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Sara pulled her car up to the formidable black wrought-iron gate at Ft. Lukman. She had been driving her small hybrid for more than an hour from D.C. to this out-of-the-way military installation on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Stopping at the security kiosk, she pulled her ID from the purse on the passenger seat. "Lieutenant Sara McLinder, reporting for duty," she told the guard, a tall man, wearing a standard camouflage uniform similar to the one Sara had on.
So far, nothing here looked different or surprising, no matter what Sara's superior officer, General Greg Yarrow, had suggested. Of course not.
Even so, maybe she should have waited until tomorrow, as the general had said. It was early evening already, and she wouldn't have much time to get settled.
On the other hand, it hadn't been an order, and Sara didn't like to delay. Facing new situations quickly and immediately was more to her liking than waiting.
"Is General Yarrow behind you, ma'am?" asked the soldier.
"The general will be here tomorrow," she said. "Very good, ma'am." He looked over her identification and passed it back. "Everything looks in order. Welcome to Ft. Lukman, Lieutenant." The private saluted and the gate slid open, away from the car.
Sara saluted back. "Thank you," she said, then drove onto the base.
The general had provided her the layout in advance. She knew that the building comprising the Bachelor Officers' Quarters where she was to stay was to the right once she entered the base. That was where she headed. She was also aware that the cafeteria, not far from the living quarters, should be open late-a good thing. She hadn't stopped to eat on the way and was hungry.
Rather than pulling into the small enclosed garage, she parked in the open-air lot closest to the BOQ, finding a space at the far end, near a wall. She removed her suitcase on wheels from the trunk of her car. She had already been given a set of keys, so she had no problem either getting inside the functional-looking concrete building or into her apartment after taking the elevator up one floor.
Interestingly, or not, she didn't run into any other people. Also a good thing, since she didn't really want to have a gabfest. Not now.
She didn't spend much time assessing the quarters where she would stay as long as the general kept them at this base. The place resembled a tiny one-bedroom apartment. That was good enough.
She was back outside in only a few minutes, walking in the remaining daylight along a sidewalk toward the cafeteria. As she neared it, she began to see people-others also in camo fatigues and thick-soled shoes similar to hers.
She wondered if she would be able to discern any differences between the two main units now present at Ft. Lukman. That was one of the reasons General Yarrow intended to station himself for a while at this base. He was in charge of Alpha Force, the special-ops unit that had been headquartered here for a few years. A new special-ops group, the Ultra Special Forces Team, had only been assigned here about a month ago to prepare for a highly classified and critically important team assignment with Alpha Force, and the general had heard about some friction between the two units.
He wanted to observe it-and, if necessary, make some changes.
Sara, as the primary aide assigned to General Yarrow, would be his eyes and ears and, if necessary, his mouth.
A group of four enlisted personnel-two men and two women-stood by the building's entrance. They stopped their conversation and saluted her, and she saluted back.
Interesting, since the general had said that things were fairly low-key and informal here at Ft. Lukman. These soldiers were therefore probably among the new arrivals.
The general had also hinted at a lot of other things about what went on at Ft. Lukman, none of which could be real. He liked to joke. His sense of humor was obviously quite different from hers. But she always admired how serious he appeared, even while jesting.
Inside an entry hall, Sara saw people going in and out through an open doorway in the middle-obviously the way into the cafeteria. The aroma of grilled meat grew stronger the closer she got, confirming her assumption.
The place was smaller than she'd anticipated for a base this size-a long room crowded with occupied tables. She headed toward the food line and picked out a hamburger and fries, then got a soft drink.
Once she paid, she looked around for an empty spot and saw none. She could get the meal to go, but for now was carrying a tray.
"Hi," said a female voice beside her. "You look lost." Sara turned and saw a woman in camo uniform with layered tawny hair and a big smile-another lieutenant, like her. "You wouldn't happen to be General Yarrow's aide, would you? We were told you'd be here tomorrow, but I don't think anyone else is expected right now."
Sara smiled. "Good guess. I'm Sara McLinder." She saw that her new companion's name tag read Hodell.
"I'm Colleen Hodell. Welcome. Here, we'll make room at our table for you." She gestured across the room where some other soldiers were seated around a table. "They're all Alpha Force members."
"Thanks," Sara said, and followed Colleen.
By the time they got there, someone had pulled an empty chair up to the table. Eight people were already seated around it. Sara smiled and nodded through the introductions. Interestingly, officers and enlisted personnel were all eating together.
Alpha Force protocol might be stronger around here than that of the regular military. Well, the general had warned her to expect things to be different from what she was used to, and some of it had to be real. If this fraternization made her uncomfortable, she wouldn't show it. Just being friendly wasn't prohibited under military regulations.
She placed her tray on the table and sat down.
"Welcome to Ft. Lukman," said the man seated beside her. According to his insignia, he was a sergeant. It wasn't the first time she'd heard a welcome, but this soldier's deep voice resonated with what sounded like irony. She looked at him, planning to maintain her rank and dignity.
"Thank you, Sergeant," she said brusquely, then looked away after noting what appeared to be sexual interest in his flashing golden eyes.
She must have imagined it. That would be the kind of fraternizing that was definitely forbidden under military regulations.
Although well, she wasn't supposed to notice such things, but that sergeant was one handsome guy. He looked fairly young, maybe late twenties like her, but his short, black hair was flecked with silver. His features were sharp, his smile gorgeous and challenging-and she couldn't help noticing how broad his shoulders appeared beneath his camo shirt.
"Are you a new member of Alpha Force?" asked the sergeant, whose ID tag said his last name was Connell.
"Not exactly," she said. "I'm General Yarrow's aide, and I'll be here as long as he is. He is planning some exercises for Alpha Force while he's here."
"Then you're not-" The female sergeant across the table, whose name tag said Jessop, stopped speaking when Colleen elbowed her in the ribs.
"Has the general told you much about Alpha Force?" asked another man at the other side of the table. Sara nearly rose and saluted as she noticed his brass. He was a major. But the informality around here stopped her. Members of this unit might act all military elsewhere, but while eating dinner in this cafeteria they were all, apparently, just people.
"No, sir," Sara said. "Not really." Greg Yarrow had implied that things around here were quite different from the rest of the military without giving any credible explanation. He had even suggested that some of the members of Alpha Force went beyond any military skill she could ever imagine-because they were shapeshifters. Hah! She had worked with him long enough to anticipate and deal with that offbeat sense of humor of his. Despite his straight face, he knew better. He couldn't actually imagine she was a gullible subordinate who'd buy into that. Even so, he hadn't told her anything genuinely distinctive about the remote and covert unit. She figured she would learn the real differences here on the job.
She took a bite of her hamburger. Not bad for cafeteria food.
"Interesting," said the sergeant beside her. "Maybe I should show you around. Teach you what you need to know."
"Back off, Jason." That was the major. She squinted slightly to see his name tag.
It read Connell just like the sergeant's. Jason's.
Talk about interesting Were the noncom and officer related?
That would be unusual-not that relatives had joined the military, but that both men would be in the same unit.
Was that somehow part of the reason that Alpha Force was considered different from other special-ops units?
Doubtful, but- Well, it made more sense than imagining that any of these very real-looking people could be shapeshifters, despite the general's teasing insinuations that they were. But just being related didn't make these soldiers distinctive, unless, perhaps, their family members had taught one another useful skills from youth that other people might not have. She couldn't think of a good example, though.
Maybe they really had taught one another how to shapeshift. Not!
She took a sip of her drink and another bite of hamburger, then glanced back toward the sergeant to see whether he was, in fact, backing off.
The expression in his eyes was now filled with what looked like irony-even as he seemed to assess her from head to toe as she sat there. Oh, yes. He was a real man.
The gaze heated her insides. Made her sexually aware of the guy all over again.
Forget that, she cautioned herself. She was entirely military. Obeyed all orders and loved it.
No way would she allow herself even to notice if this soldier decided to play games with her.
Although, she realized, she already had noticed and somehow liked it too much.
The rumors had been correct, Jason thought. Not that Major Drew Connell-no, not just major, but also Doctor Drew Connell, his cousin-told him much of anything around here.
Jason was just a peon. At least, because of his very special background that had led him to Alpha Force, he had been promoted to sergeant quickly and wasn't just a private.
In any event, Jason took a sip of soda water and continued to watch the gorgeous, hot-and unapproachable- lieutenant who had only arrived at Ft. Lukman that night. She obviously wasn't armed with the knowledge she needed to fit in here.
Those rumors said she was a very important aide to General Yarrow. So why hadn't her boss informed her about what she was in for at this base?
"So tell us something about yourself, Lieutenant," he said, addressing her. She was slender, with short, blond hair, a pale but perfect complexion, and high cheekbones that underscored eyes of an unusual blue-green shade. "Have you worked with General Yarrow long?" Those were nice, neutral, friendly questions, weren't they?
Jason was still on probation here. Probably would be for the rest of his life unless he figured out a workable way to resign.
On the other hand, he would be leaving behind some stuff he really liked along with the military regimen he despised. Some stuff he'd grown used to and didn't want to do without.
So he'd made his decision. He was staying-for the time being, at least.
He glanced at his cousin to make sure there was no angry scowl on his face, the result of every misstep Jason made in Drew's presence.
Fortunately, Drew just regarded the lovely lieutenant expectantly, as if awaiting her answer, too. So were all other Alpha Force members here-those who were like him, and those who weren't.
That was something damned special about this unit. They all worked together-and those who weren't like him were actually assigned to help those with the same characteristics as he had.
What would the lovely lieutenant think if she knew that half the members of Alpha Force were shapeshifters?
Oh, yeah, real dogs and other appropriate animals were kept on base as covers for them. Jason had even started helping to train the dogs in his spare time. But the reality was that Jason, and a lot of others, would be changing tonight under the full moon. By choice these days, which was especially cool.
"I've been in the army for nearly two years," the pretty officer was saying.
She was Lieutenant McLinder. Sara, she'd said during introductions. She didn't look as if she'd be thrilled for a mere sergeant to address her by her first name, even here.
"I've been an aide to General Yarrow for about five months," she continued.
Jason knew that the general had obligations in addition to being the commanding officer of Alpha Force. This lieutenant really could be as ignorant about the unit as she seemed.
Jason smiled. Wouldn't it be fun to see her expression when she finally realized the true nature of Alpha Force?
Maybe he could figure out a way to do that-although he would not be in a position, he was sure, to comfort the beautiful officer.
Not then, at least.
Would she run away screaming?
Somehow, he didn't think so. His first impression was that she was no-nonsense, all by the book. Her duty was to help the general, no matter what.
But Jason would bet she'd never anticipated this.
Perhaps he could help to educate her. Really educate her about what Alpha Force was about.
He would definitely try.
"Time for us all to go." That was the major talking, and clearly no one was about to contradict him.
Sara watched as everyone at the table rose almost in unison. She did the same.
So did the sergeant beside her. "Are you staying in the BOQ?" he asked.
Why? Did he want to accompany her there? Tear off her clothes the way his suggestive looks seemed to do, never mind the rules?
The idea made her private areas react in ways she hadn't felt in a long time-even as she shoved the very idea out of her mind.
"That's right. I assume you're not." She kept her tone brusque, not unfriendly but not anything but professional, either.
"Right. But well, you'd better stay in your quarters tonight, Lieutenant."
Was he presuming to give her, a superior officer, orders? She glared-but at that moment his look wasn't sexy or suggestive It seemed concerned.
Although it was the night of a full moon. Maybe the general hadn't been playing her completely and this unit's members spread the word that they were shapeshifters to hide what they really did. But would anyone sane actually accept that?