Read an Excerpt
Why do I feel so unnerved?
It wasn't as if Staff Sgt. Kristine Norwood hadn't seen a lot of naked male bodies during her years as a nurse, before she'd become a member of the covert military unit Alpha Force.
Maybe it was because she had foolishly allowed herself to notice exactly how good-looking and sexy her new but temporary superior officer, Lt. Quinn Parran, was when they'd first been introduced a few days ago.
They had just reached the test mission's planned locationa woodsy area at the far end of Ft. Lukman, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Clad in her usual camo uniform and boots, Kristine had hurried in this direction with her heavy backpack over her shoulders. She stopped now and could sense the presence of the man who had kept up with her along the path through the most remote area of the military base where Alpha Force was headquartered.
She ignored that niggling uneasiness, embarrassmentand something she didn't even want to think about, lustas she turned toward him.
"This the place?" He glanced around at the pin oak trees looming around them.
She caught the sardonic raise of his dark brows over his golden-brown eyes.
"Stop calling me 'sir,'" he said. "You called me Quinn when we were introduced at Simon's wedding."
"Yes, sir, but we weren't on an official exercise then." And she hadn't felt so uneasy at the wedding of her regular superior officer, Lt. Grace Andreas, to Quinn's brother Lt. Simon Parran, who had also just recently joined Alpha Force. Kristine had been maid of honor and Quinn was best man.
He had undoubtedly been the best-looking man there.
Grace and Simon were on their honeymoon now, which was why Kristine and Quinn were temporarily assigned to work together.
He was right, though. She usually called other Alpha Force members by their first names from the time she met them, no matter what their rank. She was friendly enough with Grace and others to joke around with them. But this was different. Way different.
"You want to play military?" he asked. Hell, they were military, even if he chafed at it. "Here's my next order, Kristine. Stop considering this an official exercise."
Kristine couldn't help herself. She smiled both at his words and at his exasperated expression. His military haircut hadn't compelled him to do a great job of shaving, and the hint of dark stubble on his face emphasized the razor-sharpness of his cheekbones. She ignored the sexiness of the look and how it caused her insides to churn and simmer, and responded, "Can't do that, sir. But I'll call you Quinn."
"But this is only quasi-official." What, did the guy just love to argue, or was he serious? "It's a test, both for me and your oh-so-secret military unit. Our military unit." He'd obviously seen her scowl and was reacting to it. That was a good thing. "We both want to see how I do during my first time using the Alpha Force elixir that my brother Simon has described so glowingly to me. He wants to know, too."
Quinn was a new recruit. He had obtained his rank because of what he was, not because of training or achievement. At least not yet. And so far, Kristine's impression was that he had joined the military not because he wanted toas she hadbut for some very unusual benefits he would not have received otherwise.
Like thisusing the elixir.
He obviously had some issues with it all, though. She, on the other hand, was perfectly happy following military protocols most of the time. Tonight, thoughwell, she would obey orders notwithstanding how uncomfortable she was.
And that meant acting as Quinn's aide for this very special session. Mission. Official mission.
Quinn was taller than his brother, with wide shoulders and a devil-may-care stance he affected even now that he was a soldier. His uniform was similar to hersmuch crisper, though. Probably never worn before. It displayed the bars showing he was a commissioned officer. And now, he was about to remove it
Orders or not, how could she stay completely remote and objective as she did all the things necessary to assist Quinn?
She simply would, because she had to. Having her temporary commanding officer naked in front of her was not beyond the call of her very special duty. After all, she'd seen Grace naked a lot when her superior had shapeshifted into wolf form and back.
Now it was time for Quinn to do the same.
Yeah, but Grace was a woman, argued Kristine's logical mind. She'd seen nothing different from what she saw in the mirror, just in the unique configuration that was Grace's instead of her own.
But Quinn? He was all man. Well, almost all man, except for what she knew about him and what he was about to accomplish here.
After she saw him naked
"Tell you what," he said. "Let's do it all backward. You give me some orders. What do we do next?"
"I assume this won't be your first time shifting outside a full moon," Kristine said, buying a little time. Plus, she was curious. This would be his debut shifting as a member of Alpha Force, but he'd had other resources before.
"That's right. I've taken some of the shifting pills that Simon developed, so I've already changed now and then at different times. I've even taken his medication during a full moon because it helps to keep us from changing automatically then. Mostly. My bro's a smart guy, but his pills need work."
"You probably know that some of what he did has been incorporated into the new Alpha Force formula," Kristine said. "It was already good stuff, but now it's better."
That wasn't her area of expertise, of course. But she, like all Alpha Force members, knew that the basis for what Quinn would be drinking here was the most current version of the Alpha Force elixir that had first been developed by one of its commanding officers, Maj. Drew Connell, even before he had helped to form the very unique, very covert military unit composed partly of shapeshifters.
The formula had been modified over the few years of Alpha Force's existence, improved by development and experimentation.
And now, Kristine had heard, they had also made some initial modifications to the elixir that were triggered by the formula first developed by Quinn's brother Simon. That blend was still in experimental stages and not yet in common use. Simon's prior version was not as sophisticated in most ways as what Alpha Force was usingbut it contained some very desirable qualities.
"Bring it on," he said. "I've been waiting to try it."
Kristine inhaled deeply. "Okay, then." She kept her tone crisp. "I'll give you a dose of the elixir. You remove your clothes, then I'll shine the light on you."
"It's supposed to mimic the intensity of a full moon, right?" Quinn asked. He didn't even comment about the fact that he was to completely strip in front of her. Maybe it was no big deal to him.
She wouldn't let it be a big deal to her.
"That's right," she said.
Kristine removed a vial of elixir from the backpack where it had been carefully stowed. As he drank it, she also extracted the moderate-size battery-operated light.
She pretended not to be especially aware of what he was doing as he removed his shirt, then his slacks. But she did sneak a glance in his direction. Damn, but his body was as buff as she had anticipated from seeing him fully clothed.
Then he removed his black boxers. She felt her face redden as she turned the light on and aimed it toward him. She had no choice but to look then. Oh, yes. His male parts were as large and enticing as she had imagined, too. She quickly lifted her gaze toward his face.
He obviously was aware of her discomfort. As she bathed him in light she could see his masculine expression that clearly said, Like what you see?
And then, as anticipated, his shift began. Kristine watched, as always amazed yet accepting of the miracle she observed so often.
Quinn's body writhed, and he dropped to all fours on the ground. His limbs contorted as fur erupted from his skin. His grimace elongated into a canine muzzle.
Soon, he would be, for all intents and purposes, a wolf.
Standing still, paws grounded on the soft dirt of the earthen path, he stared at the beautiful human who had aided his change. She had turned off the bright light and stood watching him in the darkness, eased now only by the distant lights of the military base. She remained unmoving. Her head was tilted, as if she studied him. Wondered about him.
Except for his family, he had never had any company while shifting.
The fact he could think about that now was astounding. Always before, even when using Simon's treasured pill that helped to control shifting nearly anytimeat least somewhathis thoughts while changed had been as wild and uncontrolled as his wolfen body.
But this Alpha Force formula allowed him to keep all his human awareness. He loved it!
What else was different now? He had to know.
He would not find out by remaining here.
He dragged his gaze from the wide blue eyes watching him, bared his teeth for an instant to convey his intent to be on his own and began to run.
The late summer nighttime breeze wafted around his long silver-black pelt. Smells of trees, of large birds of prey, of small squirrels sleeping in branches above, filled him with a sense of belonging.
He circled the vast area inside the fence, remaining within the confines of Ft. Lukman.
He had an urge to run and never return. But his alert mind acknowledged the wish while ensuring that sensibility and caution governed all.
Wise or not, he had taken an oath to become a soldier. With his new ability to think as consciously as a human, he remained aware of the penalties for a soldier's going AWOL, no matter what his assignment. Or the form of his body.
Besides, he wanted more access to the formula.
For a long while, Quinn ran in loops, circling the perimeter of the military base, staying far from the buildings. He watched for people to ensure he got nowhere near themthough he was fully aware that many among this group of humans, more than any other, would understand what he was. Accept it. Accept him.
Yet he preferred being on his own, absorbing every nuance of the sights and sounds and smells utilizing his enhanced senses and his maintained ability to understand.
He didn't feel he would ever grow tired. But he had not taken a large quantity of the changing formula for this, his first experiment with the medication that was so new to him.
For the first time since reluctantly agreeing to join his brother and enlist in this unique military force, he started to believe it was not a mistake.
Yet would this new environment, this new job, ever feel important enough to quell his natural curiosity? Would he ever be comfortable acting like a soldier, taking orders, especially if there were any he felt to be needless or ludicrous?
Could he, as he had been promised, ever use all the prized abilities that he had carefully honed over his years as a private investigator?
He would have to wait and find out.
Eventually, he began to feel tugs beneath his skin, a sure signal that he would soon change back. Reluctantly, he turned in the direction from which he had come.
The woman who had helped him remained there, sitting on the ground near where he had left her, a softly lit electronic reader on her lap. She was reading. Waiting for him.
He wanted to greet her. Thank her.
Instead, what poured from his throat for now was a soft growl.
She immediately looked at him as if startled.
And then she nodded.
"That's great stuff," Quinn said. "The shifting formula." He had hardly stopped grinning since changing back from his wolf form.
He looked entirely human now. He was also fully clothed. Kristine, walking beside him on the path to the center of Ft. Lukman with her backpack again over her shoulders, resisted glancing toward the private areas of him that she had glimpsedand considered potentially great stuff. They were all hidden now anyway.
And staring wouldn't be professional.
Of course, the heated stirrings inside her, being close to this man again, were anything but professional.
"Once we're back at the main building, I'll conduct a recorded interview with you and enter your description into our computer database."
"I'll have a lot to say," he responded. "All of it complimentary."
Her thoughts, tooabout himbut of course she didn't mention that. She would be a lot more comfortable when Grace returned and she could get back to being her regular charge's aide. She didn't know who would be there for Quinn, but at least it wouldn't be her.
Ft. Lukman was a fairly large base, but it didn't take long to return to the building where they had started their trek earlier. The aboveground portion held quite a few dog kennels for the canines that acted as partial cover for the wolfen shapeshifters headquartered here.
Quinn and she immediately headed for a stairway down to the lab areas, clean rooms and primary Alpha Force offices. This, Kristine knew, was where those supposedly magical formulations of the Alpha Force elixir were mixed and changed and improved.
She sometimes wished she knew more about how they worked, how they acted to enhance the process and conditions of shapeshifting.
But she never wished that she were a shapeshifter. Oh, she admired them. Liked working with them. But when all was said and done, she preferred being well, herself.
At the bottom, Quinn reached around to open the door for her. She appreciated the gentlemanly gesture. Maybe there was hope for him to be a real soldier yet.
Not that it really mattered to her.
She gasped as a backlighted body clad in a camo uniform loomed before them in the hallway. It was late, and she hadn't expected to see anyone there.
"Glad you two are finally back," said Maj. Drew Connell, commanding officer of Alpha Force. "Come with me. There's something important going on that I need to brief you about."
Kristine had thought it interesting and fitting that a shifter had been designated to command this covert unit. At first she had wondered whether she would accept taking orders from those who were so different from her. Now, it was second nature.
If Drew said something significant was happening, that meant it was definitely critical.
He ushered them into the small office off the main lab facility where he and others worked on the shifting formulation. He was not only the one who had developed the prototype, but he had also stayed closely involved with its modifications.
"Sit down. Please." It was an order, but people around here tended to give orders more politely than the rest of the military, as if Alpha Force was different.
Which it was.
"What's up?" asked Quinn, as he settled his large frame into the designated seat across from Drew's desk. "Sir," he added when Drew's suddenly chilly golden eyes reminded him where they were and who outranked whom.
Was this some kind of alpha thing, too, among male shifters? Interesting, Kristine thought.
"Yes, please tell us what's going on, sir," she added in a respectful tone, one she hoped Quinn would use himself in the future.
"A couple of people were killed two nights ago in Acadia National Park," he said, his face grim.
That had been a night when the moon was full, Kris-tine realized.
Before Drew could continue, Quinn interrupted. "That's near Bar Harbor, Maine. Where Simon and Grace went on their honeymoon. I haven't been in touch for a couple of daysdidn't want to bother them. Are they okay?" He had stood abruptly, and Kristine empathized, although she remained seated. She was worried, too.
"Unknown so far," Drew said. "The victims have been identified and aren't Grace and Simon, so you needn't worry about that. They were apparently attacked by some kind of wild animal, and the first assessment indicates the wounds could have been caused by canines."
"Are there wild wolves in that park?" Quinn demanded.
"Used to be, a long time ago, but not now," Drew said. The three of them were silent for a long moment, staring at one another.