms. H. to anyone.”
“No problem, ma’am.”
Steele’s tone remained dark, no doubt focused on the queen’s assault. “What will happen to Makayla?”
“She is in the tundra, a natural wolf.”
“Werewolf lobotomy?” Gaby asked.
“Believe it or not, she agreed.”
“Did she murder Camden?” asked Steele.
“Yes, but she swore under hypnosis, she thought she was only sedating him on orders by Milton and Kiara. Some drug without a detectable scent.” Rylee’s unreadable face showed no emotion, but her wolf aura raged red.
“I volunteer to hunt the oath breakers,” said Steele.
“Your job is to remain at headquarters.”
“I promised King Conan.”
“He may not feel so protective when he learns Gaby and I are together.”
“That’s where Lunara and Professor James Clayworth come in.”
Gaby raised a brow. “Wow, I could understand a shaman and even a doctor, but your kind includes professors as well?”
Rylee answered, “Actually, Professor James Clayworth is human and an alpha’s human companion.”
At least she avoided saying, “owned.” “You mean pet?”
Rylee smiled. “Chandra, the alpha, is technically mated to a beta, but only to save face.”
“So they don’t…”
“It’s complicated. I’ll call in Lunara and James to explain.” She turned to Lev and Manny. “You can go.”
They bowed and left.
Gaby gave Steele a questioning glance. Although, Kiara was out of the picture, would he still be expected to mate a werewolf to save face, while keeping her as a companion? What woman would ever want either alternative?