Northwest wilderness along the Canadian border . . .
A howl tried to climb up her throat but she swallowed it down until her lungs felt like they were going to burst. Her human side refused to give the wolf free rein. Not like this.
Sasha licked her lips, trying to find the Lieutenant Sasha Trudeau that she'd been before the full moon, before the heat. With Max Hunter on her flank, the lines between her wolf and human selves became more blurred. They had to find Fisher and Woods, the last two guys on her ambushed Paranormal Containment Unit squad. Familiars. She hated the term and preferred to call them friends.
Sweat slicked her body beneath layers of clothes. The frigid night air felt good against her face. Hunter had told her what to expect; so had his grandfather, Silver Hawk. As an alpha Shadow wolf mate, Hunter would know; as her lover, he would have warned her. But that was just it-there was no understanding this unless one experienced it. They'd said that, too. Yet, they were males. How could they even attempt to describe transforming from human to wolf during the burn that came with being in a female heat? What they'd conveyed was only secondhand knowledge. The mates had no concept; the insanity that came with this defied definition.
Besides, the moon was a gorgeous, radiating disk above her, impossible to escape. Sasha stopped running for a moment and squeezed her eyes shut, panting. The sensation of an abrupt wolf- change so near the surface of her skin strangled her reason. Suddenly the backpack she carried felt too heavy; it had become an onerous appendage just like her suffocating parka, thermals, boots, and jeans. Thick fabric restricted her being and made her want to scream with frustration. Labored breathing filled her ears. It was hers. Scents from the pristine environment stabbed into her sinuses and caused her to take in gulps of air through her mouth.
"Sasha . . . baby, just let her go," Hunter said in a sensual murmur as he loped to her side.
"No!" she shouted, hugging herself and bending over to pant harder.
"It's natural, a part of-"
Her low, warning growl stopped his words. "I want to be in control of me!" Tears stung her eyes but she refused to let them fall. "Can't you understand that? I'm a goddamned soldier!"
Hunter backed away from her with a nod and leaned against a tree, cloaking his form in the shadow of it. He'd instinctively done so as if he could tell that his mere presence was making her testy, and she appreciated his innate understanding that it had.
Sasha glimpsed where he'd been standing and then released a hard breath of relief that she could no longer see him. It was difficult enough catching his wondrous, earthy male scent when the winds suddenly shifted or hearing his easy footfalls in the snow that made shivers dance up her spine. Seeing his handsome, six- foot- five, muscular body peel out of the shadows had literally sent an irrational jolt through her system.
There was something about the way his long, jet- black ponytail had come loose on the run to spill onyx velvet over his thick shoulders . . . but that was nothing compared to the expression on his rugged face or the lingering question that burned deep within his intense, amber- rimmed irises. When he'd absently licked his lush bottom lip just before shadow- blending, she'd almost gone to him. But no. She would remain in control, would remain focused on the mission. Shadow Wolf or not, she had a job to do.
What she needed was distance and time to pull herself together. Slowly straightening, she lifted her chin and kept her eyes on the horizon, giving him her back. She refused to even look in the direction of where he'd been. What would be the point? It didn't take rocket science to know that he was staring at her. She could almost feel his hot gaze penetrating her back. He'd been looking at her like that all night.
Regardless, she was a military- trained, Special Ops, fighting machine, Sasha reminded herself as she began to pace. Squad leader of the Paranormal Containment Unit- PCU's top gun. The only genetic mistake that had made it out of the moonlight madness alive. Two of her men were still moving under radar behind Shadow Wolf territory lines, and she had to bring them in. The United Council of Entities was having an international meeting in New Orleans during the rare blue moon right after Mardi Gras, and every supernatural species would be in attendance- she had to prepare, be sharp, and gather intel. Demon- infected Werewolf virus was still on the black market. And now that she'd learned how to spot other wolves, plus the Fae, Pixies, Dragons, and other supernaturals, somebody would talk.
Damn the moon and any genetic defect she harbored! Despite the pressures of being what amounted to a double agent, the wolf was controllable, the clan elder had said! Mind over matter. That was the only way her kind had remained concealed for centuries. They were different from the outlawed species of demon- infected Werewolves that they hunted, a breed abomination that fed on human flesh and had no choice but to follow the phases of the moon. The transformation- burn would pass.
Sasha yanked back her hood and raked her fingers through her hair, noting with dismay that it had thickened on the run. She closed her eyes and turned her face up to the luminous disk in the sky and shuddered.
"It's different when you're in heat, baby," a very deep voice murmured from the shadows.
"What would you know about it? Screw you!" she shouted, whirling on the sound of Hunter's voice as it began to circle around her.
"Definitely an option I wish you'd consider."
Sasha snarled. If Max Hunter had laughed, she would have lunged at him and gone for his throat.
"I told you after that last time, no matter what, not until we were out of range of my men, your men, and the whole clan!"
"All right, I'm sorry," Hunter said in an amused tone that irked her to no end. "You ready to run some more or do you want to make camp and eat?"
"I want to get to the Shadow clan base camp to night, not tomorrow," she snapped.
"Not advisable," he said flatly, coming out of the shadows with his arms folded. "You need to allow your condition to . . . mellow."
"My condition?" She felt her hands slowly begin to ball into fists at her side.
He nodded and stared at her hands. "As beautiful as you are, you might make me kill one of my own men in this condition."
She flipped him the bird and almost growled when his only response to the rude gesture was a dashing smile.
"Uh, yeah," he said, smirking. "My point, exactly."
"It's only twenty more miles! In a flat- out run, we could make it!"
Total frustration engulfed her as she began to walk back and forth before a stand of trees. "And you've got another thing coming if you think I'm going to enter a Shadow Wolf clan camp that has two of your best friends there, with me smelling like I've been knocking boots on the trail. I have some freakin' pride, Max Hunter. I'm a squad commander, and I will not have my men even remotely think that I delayed a recognizance with them because of some personal bull! Never happen. Not after all they've been through-especially them."
"I hear you," Hunter replied calmly, slipping into another shadow. "Understood." "Good! I'm glad we've gotten that straight, because if you haven't noticed, every body of water we've passed is frozen solid."
A deep baritone chuckle echoed throughout the glen. "So, at least you've thought about it. Now I feel better. Slightly."
"No, I didn't think about it!" she shouted, her voice carrying against her will.
"Be honest, Sasha. You've weighed the logistics and come away with a negative conclusion. That I can accept. I told you before I am no liar-and the last person I ever lie to is myself."
"Kiss my ass, Max Hunter."
He stepped out of the shadows with his head tilted and dropped his backpack in the snow. "Gladly."
She drew her nine millimeter on him and he simply smiled, now flashing canines.
"Like I said, I try not to lie to myself, and my condition isn't wholly stable, either."
She stared at him but didn't lower the weapon. He didn't seem the least bit concerned by its presence.
"We need to make camp here. I've gotta eat," he announced and glanced down with a weary sigh. "You're not the only one subject to clan embarrassment; you do realize that, don't you?"
"We keep moving," she said through her teeth.
"Suit yourself," he said, unfazed, and began to unzip his parka. "This is moose country."
"So you aren't coming?"
He smiled a wicked smile. "Not yet."
She turned away from him and holstered her gun again, determined not to allow him to see her hands tremble. Her angry footfalls turned into outright stomps in the snow when she heard him unzip his jeans.
"You need a guide," he called out behind her. "Until you're scented in as a non- hostile clan member, they'll hide from you . . . will also hide your men for their safety."
"Then stop messing with my head and come on!"
She didn't turn around as she'd yelled out her response. The last thing her nerves could stand at the moment was the sight of Hunter's dark, stone- cut body in the buff. They'd never see eye- to- eye on the point, anyway, so what was the use of arguing? He claimed status as a warrior, she was a soldier-the difference being, according to Hunter, warriors chose their own missions and fates, whereas soldiers took orders. Problem was she now had two hierarchies to serve. As the alpha female of their pack, she, too, was a warrior . . . and her pack status was supposed to supersede any military rank any day, according to supernatural law. Blah, blah, blah.
Yeah, so what, she still worked for the brass and he was his own loose cannon leading a local pack and the frickin' North American clan. She doubted they'd see Hunter's point in a military court while being court-martialed for literally getting waylaid while on an important mission to find vials of missing biohazardous materials. Oh, yeah, that would go over big. Like trying to argue with the feds about taxes-losing proposition.
Remembering the philosophical debate made Sasha grind her teeth as she trudged in the snow and tried not to think of Hunter's deliciously naked form hidden by the shadows. His silver and amber amulet was probably stunning against his rock- solid chest, too-but she was not going there.
To her way of thinking, some things were a matter of personal ethics; as a soldier, she had a job to do first and foremost. There was no time to be self- indulgent. The military didn't give a rat's ass about things like phases of the moon, natural ebbs and flows of Shadow Wolf menses, thermo-combustion properties within one's bloodstream, or the acute pain involved in repressing a howl. She wasn't even supposed to exist. As far as the brass knew, she didn't-well, not as a Shadow Wolf, anyway. She and the other members of her squad had been a laboratory mistake, and in order to not be added to the most wanted and hunted target list, she had to maintain her human presence at all times.
"Sasha, you have to stop running with all that gear on," Hunter called out, nearer to her than she'd wanted. "You'll drop from heat exhaustion holding back your wolf and pressing on like this bundled in layers under a full moon. It's dangerous!"
"Go to hell!" Had he any idea how much politicking had gone into her and Doc Holland convincing the generals from Special Ops Comm that she needed her own bud get, her own Special Forces Paranormal Team, and to keep her so- called informants, like him, off radar?
"I'm not stripping out here or changing!"
"Then slow your pace and walk it off."
"Fine. Are you coming with me, then, or not?"
Sasha slowed her pace to a trot, breathing hard. Cold air knifed her lungs and she hated that Hunter was right; she was burning up. Acute pain made her fight against a whimper. She could tell that Hunter was undecided. He claimed he was going to make camp and needed to eat, but yet he was following her, torn. That was the problem, they were both torn. But she had to remember what was at stake: lives. Human lives. She should have taken the meds Doc had developed, but doing so blinded her to so much of the preternatural world that she needed to see. One week clean and she could see Fae auras. Two weeks clean and she'd been able to see the subtle mesh of scales beneath the skins of those who hailed from the Order of the Dragon. Phantoms announced themselves to her nervous system now even before she saw them, bristling the hairs on the back of her neck. Without meds muddying her perception, she could scent other Were- beings, especially other wolves, a half mile away. And Vampires made her snarl while still vapor. Meds might have made her survive the heat with less duress, but they definitely wouldn't make her job in New Orleans any easier.
Bottom line was, she had to focus-had to collect her squad members Fisher and Woods from the Canadian border, and then double back to the big shindig in New Orleans, regardless of Hunter's beef with the Werewolf clans or Shogun, the alpha southeast Asian pack leader.
As it was, HQ didn't even know that Fisher and Woods had made it out of Afghanistan alive. Only Doc knew the truth. Flashes of Rod's Werewolf infection going full- blown entered her mind and she briefly closed her eyes as she recalled his death at the barrel of her gun. Captain Rod Butler was more than a fellow soldier-he'd been her closest friend, like a blood brother. The image of dropping her mentor would always haunt her.
Hunter clearly didn't get it. There were also hundreds of decisions to address, like whether or not it was safer to keep Fisher and Woods on the books as dead or let it be known that these two guys with a little natural wolf in their DNA posed no threat to people.
Annoyed that Hunter had neither answered her nor sounded like he was following her, she began to call out to him again, causing her voice to bounce off naked trees and frozen earth.
"My guys have been shifted around the damned globe, and it's been nearly a month since I could shake the brass at the base and get a free pass to handle things my way. Now I'm supposed to show up late and-"
"The time lapse did them good," a low, even voice said, standing close enough to her that she could feel his breath. "They needed time to learn what they were, just like you did. My pack brothers have been educating them to the ways of the Shadow Wolf."
"Oh, great. Just fine, Kung Fu," she said, now picking up her pace to a panting jog. "So they'll really be clued in to my so- called condition. Well, ya know what? You're really pissing me off! Maybe I don't want my guys to know all of that. Haven't you ever heard of things being on a need-to-know basis?"
"They won't be able to scent it, only other Shadow Wolves. They're just familiars."
"And knowing that your men will know makes me feel better, how?" Sasha began running faster, not sure of the direction but needing to move.
"They know you're my mate. Period. What occurs between a life- mated pair is natural. Known. No shame." His voice had slipped out of the shadows at her side along with a wisp of warm breath against her ear before she'd veered off from the sensation. "There is nothing more for them to know."
"We have been over this already, Hunter! I told you I wasn't ready for the life- mate commitment. We're lovers, true, pack mates, but-"
"Decide under the moon. Making love to me when you need to isn't a sign of weakness or a criminal offense; nor is being my mate. Let the pack, or even the clan, assume what they will. They don't have to know what parameters define our so- called relationship. It is unimportant, as long as you and I know the truth. Period."
"What!" She stopped running and folded her arms over her chest. "That is such a crock. It's about respect. When I meet a new clan, I require that-that's what's period, mister. I'm not going down to New Orleans weak and waltzing into an international diplomats' meeting under the whispers of foul rumors and-"
"Why would your body following the natural rhythms of ancient Shadow cycles and also having a mate challenge your respect? Now I'm confused."
She turned, following his voice as he circled her. "Because it does-don't try to cloud the issue."
"How? You are trying to layer Western patriarchal concepts about female weaknesses over a culture that does not understand that. A strong she- Shadow is just that-a strong she- Shadow. Her being in heat only makes her stronger, more desirable . . . it doesn't impact her authority. You're my pack alpha, Sasha-even if you have yet to commit to being my life mate. And while I would hate to see you fight for dominance at the clan level to take a lead role as North American clan she- alpha, I have no doubts that you would prevail. I admire that." He paused and she could hear the strain in his voice as it echoed through the trees and she tried to follow it, her ears keen.
Suddenly his voice exited the shadows on what felt like a sonic boom, containing so much force and passion that it gave her a start. "The International Federation of Shadow Clans, even the Werewolf Clans, view a she- alpha in phase with much awe and respect-and screw the flaky Fae Parliament or the lesser voting blocs coming from the Mythics and phantom feudal lords! And you know we don't give a damn about the Vampire Cartel. How can I make you understand?"
Sasha closed her eyes and counted to ten as her voice dropped to a disgusted mutter. "Oh, my God . . . I cannot believe I'm standing out here in the damned forest arguing philosophy with a male wolf."
A low growl of discontent made her open her eyes. "I do not believe this conversation, either, Sasha. It makes no sense-especially when the moon is full."
"You think I'm enjoying this?" she shouted, suddenly defensive and not sure why. "I didn't ask for this, okay? And it's the first time I've felt so out of control-why now, huh, when I have everything else to contend with? And, so what, I was raised with a Western perspective where we're used to compartmentalizing things!" She was practically stuttering she was so upset and had begun to walk in a tight circle. "Why now? At the most inopportune time- damn!"
"Because of me," a deep voice murmured, stalking her as it resonated between the trees.
"Gimme a break." She leaned against a tree and closed her eyes, beginning to feel fatigue weigh on her.
"How many times do I have to tell you I am no liar?"
If she wasn't so frustrated she would have smiled at his peevish tone. "Yeah, yeah, yeah, all right," she muttered. "Your grandfather said this first time would happen because I had finally been around my own kind."
"Correct," a low rumble ricocheted from nearby. "You and I had been intimate, your senses heightened to male Shadow pheromone . . . now your body has adjusted to no longer only being with humans-each phase will be like this."
"Every time the moon goes full? You have got to be kidding me!"
"No . . . like Grandfather told you, just when it's your time . . . and I've taken herbal precautions, as always, so you don't have to worry about a pregnancy before you're ready."
"Glad this shit only happens once a quarter, then," she volleyed back, and was met with eerie silence.
Sasha pushed off the tree and strained to listen for Hunter, and then let out a hard sigh. "All right, I'm sorry-I didn't mean it like that . . . about you or kids. I just hate being out of control, okay?"
Silence met her. Now she had to deal with a wounded wolf, too? Oh, puh-leease! The absolute insanity of being in this predicament made her finally throw her head back and howl.
"You think you're the only one who hates being out of control?" a low, tense voice said behind her.
She glanced over her shoulder and then turned slowly. The most beautiful jet- black specimen had stepped out of the shadows, eyes blazing deep golden fire. He was absolutely breathtaking and stood no less than three feet at the shoulders. A silver chain around his neck dangled with a large hunk of etched amber that matched the one she also wore. All she could do was watch the sinew knead beneath his glossy coat as the moon shone blue- black against him. And then, just as suddenly as he'd appeared to her, he was gone.
Why that made her frantic, she wasn't sure. Why just a glimpse of his wolf had coaxed out her own, she would never truly know. But her backpack hit the snow, and she stripped while running, almost laughing as her wolf broke free to hunt his in the shadows.
Their mission became fuzzy as the primal overtook her human mind. Yes, they had to find the black market sources of demon- infected Werewolf contagion. Yes, they still had to find out if remnants from Guilliaume and Dexter's rogue Shadow Wolf faction had made it out alive after that weasel Dexter did . . . needed to know the real role any Vampires played in all of this going forward. She never trusted the species. Needed to rendezvous with her guys that were operating in the shadows in a way that even her brass at NORAD didn't know about . . . but this thing that had her in its grip was so welded to her DNA that she couldn't have fought it if she'd tried-and she had really, really tried.
Hunter headed for a virgin carpet of snow, untouched powder along a lonely slope. Stars winked against midnight as though a thousand diamonds scattered on black velvet. Didn't she understand this was as much a part of who she was as the uniform she wore? More so, as it came from within. And in this form she was so beautiful . . . incredible silver coat that reflected slivers of the moon, just like her clear gray eyes.
Wanting to witness her hunting him, he gave her wide berth, circling her on the slope and hanging back, just so he could face her head-on. Intense joy filled his chest as she lowered her head, growled, and began to stalk him. Oh, yeah . . . do me.
Laughing inside, he tilted his head, released a playful yelp, and began running again, loving the chase. He knew what they had to do, knew what was at risk. Their job descriptions were the same-exterminate demon- infected Werewolves and any supernatural threat to humanity.
It was simply a matter of style that created differences between them. Anticipation knotted his stomach as he heard her gaining on him. For centuries his kind hunted according to the natural laws of the universe; she was led and directed by those with no innate understanding or respect of natural ebbs and flows. Perhaps one day she would see the wisdom of the elders, but to night he really didn't care if she did or not. As long as she kept chasing him . . . as long as her incredible body hunted his . . . as long as she became his mate and gave into an urge that was as basic as breathing, they could square up their differences in the morning.
The sudden absence of sound made him glance over his shoulder just in time to see Sasha go airborne. She collided against him with a thud; willingly her prey, he rolled over on his back and gave her his throat. The sport had gone out of resisting her. Glistening white teeth rested on his Adam's apple, pinning him down. He closed his eyes and released a mournful howl, his man- shape returning naked and shuddering beneath her she- wolf. He wanted her so badly, he didn't care if she got angry and bit him; he'd heal.
Unafraid, his fingers reveled in her thick, soft coat, soon sliding against heat- dampened skin as she shape- shifted right into his arms. The snow at his back began to melt the very second her hot body blanketed him and she took his mouth, coaxing a groan up his throat.
"Just once, like this, out here, tonight," he murmured, stuttering promises into her mouth as his hands traveled over her smooth backside. "Then we'll get back on mission. I swear-I just can't function like this."
The truth finally broke him as he lost his fingers in her thicket of brunette hair, cradling her skull. It was impossible to think, much less remain rational as she dragged her voluptuous five- foot- seven- inch frame up his body in a molten sweep. He was beyond pride. She was in heat. The moan she pulled out of him was damned near a howl.
Skin against skin was making him delirious. Steel- gray eyes pierced his as her silver and amber amulet grazed the similar ward he wore against his chest. His trembling Bite the Bullet 15 hands soon covered her breasts, his thumbs gently caressing her taut, caramel nipples. She winced with a soft moan, encouraging his fingers to tease her pebbled flesh all the more. Breaths growing shallower, he watched as a combination of agony and plea sure overtook her expression. Beyond articulating, his mind focused on one word: please.
She didn't answer him directly, but pulled his bottom lip between her teeth for a second before kissing him harder. He took that as a yes and nearly lost his mind.
Within an instant he'd flip- rolled her so quickly and with so much force that her body left a deep impression in the snow. Melting snow by the second from heat and friction, the slick sound of her, the puddle forming at her back, the sound of her voice, his, all of it echoing off the night, the trees, the very sky itself caused him to enter her on one hard lunge.
Creamy, café au lait skin filled his palms as her breasts pressed against his chest. Her voice fractured the night and his spine, contracting every muscle in his groin with her earthy wail. But it was her scent that had stolen his judgment, just like the feel of her tightening sheath dredged his sac, the all of her demanding recompense for denied release. It wasn't his fault, he'd tried all evening and she wouldn't hear of it-now she was breaking his back . . . and he loved it, loved her, couldn't stop if she'd shot him.
Every hot sweep of her silky hands over his ass caused a shudder, and he cried out when she clutched the halves of it to bring him against her even harder. There was no way to drag enough air into his lungs through his nose. He had to break the suffocating kiss or pass out with a hump in his back. But leaving her mouth, tearing his away from hers, was just as painful. All he could do was throw his head back and cry out her name to the understanding moon.
She released so hard that it felt like her spine might snap from the sudden arch. Her fingers couldn't hold enough of his broad back, nor could her thighs seem to anchor themselves around his waist tightly enough. She needed him inside her but the ache of each contraction that traveled up her canal to devour her womb put jags of his name in her mouth. Every exhale was timed with his deep return to her body. As she thrashed with plea sure, his name was soon broken cries sent forth into the relentless wind.
Tears stung her eyes, his thrusts making her crazy, while the full moon made her entire body wax anything but philosophical. She was still shuddering when he rolled them over with her belly cemented to his, his fingers caressing her back. His large hands sent warmth across her skin. Resting on his hard body was like laying against hot stone on a cool spring day.
Damp, temporarily sated, she could feel his heart slamming against hers through ribs, muscle, and skin. Her amulet was precariously tangled with his, just like their legs were. Both panting, she ran her fingers through his wild spill of hair.
"We need to pitch a tent . . . go back and recover the dropped weapons and supplies," he finally said, gasping. "Hunt down dinner."
She just nodded, hadn't yet caught her breath. He leaned up and suddenly kissed her, forcing her to look into his eyes as he held her face when he pulled back. His gaze was so furtive she thought the man was going to throw his head back and howl.
"I can build a fire, melt snow, make enough water for you to wash up in the morning . . . but with you in this condition, I'm gonna have to do this again tonight. Especially after we hunt. I'm just being honest."
Sasha simply closed her eyes and nodded again. Some things were just natural. The man was definitely no liar.
Excerpted from Bite The Bullet by L. A. Banks
Copyright © 2008 by L. A. Banks
Published in October 2008 by St Martin's Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.