Mass Market Paperback
February 17, 2015
A werewolf and an alpha wolf are powerless against the charms of these very special women
THE SHIFTER'S CHOICE
Private Sofia Touma never risks distraction from her duty—until she's assigned to help disabled veteran Johnny Lam. More than a war hero, he's also a werewolf. Sofia is inexplicably drawn to him. Unlike Sofia, Johnny knows the dangers of loving a monster. And as they grow closer, Johnny isn't sure he can keep doing the honorable thing…
SENTINELS: ALPHA RISING
Holly Faulkes has spent her life hiding from the Sentinels—now she's their prisoner. Sexy alpha wolf Lannie Stewart wants to initiate her into their world. The full-blooded Sentinel senses Holly's untapped power—a power he's deeply drawn to and desperately needs. A new enemy has risen and only Holly can reveal this danger, if Lannie convinces her to embrace what she really is.
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4 STARS "THE SHIFTER'S CHOICE is emotionally moving plus extraordinarily unique."
Amelia Richard, CataRomance
Kamakou Preserve, Molokai, Hawaii
Private Sonia Touma's helicopter touched down on the landing pad at a marine base that didn't officially exist. Her orders read Oahu, which lay just past Maui, but instead she'd been re-routed here. The co-pilot slid the door open wide enough to heave her duffel and foot locker to the tarmac then motioned with his thumb for her out as the pilot cut the engine. The rotors slowed as she hopped down.
She kept low and moved out of range of the blades, then straightened to glance about. The twenty-foot tall security perimeter fence had a dirt road running parallel. Keeping folks out or in, she wondered.
The hot, humid air rose from the tarmac and the yellow grass surrounding the landing pad. Sweat already beaded on her brow and she wiped it away with the sleeve of her uniform. October sure was different in Hawaii than in Yonkers, New York.
Why was she here? It made no sense. She didn't have one single solitary skill that she could think of that would lift her above her fellows for a special assignment, unless you counted a criminal record, hitting people and a proclivity for telling people in authority to fuck-off.
Her ears pricked up at the sound of an engine. She stared past the dry grass dotted with monstrous yucca plants until she sighted an approaching Jeep.
She eyed the driver, spotted the captain's stripes on his arm, and snapped to attention. The jeep rolled to a stop beside her.
She replied as expected, "Sir. Yes, sir."
Sonia waited until the captain's hand touched his forehead below the brim of his hat and then snapped her hand back to her side.
"I'm Captain MacConnelly. You'll be reporting to me." He looked her up and down, his brow etched with wrinkles. Whatever he'd been expecting, she had the feeling that she was not it.
He thumbed at the empty passenger seat. She lifted her duffel.
Sonia dropped the heavy bag beside the foot locker and glanced back at the helo. The pilots peered past her to the captain who lifted a hand ordering them to wait. Her skin prickled as she faced the captain. It looked like there was an entrance exam.
"Get in," he said.
She did. Sonia eyed her new superior officer from the passenger seat. The first thing she noticed was his left hand on the steering wheel and the shiny gold wedding band there, so bright and new it glowed. The second was the tight coil of muscle at his bunching jaw. The captain looked ready to grind nails between his teeth.
Her supervisor cut the engine, shifted in his seat and stared directly at her.
"I believe in getting right to it, Touma," he narrowed his eyes on her. "I've read your file."
His words sent a chill down her spine that cut through the tropical heat. She glanced at her belongings broiling on the tarmac and then back to the captain.
"Thick file." He showed her the width with his thumb and index finger. "Mostly just reports of you quitting. You a quitter, Private?"
His summary of her life hit her like a slap. "I finished basic and I'll finish my service, Sir."
He snorted. "Like you had a choice. Back to the wall, right? Well, just so we understand each other, let me assure you that if you quit this time, you go right back to prison."
And there it was. The reason she was a marine in the first place. Not by choice, but by picking the lesser of two evils, while this man probably enlisted in the Corp. That was obvious by his distaste of her. Right now she needed to get her gear in this Jeep and that meant being whatever he needed her to be.
The captain swept her with his cold blue eyes, his lip curling at what he saw. "Wearing the uniform doesn't make you a marine. You don't have the first idea of the code."
She was not going back to prison. "Duty, honor--"
"Oh, stow it."
She closed her mouth before saying country.
If he thought she was such a fuck-up, why was she here? It occurred to her that maybe it wasn't his choice. That he might be following orders he didn't like any better than she liked hers. That would make this just a show of strength. That thought gave her a glimmer of hope. But she had to be sure in order to know how to play this.
"Our security check didn't turn up one person who knew you well enough to complete a simple questionnaire about you. You have an explanation for that?"
Let's see whose orders she was really following. "If I'm such a substandard marine, sir. Why am I here?"
His brows shot up as if this was the first thing she'd said or done that surprised him.
"You aren't here yet, Private. And you don't get on base until we finish our chat. You're a contender for this assignment, that's all, and only because you have the necessary skill set and because my wife thinks you can do this despite all evidence to the contrary."
She didn't have any skills. This was a mistake. Wait...had he said his wife had picked her? Was that who was calling the shots? She must be a general or something. Well that would explain why he looked so pissed. "But you don't, sir."
"I think you'll last about thirty seconds."
She pictured herself in an orange jumpsuit and settled into her seat. She'd make thirty seconds, all right, and she'd make it past this guy. Sonia stared at the captain. "I'll have to agree with your wife, sir."
"Your assignment is to teach an injured marine. He's depressed and occasionally suicidal and disinclined to learn sign."
Warning bells rang in her head like church bells on Christmas Eve. An injured Marine, likely deaf, angry, suicidal and possibly in denial. This was her assignment? Oh, she was fucked.
"I don't think I'm qualified to deal with someone with those kind of emotional issues, sir."
"You don't?" The captain's cool eyes regarded her and he held her gaze a moment before flicking his attention out at the empty road. When he spoke his voice was sardonic. "Well, I'm sorry if I gave you the impression that I give a God-damn what you think, Private. You are a marine, at least that's a U.S. Marine's uniform. That means you follow orders. Maybe you didn't understand how that works."
What if her assignment was an emotionally shattered, unpredictable time-bomb, like she was?
"Sergeant John Loc Lam has had two teachers already this month. He chased them both off."
Did he say Lock? What kind of middle name was Lock?
"It's your job to make him want to learn how to sign."
Sign language? She'd never even considered that that she’d be asked to use that as one of her skills. She'd learned to sign right alongside of her sister, Marianna, who was born deaf.
"My wife suggested I hire a woman this time."
Sonia wondered how many others had tried and failed at this shit job before they scraped the barrel and came up with her? Now she was frowning right back at the captain who hadn't missed a beat.
"I think you'll fall on your face or run, just like always. Might shit yourself first. But your assignment is to do everything and anything to get him on board."
She wondered, ‘how the hell am I supposed to do that?’ But she said, "Yes, sir."
MacConnelly made a sound that might have been a laugh.
"Despite his appearance, Lam needs sympathy and understanding. What he doesn't need is a woman known to hit and run. You understand?"
Appearance? Was he scarred?
"I do, Sir." Of course she didn't understand.
"You run and he's won."
"I won't run, sir."
He made a sound deep in his throat. "That's what the others said, too. Both made it up the mountain to meet Lam." He reached to the seat behind him and retrieved a laptop. Sonia's stomach tied itself in progressively tighter knots while he booted up his computer. What was wrong with Lam that made the other's run? When the screen glowed a vivid blue he turned his attention back to her.
"Everything I'm about to tell you is classified. This goes with you to your grave. Any violation will result in a court martial and I will personally see that you go to prison for a lot longer than six years. Got it?" He lifted his brows so they disappeared above the rim of his hat.
Sonia's insides went icy as she nodded her understanding.
"I need to hear you say it out loud, Touma."
"I understand, sir."
He opened a presentation titled, 'Sergeant John Loc Lam.' He set the computer on the dashboard between them and adjusted the angle of the screen.
"Can you see this?"
"Yes, sir." She could also see her duffel on the Tarmac. Somehow, she needed to get that bag into this Jeep.
The first slide was of a young, thin soldier grinning as he leaned on the hood of a Humvee. His helmet obscured most of his face. “This is what Lam looked like when he was in my command in Afghanistan. So the captain had skin in the game. Sonia braced for what she expected next, the deformed face of a man struck by fire or lead or jagged bits of metal. Instead the next slide was the traditional graduation photo taken after boot camp. Lam was in full dress blues. She stared at the rich brown eyes, narrow brow, full lips and the short cropped black hair Her stomach did a little drop as if she'd looked down from somewhere very high and a little bit dangerous. The man was a knockout with film-star good looks, she decided. What had happened to that handsome face, she wondered as she braced for what was inevitable.
She pressed her mouth together and waited but he didn't change the slide. She noticed suddenly that the captain was staring at her, instead of the screen.
"Problem?" he asked.
What could she say? That she was taken by his good looks? She glanced back at the image before her and said the first thing she could think of to avoid admitting her physical reaction to Lam’s image.
"He's American," said the captain, not hiding his annoyance at her observation. "His mother is naturalized from Hong Kong. His father is also of Chinese descent, but he is third generation, born in California. Mother is alive and father is deceased, heart attack. His dad ran a restaurant in San Francisco. He has a younger sister named Julia, legal name Joon. She's seventeen now."
Sonia wanted to ask what happened to Lam, but now she was afraid to find out. Had the first two teachers quit because their student was unwilling or because of his current appearance? If it was his appearance, that was just wrong. He couldn't help what had happened or the results. But what had happened?
"Lam entered a building in Koppel at night under my order."
Here it comes, she realized, gripping the dashboard as if preparing for a crash.
"Two fire teams had already gone in and all died. Lam and I entered with the last team. We were the only survivors. This is what attacked us." He pressed a button and there was a huge gray animal standing on hind legs like an ape. But the body was elongated, wolfish with a pronounced snout and back feet that more resembled paws. The hands seemed like a bears with wicked curved black claws. She gaped for a moment and then laughed. The captain didn't even crack a smile.
She pointed at the image. "That's a joke, right? You're kidding me. Photo-shopped it?"
Her captain shook his head. Her breath caught and she peered at the screen taking careful note of the creature’s yellow eyes and the dangerous fangs.
"That's not a real animal," she said, trying to assure herself more than inform him.
"It is. I saw it when it attacked Lam and this is the result." The captain pressed a key and the image of a black-furred monster's face filled the screen. "This is John Lam today."
Sonia glanced at the screen and then the captain and then the screen again.
She didn't recall scrambling out of the passenger side but found herself standing on the tarmac clinging to the door frame. The heat rising from the tarmac baked right through her thick soled shoes. She stared at the captain realizing he'd been right. Her stubborn side kept her anchored for a moment like a shipwreck survivor clinging to a piece of waterlogged debris. Then she pushed off.
"Hell, no." Sonia backed away from the jeep.
She kept walking toward the helo, running away from the captain, that monster and her very last chance.
When she reached the closed door of the helicopter her brain reengaged. The pilot and copilot stared at her through the thick glass. She stiffened, with one hand on the lever. What was she going to do, order them to fly her home to Yonkers?
Hit and run, that's what the captain said. But no one would blame her. That thing was a monster. She glanced back to see the captain now leaning against the fender staring at his watch.
"Thirty seconds. And you didn't even make it onto the base. Have fun in prison, Touma."
She turned and swayed on her feet. The captain lifted his radio making a call. Sonia walked to her gear and hoisted her duffel to her shoulder as if planning to hitchhike. She needed to go. Somehow she needed to get out of here.
A second Jeep arrived and two burly MPs climbed out. Sonia dropped her bag as the reality of her situation hit her like a punch. Her stomach pitched and she thought she might throw up.
The captain held up two fingers. "Two choices, Touma. Do the job or do the time."
Sonia stood with her chin raised in a stubborn attitude that had rarely brought her anything good. He couldn't make her. She'd appeal or something. But it was top secret. She couldn't tell anyone. Not even a military court.
"Fine," said the captain. "MPs! Take her to the brig."
Seeing the two marines approach, with jaws set in determination, knocked the stubborn right out of her. She pictured the cell. Felt the walls closing in around her and her mind slipped to that terrible place in her childhood, dark and smelling of plastic and urine, her urine. She recalled her cold wet clothing chaffing her skin until she pulled them off, waiting in the dark like an animal.
"No!" She lifted her hands in surrender. "I'll do it. I'll meet him. I'll teach him."
Her captain pressed his lips together, hands on hips. Finally he pointed to his jeep. "Get in."
Sonia lifted her duffel and placed it in the rear seat. The captain said nothing to this as he climbed back behind the wheel.
Once she was seated, he said, "If he doesn't like you or if you run off, you’re back in the brig."
"But I can't keep him from chasing me off."
She recalled the mention of the teachers before her and wondered what Lam had done to make them quit. Sonia wiped the sweat from her upper lip. Whatever he did, it couldn't be as bad as prison.
"What if he hurts me?"
"He won't. I'd stake my life on it. But I can guarantee he'll try to scare the life out of you. So...you ready to meet your new pupil?"
"I'm not a teacher. I've never taught anyone anything."
"That's not quite true, Touma. You taught your sister, Marianna, her first signs and you took out that library book so you could both learn."
Man, somebody was scary good at research.
"Do we understand each other, Private?"
She saluted. "Yes, sir."
He returned it with a definite lack of enthusiasm. "Great. You meet him this afternoon at fourteen hundred. I'll take you to your quarters, but I wouldn't unpack just yet."
* * *
Sonia eyed her duffel bag wondering where it and she would be by night fall. She'd made it to the barracks, but barely had time to wash her face before a young woman arrived to give her a tour. Her foot locker was delivered before they left their quarters. Her guide was chatty and asked too many damned personal questions. The private was a nurse so once she reached the medical facility she felt the need to introduce Sonia to a lot of people she didn't have the first inclination to get to know. As a result, she brought Sonia back late. The captain was waiting outside their quarters, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel.
Sonia climbed in the Jeep and they were off on a road that led through the base and then scaled the mountain in increasingly harrowing switchbacks. Sonia clung to her seat like a monkey on her mama's back as the vehicle jostled on the unpaved road. The low dry scrub lining their way reminded her of West Texas where she'd first been stationed. As they continued upward, the yellow grasses gave way to tall, spindly pines rising eighty feet into the air. The Jeep trail cut through the giants, revealing the exposed red earth, dry as the dust cloud that rooster tailed out behind them. Through the pine she could see the perimeter fence continuing parallel to their route. That was a lot of fence through a whole lot of nothing. Questions buzzed like flies in her mind.
The shade and wind would have refreshed but was ruining the neat knot of her hair. She held one hand on her hat as they bounced through ruts and climbed into the tropical valley. The land folded back on itself like a ribbon. Ferns now clung to the red earth, growing in bunches, some so impossibly high they looked like trees. The landscape seemed a primordial forest and she could imagine prehistoric creatures roaming among the primitive plants. The pines had disappeared to be replaced by unfamiliar trees. Moss hugged each branch like a fuzzy green coat and the air hung thick and heavy all about her.
"Rain forest," said the captain. "On the top it's grass and rock, but in between the ocean and the mountain peak we have this. Entire area is ringed with security fencing in addition to electronic perimeters. Nothing gets in or out without us knowing." He eyed her for a moment and then returned to the road.
Sonia nodded at his additional warning that running would not work. Her back was to the wall. She was going to teach John Lam or end up in jail.
"Where are we going, sir?"
They switched back again and again until she was looking out at the Pacific Ocean's deep blue water. She could no longer see anything but the narrow tracks of the Jeep trail and the encroachment of lush greenery.
The jungle grew in a green curtain right to the edge of the path. It seemed that if she took one step to the right or left she might vanish forever. Why did she want to take that step?
She tried to penetrate the foliage with her gaze and found one shadowy break. Something stared back with wide-set yellow eyes and a face surrounded with shiny black hair. She fell sideways against the clutch and pointed but it was gone.
"What?" asked the captain.
"A-animal," she managed. "Big. Black." But not any animal she'd ever seen. It had a canine-like mouth complete with long saber tooth tiger fangs. Was that Lam?
"Shit," said MacConnelly, and then. "We're nearly there."
She could see the foliage moving parallel to the Jeep. Whatever it was, it could run faster than they could drive. From the safety of the vehicle, her fear tipped towards fascination as she caught glimpses of its black hide in the forest. What else could John Lam do that a normal man could not? She supposed she was about to find out.
The captain slowed to pull into a drive that she had not even seen.
Without warning the path opened up and the sunshine they had left behind in the valley poured down on them. Sonia blinked in the brilliant light as she looked out the window. The house took her breath away. The exterior was painted a pale blue-green with white trim and a wide porch with white lattice work. The roof had just the slightest pitch and peak. Of course, no snow here, so why have an angled roof, she thought. Still, this placed looked about as far away from Yonkers, New York as one could get and that was exactly why she loved it on sight. It wasn't attached to other apartments, it had a yard, sort of, and privacy. She remembered the perimeter fence. It sure did have privacy. Her gaze shifted, searching for John Loc Lam.
"These are my quarters. My wife wanted a look at you."
Sonia's stomach dropped as she prepared herself for this next inspection.
His home resembled a boathouse perched on stilts above a small stream that meandered past a brook that reflected the sky and trees. A small arched bridge allowed a visitor to cross from the path over the water to the house. She glanced at the bank of windows that covered the entire ground floor and saw a face. As quick as she could blink the face was gone. Had she seen it? She could have sworn there had been a woman there with long wavy hair as red as a new penny. That creepy feeling slithered down her back again.
"She won't come out," he said. "She has agoraphobia."
"Fear of spiders?" Sonia asked.
"Open spaces. She doesn't go out and you don't go in. Wait here." He put the Jeep in park and exited the vehicle.
Sonia rolled down the window and stared out at the flower boxes spilling over with exotic pink blossoms. The porch had a swinging love seat, a metal fire pit and several comfortably padded chairs.
The deep sorrow that bubbled up inside her took her completely unawares. How could she miss something she'd never had? A pretty home of her own, with a swing and a garden. It had always been just a fantasy. But here, a man in uniform had it. The fantasy now seemed almost possible.
"If you stay out of jail," she muttered.
Something hit her door with enough force to tip the Jeep before it thudded back to earth. Sonia screamed as the tires bounced beneath her. She turned and there he was, filling the gap in the open window. Big and black and foaming from his snapping jaws. He lifted a clawed hand and reached for her and Sonia found herself on the driver’s seat with her back pressed up against the door.
He snapped his teeth. They locked with a horrible clicking sound as he went still and his strange yellow eyes went wide. He looked frozen while she had stopped breathing.
She released the latch and tumbled out onto the ground and took off for the house, running faster than she ever run before. Behind her, she heard him coming after her, jaws snapping, the ripping sound of the grass as he tore it out by its roots with his claws. She scrambled up the steep stairs to reach the front door and bolted through it, throwing herself back against the solid wood frame. The thing pounded up the stairs and thumped on the door sending vibrations clear through her body. Sonia flipped the lock and stumbled back to land on the floor where she cowered for many long minutes.
Finally the pounding stopped and the silence descended around her, more terrifying than the beating of his fists against the wood. Where was he?
He might have killed her. But he hadn't. Somehow she'd escaped. One thing was certain. She was not teaching that thing.
Her heart slammed in her chest, jackhammering against her ribs until they ached. Finally Sonia recovered enough to stand. Her mind began to tick again. She recalled seeing John Lam running beside the Jeep at twenty miles an hour, at the very least. Yet he had not been able to catch her as she fled. And he had reached for her, but not succeeded in grabbing her when she was trapped in the Jeep even though he had taken her unawares. He'd had time to nearly tip the thing over. If he'd wanted to grab her that would have been a good time.
But he hadn't. The truth filtered through the fear. He hadn't caught her because he wasn't trying to catch her. He was trying to scare her.
What had the captain said, she might shit herself? Well, she nearly had.
Was this some hazing? Did the captain know this would happen?
Sonia's anger rose within her like lava, clouding her judgment with great plumes of black smoke. That asshole!
"Damn them both!"
She unfastened the lock and threw open the door. Johnny was gone. Why hang around when he was sure that she would run back to the captain and quit. Well that is exactly what she would do if she could. But she couldn't because despite how frightening John Loc Lam was, prison scared her far worse.
Sonia tugged her hat down low over her eyes and marched back outside. She was not going to let that overgrown wolf pup scare her into a jail cell. Not now. Not ever.