Chapter 1

“They are being kept underground on the second level, below the carpark.”

“Check, it’s rigged with explosives,” Jake growled over the comms.

He was on the outskirts of Mueang Lop Buri, about two hours outside Bangkok, Thailand.

The building he was staring at from the street was an old converted warehouse. There was one car in the parking area and the businesses on either side were closed. About to do what they did best, the team was in position. He could feel his senses sharpen; his bear was ready to get in and get out.

Two metal doors seemed to be the only way in unless they climbed high to the windows near the roof. The backside of an old docking ramp sat against a thick metal door. Carter, the team leader, sat further up the river, ready to move to the dock and provide a quick exit when they had secured the packages. Just one more mission for the Bearclaw Team, rescuing shifters from the hands of the council. 

Jake ran his hand over his head. His bear was restless. The adrenaline was wearing thin and he was looking forward to the downtime. This was their fourth mission in a month that the congress had sent them on and he could feel the drain on his body, but when he had heard the name of one of the hostages he couldn’t say no. 

“You set Jake?” 

“Yep.”

“Alarms deactivated,” Liam’s voice settled in his ear.

“Go time,” Carter ordered.

They moved as one, creeping up to the front doors. Punching the first one open, six heavily armed bear shifters inched inside. They had studied the inside layout on the flight over and knew what to expect. They moved like ghosts down to the second floor.

Jake sniffed the air. He could smell them – the packages were in the building. He could feel the tension leave his shoulders; everything was going to plan.

Carter waved his fingers in the air as the team split, spreading out to find the humans.

Then came a loud bang, followed quickly by two more. Concrete crumbled, and dust, smoke and debris flared in the air, filling his nostrils. Shouts and gunfire erupted. It was over in minutes, the human guards neutralized. 

“Four packages secure,” Jake said, tapping his comms piece. He couldn’t help but grin at the tall, muscular frame that loomed at the cell entry door as he said, “My name’s Jake and I’m your air hostess for the day.” 

“Jake?!” the incredulous voice laughed. “Took you long enough.” The lion shifter and long-term friend smiled at him.

“Well, that will teach you to go on holiday.” Jake unlocked the door, checking the other shifters in the room. One by one he assured them they were safe and got them out of the cell.

“Follow me. We’re still not out of the woods yet.” Jake clapped his friend on the shoulder as he eased from the room.

Jake let the breeze wash over him as they sped down the river. All the shifters were safely aboard with only minor cuts and bruises. What the council wanted them for didn’t bear thinking about, but he was just glad that the council had been sloppy and that Mac had sent out an SOS. He rubbed a hand down his face, thankful they hadn’t faced any more guards and that the extraction had gone as planned.

Liam, his teammate, slapped him on the shoulder. “Another successful mission, mate.” 

“Yeah, they’re coming thick and fast at the moment. I’m looking forward to some downtime.” Jake grinned at him.

“Well, as long as you don’t holiday with Mac,” Carter teased from across the boat.

“Yeah, that lion has some of the worst luck. But he likes to live life to the full.” Jake looked over at the man in question, shaking his head as he saw he’d sidled up to a cute blonde wolf who had also been taken.

“Yeah, about that holiday,” Carter said as he moved over to join them. “The congress needs you on another mission.”

Jake wanted to roll his eyes. The congress seemed to forget that even alpha elites needed some downtime. He had joined Bearclaw Team less out of a sense of duty and more because he was an alpha elite and could use his skills without the looks from other shifters. 

“Yeah, but before you give me any grief, it’s a quick surveillance job back in New Zealand,” Carter added. 

Jake raised his eyebrow.

“That’s not our normal beat,” Liam queried. 

“Well, congress asked for us by name.” Carter shrugged his shoulders. “It should be a couple of days, but congress wants her watched while she’s at a conference in Wellington.”

“She?” Liam smiled. “Some get all the luck.”

“She’s a geneticist with an IQ off the charts. The news is that the council wants her brought in,” Carter informed them in a serious tone.

“That can’t be good,” Liam sighed. 

“Yeah, if she’s working with them as a geneticist, it doesn’t bear thinking about what that could mean. I’ve sent you the details via email. William will go as well,” Carter confirmed before getting up and moving back across the boat. Jake saluted him behind his back.

“Well, at least the job’s at home,” Liam said

Jake ran his hand through his hair as he watched Liam make his way back inside the boat.

He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and opened the email from Carter. Might as well find out where he was going. Planning was his watchword. The file opened to display a photo. His vision blurred and then came sharply back into focus. The photo was of a woman striding down a street, dwarfed by those around her and unaware that the lens had captured her. Her chestnut hair hung straight, glossy and thick. She had a slim, heart-shaped face and her big glasses did their best to hide her high cheekbones. The skin peeking out from her t-shirt hinted at some Polynesian blood in her family. 

On looking at the photo, his bear went nuts and he felt a shiver go up his spine. Mine! Mine! he could hear his bear chanting. That couldn’t be possible; alpha elites didn’t have mates, and that was the reality he had lived with his entire life. But his heart still sped up and his bear whined at him to move his ass.

“You work too hard, girl.”

Emma jumped, dropping the pencil in her hand onto the lab table. “Do I need to put a bell on you? You scared the bejesus out of me,” she said as she looked up into her best friend’s eyes.

“Nope, I brought dinner.” Marina held up her left hand, wiggling the familiar brown bag with the dragon on the front.

Emma looked down at her watch, which showed her it was seven pm. Damn, time had run away again.

“No, don’t worry, you didn’t forget to meet me for dinner. But after what you found last night, I knew you would get lost working on it so I thought you could do with some company,” Marina explained as she breezed into the lab. The scent of lemon and spicy chicken made Emma’s stomach rumble. Had she eaten lunch today? She couldn’t remember.

“You didn’t eat lunch, did you?” Marina asked, reading her mind.

“I did, I think.” Emma stuck her tongue out at her friend while she moved to the small bar fridge she kept next to her desk. She pulled a couple of bottles of cider from it. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Marina pull paper plates and utensils from the filing cabinet.

“What did you get?” Emma moved towards the bag.

“The usual, and there’s a tub of lemon ice cream in my handbag. Can you put it in the fridge?”

“What would I do without you?” Emma groaned 

“Gotten hungry and ordered a pizza delivery.” Marina smirked as she set a plate down in front of Emma.

“So why are you here? Aren’t you supposed to be on a date tonight?”

“No, that was Monday,” Marina replied, rolling her eyes jokingly.

“And…” Emma paused with her fork to her mouth.

“What?”

“You know I live vicariously through your sex life.” 

“Emma, you work too hard. Maybe you need to get your own boyfriend, or at least get laid. All work and no play makes for a dull girl,” Marina said, wiggling her eyebrows at her.

“Yeah, that’s not happening, not when I’m so close. This close.” Emma pushed her fingers together until the gap in between was miniscule before leaning forward towards Marina and whispering, “I think I have isolated the blood enzyme.”

“Oh my, that’s so exciting!” Marina exclaimed loudly.

“Shh!” Emma urged as she looked around the vacant lab.

“Oh, no one’s here, Emma. No one comes into your lab without your approval.”

“Except for you.” 

Marina gestured to the food with a smile before saying, “Is your paranoia acting up again?”

“Hey, I told you that in confidence and I stand by it. Someone was following me,” Emma growled at her.

A clatter of objects dropping to the floor startled both women. Marina’s eyes widening at Emma. “Is someone out there?” Marina whispered.

Emma moved to the end of the lab and through the open doorway that led out to the corridor. The vision of Mrs. Bates bending over to pick up files from the floor met her.

“Oh, Emma, I’m glad to catch you. I was rushing,” she said apologetically, looking at the mess of paper strewn at her feet. 

“Here, let me help you.” Emma bent down to help collect the paperwork that had scattered across the corridor. 

“I thought you might have left to pack.”

“Pack?” Emma asked, looking at the woman. 

“The conference. Your flight is tonight, dear.” 

“I made sure she packed yesterday, Mrs. Bates,” Marina piped up from the doorway.

“Oh, Marina! What are you two up to?”

“Just having a quick dinner before I drive her to the airport.”

“You’re a good friend, Marina.” Mrs. Bates smiled at her before she pulled a sheet of paper out of her bundle. “Emma, I wanted to catch you to let you know that there has been a change to the hotel you’re staying at.” She handed over the paper with the details of the booking. 

Marina hung over Emma’s shoulder, a whistle leaving her mouth. “Nice one, Mrs. Bates!”

“There was a problem with the other one and this just seemed so much easier.” Mrs. Bates shrugged and then looked at her watch, letting out a little gasp. “I’ll be late if I don’t get going now, so if you’ll excuse me.”

Emma watched as the woman high-tailed it down the corridor. When she was sure Mrs. Bates was out of earshot, she turned to Marina. “Do you think she heard?” 

“Nope, but you’ve forgotten about the conference!” Marina snickered.

“At least the damn thing is good cover to get the information from Dr. Knock. The rest I can take or leave.”

“Well you get all the luck. Plebs like us don’t get to stay in five-star accommodation!”

“What?” Emma looked down at the sheet of paper in her hand. Mrs. Bates had booked her into the very opulent Museum Hotel, directly across from the conference.

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Copyright © 2021 by Catrina Maddox

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