The dimly lit corridor was empty as Nik made his way toward the server room. He flicked off the safety on his gun then glanced over his shoulder to confirm that Stevens and Novak were actually doing what they’d been told for once. At their nervous nods, he faced forward again, reaching for the door handle.
His shift was about to end, just forty minutes until he could shuck his gun belt and go find Masha. Take me out on a real date, she’d said last night as they’d lain on his bed, sweaty and breathing hard after the most spectacular sex he’d ever experienced. He’d have promised her anything right then: a date, a dozen dates, his heart and soul—so he’d kissed her and later made dinner reservations for tonight.
“On three, I’ll open the door. Novak, you cover Stevens while he enters.” He kept his voice at a murmur, not wanting to spook the intruder who’d tripped the silent alarm.
How he’d gotten past the other security measures—an armed guard and an eight-digit keypad—was a question Nik would be asking as soon as the asshole was shackled to a chair. The guy had to be pretty stupid. Like he was going to get away with breaking into the room where Maxwell kept all the Guard’s backups?
The hum of the cooling vents drowned out any sounds coming from the room beyond, and Nik could barely detect the scent of something living over the musty smell of dust. This house wasn’t one of the luxurious mansions Maxwell liked to rent. They’d vacated one of those just days ago after the report had come in that the Shifter Assembly of North America had captured one of their people. The hyena was a nasty piece of work, and Nik wasn’t sad to see him gone, but he’d been taken alive, which meant he could be questioned. He could be turned. So Maxwell wasn’t taking any chances with this new intruder. Three to one might have seemed like overkill, but they couldn’t let him slip through their fingers. Not if he had answers to give.
With a sharp push, he threw open the door, stepping to the side in the same movement to hide from a potential attack. Novak, overeager monkey that he was, barreled right past him, his gun raised to a point where he was sure to clock himself in the eye if he actually fired his weapon. He clearly needed more hours at the shooting range. Stevens covered for him, though, staying back.
Novak’s voice sounded from inside the room, “Oh fuck, Nik. I mean, sir.”
Something about his tone had Nik moving, even though he hadn’t received the all-clear from his trainee. He stepped over the threshold, gun ready, and swept the room for the intruder. Here, the scent of another living creature that had barely filtered through to the corridor became stronger, more pronounced. His body reacted to it before his mind caught up. And then he saw her.
Masha was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the server room, her computer in her lap and her palms up. Novak pointed his gun at her. Stevens was hot on Nik’s heels, and now the two of them were aiming at his—his what? Girlfriend? He thought he might be sick as the truth rolled over him like a tidal wave. She had no reason to be there. Which meant… Fuck.
The defiant look in her eyes faltered when he barked the order. “Cuff her.”
“Nik, wait,” she called, but he turned from her, putting away his gun. There was a scuffle, something crashed, and Novak yelled at her to get back down. Nik flinched but kept going. A blow connected, then a soft groan nearly ripped him in two.
A weight settled on him, the crushing realization that he’d been fooled, that every good thing that had happened in the past two months had been a lie.
“Nik!” she gasped, then yelped in pain.
He did not turn back.
Entering the living room, Nik was relatively sure his face was blank. Hard to tell since he’d spent the past hour trying to get his emotions under control, punching a bag in the gym—without gloves—until he’d skinned his knuckles and sweat poured off him. He’d had a cold shower to cool down and changed his clothes, all the while breathing through his mouth and keeping the windows open, though the night temperatures had dropped below freezing. But Masha’s scent lingered. He’d sat on his bed, and a cloud of it rose around him like a seductive, deceptive embrace.
He’d chucked her pillow through the window, startling another young guard into shifting. At the gangly elk’s confused stare, Nik had cursed and yelled an order to burn that fucking pillow. Clearly not his finest moment.
He was better now. A fresh shirt that only smelled of his detergent, a gun strapped in his shoulder harness, a prayer that Maxwell wasn’t in the mood to make a spectacle out of her. He could face his lover and be as professional as his reputation claimed he was.
But one look at Masha, and he realized his poker face would do him no good at all. She was tied to a chair in the middle of the room, her head hanging forward so wisps of her short black hair obscured her face. The sharp scent of her fear hit him hard, and her labored breaths told him she was in bad shape. What scared him the most was the plastic tarp that covered the dusty wooden floor and the carpet. A tarp meant to catch any bodily fluids that were released during the…questioning, and possibly to wrap up the remains after his boss had extracted all the information he needed.
Nik had his gun out before he knew what he was doing. The two lieutenants who stood guard by the door advanced, going for their own weapons, so Nik forced himself to relax, letting his hands drop. But he didn’t holster his gun. Then he focused all his attention on his boss, even though his gaze was drawn to Masha.
“Thank you for joining us,” Reid Maxwell said, his voice mock-polite. “I’m sorry we started without you.”
“What’s going on?”
At the sound of his voice, Masha lifted her head, and Nik couldn’t help the curse that slipped out of his mouth. Her face was a ruin, blood dribbling from her lip, and one eye already swelling shut. From the way she grimaced with every shallow breath, her ribs were broken or at least bruised. He moved toward her; he couldn’t even process what he was doing. They questioned suspects, yes, but not like this. Never—
“Uh-uh, Nicky.” Maxwell’s soft admonishment stopped him dead. “I can’t let you at her just yet. You think you’re angry now? You want to hurt her for betraying your trust? Wait until you hear who our little friend really is.”
Hurt her? Maxwell’s words refused to pierce Nik’s shock. He thought Nik wanted to hurt her even more? God, yes, he wanted to shake her, ask what the hell she’d been thinking, breaking into a restricted room, but she was defenseless, unarmed. A woman. If he hit her with enough force, he could… Bile rose in his throat, and he wondered, stupidly, whether the tarp would also serve to protect the floor from his vomit.
Novak, his eyes round with apprehension, stepped closer to Nik, offering a thin file. Nik reached out to take it, anything to keep his mind from imagining how Masha got those bruises. Which of them had hurt her? He’d kill them, he’d—
The black-and-white photo inside the file was of Masha, a candid shot of her in the street, her face thoughtful as she studied her phone. Her hair was longer, a silky mass that fell around her shoulders, and black-framed glasses perched on her nose. But the clothes made the biggest difference. The Masha on the photo wore a fitted dress that even Nik recognized as elegant, a fancy trench coat and a handbag that probably cost more than his monthly salary. And heels. Sleek high heels that sent an involuntary curl of lust into his gut. But it wasn’t her outfit that boiled his blood. It was the building behind her: a glass-paneled wall of a corporate high-rise in downtown Manhattan that he knew too well from hours of surveillance that he’d done on the place.
“What’s this?” he choked out, turning to Masha.
This Masha, the short-haired tomboy who’d wormed her way into his bed, spat blood onto the tarp. Nik saw how much it cost her to lift her head, to look him in the eyes.
“This right here is Claire Thibault,” Maxwell said, stepping over the spit and placing a hand on the nape of her neck.
She flinched at the gesture, just slightly, but enough for Nik to know it was his boss who’d inflicted the injuries, not one of the other lieutenants.
“She can’t be.”
“You’d think Thibault would take better care of his little heir, wouldn’t you? Fucking cowards, sending a woman to do their job.” Maxwell’s voice was deceptively light as he cupped Masha’s face and lifted her chin. “But the family resemblance is there. She even has the birthmark.”
Nobody had ever seen the heiress of the largest North American shifter clan. Protected and kept hidden in their Canadian stronghold, that was the word on the streets concerning Claire Thibault. People joked about her—was she so ugly Thibault hid her from the world? Pregnant and busy making an army of little bears?
Bears. The thought clicked into place, a missing puzzle piece. Masha had claimed she was a half-blood brown bear, and from her name, he’d assumed she had Russian roots like him. As a half-blood, her shifts didn’t come easily, she’d said, explaining her reluctance to wear her animal form. But if it was true, if she was really Claire Thibault, her other form was a black bear. Fuck. The betrayal stung. The scents were too close to distinguish, so the ruse had worked perfectly. Everything about her had been calculated to make him trust her, like her.
And the birthmark? Nik’s heart sank even lower. How could he have missed it? The identifying mark of all Thibault shifters, a stamp of their pure blood, of their superiority.
“You can see why I was worried to find someone breaking into our server room.” Maxwell dropped her chin and wiped the blood off his fingers.
“You knew who she was before you sent us in?” His boss was a sadist but he usually reserved this kind of subterfuge for his enemies, not his highest-ranking officers. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Nik rubbed his hand through his hair. “Fuck, Reid, how did you even find out?”
Maxwell snorted. “It was too easy. I should have thought of flipping one of the Council members years ago. A threat here, a fat check there, and voilà, one Councilwoman all too ready to rat out this little mole.” He grinned, the smile reminding Nik of days when their world had been a lot less bleak and angry. “Did I go too far with the animal metaphors? Never mind. All that matters is that we have one very important guest here.” He waved his gun in Masha’s—Claire’s—direction.
Then he stepped closer and backhanded her. The chair toppled over with the force of the blow. Masha’s head whipped back, droplets of blood splattering the tarp, and Nik snarled, prickles of heat all over his skin announcing he was about to shift.
He felt more than saw the lieutenants close in as Maxwell turned on him.
“What, Nik?” he snapped. “You don’t want to see her hurt? What did you expect, that I’d let her go?” Leaning in close, he murmured, “Do you want me to look weak?”
Panic rising in his chest, Nik had to force his jaw to unclench. “No, sir. But she won’t be worth much as a hostage if she’s dead.”
Maxwell cocked his head to the side. “See, you’re saying the right things. Yes, Thibault would pay more if I could convince him that his precious princess hasn’t been hurt. But you know we need information. And if it were anyone else, you’d be the first to agree. You’re my best interrogator! Yet here you are…” He drew in a deep breath, and Nik fought not to step back. “…smelling of fear. You’re shaking, Nicky. So tell me. What are you hiding?”
A hundred answers flitted through Nik’s mind, none convincing enough for Maxwell to drop this line of questioning. The worst that could happen… Oh, who was he kidding? The worst was already happening right in front of him.
“I should have worked out who she was.” The truth was all he could give his boss. The man he’d once thought was his closest friend. “I’m sorry.”
“So why are you afraid?” Maxwell’s amber eyes burned holes into him. “Don’t you want to see her punished? She fooled you. Fucked you. So she could run back to Daddy and tell him all about it.”
Nik’s stomach roiled at the thought, and he shook his head, half to say no, he didn’t want her punished anymore, and half to deny that this was what their relationship could be boiled down to.
Maxwell clicked his tongue. “You’re growing soft on me. I need you sharp, Nicky, if we’re going to win this war.” He turned back to Masha, who was still lying on the floor, and gave her a casual kick in the ribs that had her whimpering. Then he waved his free hand at Novak and Stevens. “Pick her up.”
The younglings scrambled forward, feet slipping on the tarp, and heaved Masha’s chair upright. Then they almost ran back to the corner of the room, eyes darting between Nik and Masha, as if they were hoping for him to tell them what to do. So he jerked his head toward the door. There was no need for them to witness this.
Maxwell watched with narrowed eyes as Nik’s youngest trainees left and only the two lieutenants remained. Bach and Moers each took one corner of the room. The three men stared at him, but he couldn’t move. Couldn’t think past the crushing blow that had shattered all hopes he’d had for his future, for their future. He couldn’t look at the mess that had been his lover’s beautiful face.
Nik didn’t step closer to Masha, and Maxwell lifted his arms. “What are you waiting for? We need answers.”
Masha’s dark eyes met his, and he knew he was screwed. He would never hit her. He was sick to his stomach with guilt from having left her alone with these people. The irony didn’t escape him—he was usually an eager member of ‘these people’. So many times, he had questioned men and gotten answers. He’d always been good at getting answers. But now, there was only one answer he could give his boss.