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“Door’s open!” sasha yelled without even looking up, as she clutched the confusing set of directions in her hand and stared at the mess of parts on her living room floor.
She knew it was her guys; the thudding footfalls and loud banter between them were always a dead giveaway. In a second they’d both come tumbling through the door like a pair of wolf pups—Woods with his cocky sex-machine grin and Fisher with his baby face.
When the door banged open, Sasha looked up and couldn’t remain peeved even if she’d wanted to. Those two were lovable polar opposites. All she could do was smile.
Fish was a tall, lanky, Kentucky-bred blond with the bluest, kindest eyes in the whole world. She was older than him by two years and she thought of him as the younger brother she had never had. But in a fight, Fisher was fierce and played for keeps. A good man to have at your back when something otherworldly was closing in.
“I smell pizza,” Woods said, heading for the kitchen without a hello. He gave Sasha a dashing smile as he passed her. “Beer, I’m oh so sure, is in the fridge, right?” He looked over his shoulder, waggled his eyebrows, and blew her a kiss. “We’ve got dibs on the TV, since you’re making us work during prime time.”
“Save it for the ladies at the bar,” Sasha said, teasing him, but secretly glad that he’d decided to hang out for the duration of a game. If Woodsy stayed that meant Fisher would stay . . . and she was sure that on a Saturday night Woods had plenty of other places he could be.
Woods was typically handsome with brown hair, dark eyes, broad shoulders, and a muscular build. He cleaned up real nice when he put on his military blues. She knew that he had had more than his share of willing females back in West Virginia. Hell, he had more than his fair share scattered all over Denver.
“Okay, so tell me again why a Marine Corps–bred, Delta One, highly trained, superintelligent chick from the PCU needs all her pack members to put together her Ikea bookshelf and entertainment center on a Saturday night?” Woods said as he came out of the kitchen toting two beers in one hand while chomping on a slice of pepperoni and sausage pizza with the other.
“Because I want this done before we have to move out again. I hate leaving things unfinished,” she argued.
“You’ve got OCD, Trudeau,” Woods said. “You know that, right? It’s a sickness, this everything-in-its-place-before-you-deploy superstition thing you’ve got going on!”
“Well, if you guys can’t handle the directions, that’s all you had to say.” Sasha jumped to her feet and headed to the kitchen to get herself a slice of pizza.
“You hear a challenge, Fish?” Woods beamed at Fisher and handed off one of the beers to him.
“The Paranormal Containment Unit not only hears but accepts the challenge,” Fisher said, laughing as he saluted the lieutenant and then howled, causing Woods to join in.
“I also don’t know why the pack’s beta needs an assist, but as long as there’s brewskis, who’s arguing?” Woods said.
A snappy comeback escaped her; so instead, she bit into a slice of pizza and rolled her eyes at Fisher to make him laugh again. In truth, she could have put the furniture together herself and carried the freaking wall unit across the room, if necessary, but that wasn’t the issue. Worry nagged her gut, and before they each received a new deployment assignment, she wanted to hang out with them a little bit. Then there was the not so small reality that when it came to putting together inexpensive but fashionable furniture, misery loved company. Especially on a Saturday night. Yeah, okay, so maybe she also needed to get a life.
“Because it’s a conspiracy,” Sasha finally said, ignoring the jubilant banter coming from Woods and Fisher, who had long since found more beer in her fridge. “There is no L-wrench, and I swear they have fifteen different-sized screws that all look the same just to piss you off!” She looked down at the piles of nuts, bolts, screws, and washers on the floor at her feet and practically growled.
Her two pack mates smirked and clinked their bottles of beer together. Fisher had jammed so much pizza into his mouth that his cheeks bulged like a squirrel’s.
Suddenly there was a low rumble of laughter and Sasha turned to see Rod Butler walking into her apartment. Their fearless leader had arrived. Rod was the pack’s alpha and it was easy to see why. He was tall, at least six two, broad shouldered with a tightly corded body, and when he moved his power rolled off him, dominating everyone around him. He had startlingly green eyes and red hair that spoke of his Irish ancestry. He wasn’t typically handsome, but he exuded sex appeal even when he wasn’t trying.
Rod stood in the doorway chuckling low in his throat and shook his head as he shed his bomber jacket. “Trudeau, you know I’m never gonna let this incident go, right? I’ll be razzing you until that gorgeous black hair of yours goes stone gray.”
Sasha flipped him the bird and then slapped the instructions against Rod’s stone-cut chest, completely annoyed by the merry twinkle in his eyes and the way his handsome mouth offered her a lopsided grin. The backhanded compliment was slightly out of place for their normal siblinglike banter. She wanted to yank a handful of his hair as she passed him, but thought better of it.
Theirs had always been a big brother! little sister, mentor! protégée relationship but lately Rod seemed interested in something else that she wouldn’t even acknowledge. It was a dangerous thing in a squad, especially within a small tactical unit like theirs. It was best to keep it light, neutral, and totally platonic. She snatched more instruction sheets off the floor, ignoring the jubilant comments coming from the other guys . . . ignoring the way Rod’s eyes followed her body as she bent and remained on her ass until her face burned.
“Lemme see that,” Rod said, walking over to her and grabbing the crumpled directions from her. “If you just—”
“Watch it, Cap. We just got here and she’s already driving us crazy, and as you can see from the leaning tower of pizza,” Woods said, guzzling a Budweiser, and then using his bottle to indicate the botched wall-unit attempt, “she might take a swing at you.”
“Ohmigod. You did not say ‘leaning tower of pizza.’” Sasha closed her eyes and slapped her forehead as Woods made a Frisbee of the huge box and sent it into Rod’s grasp. “That’s Pisa, and hey, watch the rug!”
“My bad,” Fisher said, laughing and dabbing the rug with his T-shirt as the beer he’d just opened foamed over onto it. “But, hey, we don’t read all that fancy stuff, like you, Trudeau. You’re the diplomat—me and Woodsy just follow orders and blow shit up.”
“Chivalry is dead,” Woods mumbled over a mouthful of pepperoni and sausage pizza. “I think we blew that sucker up, too, on the last mission, right, Fish? Glad we’ve got a couple of weeks before we have to roll out again.”
Fisher raised his bottle and saluted the lieutenant with a grin.
Rod opened the pizza box, wolfing down a slice as he leaned against the wall. “So you mean to tell me that between the three of you, you guys couldn’t match up widget A with screw B and put together this furniture? Remind me of that when they send us out on another explosives detail.”
“Oh, so now the man has jokes,” Fisher said, mischief causing his blue eyes to light with the excitement of a challenge. “I can hot-wire anything. But I don’t do furniture. Too domestic. C-4 and cell phones, I’m much better with. Fifty bucks says there’s pieces missing.” He dragged his fingers through his blond spikes and forced his wiry frame up off the floor in one fluid sit-up, beaming at Rod.
“Aw, here we go . . .” Woods moaned. True pity shimmered in his eyes.
“You always get your ass kicked in poker, Fish—when are you gonna learn? Don’t bet Fearless Leader, man.”
Sasha began banging her head against the wall when Rod got the look. Anybody who knew Captain Rod Butler knew when he got that hungry look they’d all be in for a long night of unrelenting challenge. Once Rod got hold of something, he couldn’t let it go. “Please, anybody, somebody, put the frickin’ wall unit and bookcase together, that’s all a woman asks. I fed you. I bought you beer.”
“Under control,” Rod said, giving her a look that not only sent a mild tremor through her, but that made her nervous. He’d never looked at her like that. There was nothing brotherly or platonic about it.
“Let a real professional go to work,” Woods said. “Don’t you just love the alpha challenge?”
Moonlight sent a wide swath of light through her apartment. Music blared heavy percussion through her Bose system. But every time she glanced up, Rod’s line of vision hunted hers, cornered it, and made her fidget and look away. It was unnerving to have the dynamic of their relationship change so suddenly.
To avoid any catastrophic eye contact, she skirted the edge of the threesome who were now on the floor on their hands and knees sorting parts again, working as a team, and mercilessly ribbing each other. The specifics of their banter became muddied, the sound of their voices distant as she watched Rod glance at her, then look out the window at the luminous disk that seemed to mesmerize him long enough to stop time. Worry formed small beads of perspiration on her forehead. Rod needed his meds. Something was wrong. Maybe she needed hers, too.
“Trudeau is on a mission, Cap—so don’t blame me,” Woods said, guzzling beer. “Ask her why this had to be done tonight.”
“Speaking of mission, I’ve gotten our orders.”
Everyone looked to Rod.
“Woods, Fisher, and I will be shipping out to Nicaragua in two days. Gonzalez, Johnson, and Sherwin will also be a part of the team. Trudeau isn’t on this deploy. Specifics about our assignment will be handed down when we report to base tomorrow at six hundred hours.”
“It’s going to be a full moon in two days,” Sasha said, surprised. They’d always monitored them, had them hooked up to machines, testing them during a full moon. And after the tests were the hard training missions, but never too far from a base in an isolated environment. Worse yet, the team was being split up—she wasn’t being given orders to move out with them. Scrambling for words, she tried to keep anxiety out of her tone. “So now they’re sending us in different directions on a full moon? What gives?”
“It will be the first of many,” Rod said. “I guess they finally think we can handle it.” His tone sounded a little bitter. Rod had never been too cool about having his leash yanked whenever the brass felt it was necessary. “Besides,” he told Sasha with a slight smile, “you can handle it, right?”
You’re pathetic, she told herself when her face heated.
To distract herself, Sasha put her hands on her hips and replied, keeping her tone cocky to disguise her concerns. “Well, then you’d better get to work because there’s no way I’m coming back from my mission to this mess.”
Rod gave her another sexy smile and saluted. “You heard the lady. Let’s do the damn thing, gentlemen.”
The guys got down on their hands and knees and started sorting parts again.
“Anybody else want another beer?” she called out, heading back toward the kitchen.
“Make it three,” Woods called out behind her.
“Roger that,” Fisher said, swearing as a small nut rolled under the couch.
“Goddamn it, Fisher!” Rod boomed. Everyone froze. “That’s why we can’t put this fucking thing together!”
Rod was on his feet in an instant. He’d leaped back from a crouched position to a full upright stand so quickly that Sasha gaped with the refrigerator door still wide open. No one spoke; all eyes were on Butler as rage consumed him. “If you keep throwing parts under furniture, then how the hell do you expect the parts to match what’s on the instruction sheets?”
Horrified, Sasha watched Rod flip her sofa over with a crashing bang to fetch the lost nut. Eerie silence filled the apartment; the blaring music was merely background noise that now seemed so very far away.
“Rod,” Sasha said as calmly as she could, easing closer to him. “When’s the last time you took your meds?” Her heart was slamming inside her chest. She wiped her moist palms on her back jeans pockets. Her sidearm was in the bedroom; her soul wasn’t prepared for war in her own home. Her mind shrieked a prayer: let the meds work.
“I don’t need to take my fucking meds; I need to put this goddamned wall unit together!” Rod shouted, high color now staining his ruddy cheeks.
“I have a supply in the fridge,” she said in a flat statement of fact, coming to Rod slowly as Woods and Fisher slowly backed away from him. “We all have to take our meds. We’ve all been infected. It’s policy.”
“Forget about the bet, dude,” Fisher said nervously. “It’s cool.”
“No, it’s not cool!” Rod shouted, now beginning to pace. Sweat had begun to form on his brow. “We made a bet, now let’s do the bullshit. Somebody open a fucking window, would ya? And to hell with a virus! I don’t need meds. I’m all right.”
Sasha swept up her goldfish bowl before Fred the fish became a casualty when Rod punched the wall near him. Two seconds too late and poor Fred would have been collateral damage.
“Open a window, Woods,” Sasha said quickly, instructing the paralyzed lieutenant. Her nerves were drawn so taut that she moved in jerky, robotic strides for a few seconds.
As Rod rubbed the back of his neck and closed his eyes, her muscles remembered how to move and they propelled her forward to race toward the kitchen where she set Fred’s bowl down on the counter hard, sloshing some of his water out of it. Trying to steady her hands, she retrieved a black medical case that had prefilled hypodermic needles in it. One eye was on the needle that she held up to the light and tapped to be sure no air bubbles were in it before she expressed some of the needle’s contents into the sink, the other eye was on Woods standing dangerously close to an open window and near a man in potential transformation crisis.
Rod’s olive T-shirt now had a dark V of perspiration, making it cling to the hard ridge of his back, and he held on to either side of the window frame, breathing in deeply, his eyes closed, his face bathed by moonlight.
“I’m sorry, Fish,” Rod said after a moment. “You know how I hate for anything to beat me—so I owe you fifty bucks.”
“Like I said, it’s cool, dude,” Fisher replied quietly, his eyes pained. His expression told them that he knew the last thing Rod was talking about was allowing the Ikea furniture challenge to beat him. It was the thing that they all secretly carried in their veins. The thing that bound them as a small family and made them The Wolf Pack—the virus they shared.
Sasha went to their commanding officer, their brother, the one they all looked up to, and allowed her fingers to play against Rod’s elbow, warning him before she swabbed the inside of his arm with a cold, alcohol-soaked cotton ball and then quickly stabbed him with the needle. In his frame of mind he could flip into a rage, but instead he stared at her with a mixture of shame, personally directed anger, futility, and that thing they didn’t speak of. She knew it had to be the moon; there was no other explanation that her mind would accept right now.
“It’s never been this bad before,” he admitted quietly. “Sorry about the couch . . . and the wall.”
She looked down at his arm and covered the tip of the needle with cotton before extracting it, and then made him bend his arm. “It’s all right. No harm, no foul.”
The look again . . . It hung between them like a heavy, thick blanket.
“Moratorium on beer for one hour,” Woods said, trying to find a better place to set the blame. No one wanted to talk about the virus or their own human mortality. “We’ll master this, not to worry, Trudeau. Hey, how many werewolves does it take to screw in a wall-unit shelf anyway?”
“The moon fucks me up lately . . . even when it’s just waxing toward full,” Rod said, shame singeing his voice as he stalked away from her toward the abandoned furniture.
Only then, once Rod Butler was farther away from her, could she breathe.
Copyright © 2008 by Leslie Esdaile Banks. All rights reserved.