Saturday, September 30, 2017

Saturday's Series Spotlight: THIRDS by Charlie Cochet Part 1

THIRDS exists to uphold the law for Humans and Therians without prejudice.

During the Vietnam War, biological warfare spread the Melanoe virus, infecting millions worldwide and changing the course of human history forever. The vaccine, Eppione.8, created using strains from animals immune to the virus, activated a dormant mutation within the virus that altered human DNA and gave birth to a new species: Therians.

In an attempt to restore social order, the US government put new regulations and laws into place, along with a Therian branch of government. In 1990, Human and Therian legislators launched the Therian Human Intelligence, Recon, Defense Squadron aka the THIRDS, an elite, military-funded agency comprised of an equal number of Human and Therian agents .

But THIRDS agents are more than a team—they’re a family through thick and thin, and along the way, some find true love. While every day brings dangers and challenges, one thing will never change: standing up for what you believe in and protecting the people you love is never optional .

Hell & High Water #1
When homicide detective Dexter J. Daley’s testimony helps send his partner away for murder, the consequences—and the media frenzy—aren’t far behind. He soon finds himself sans boyfriend, sans friends, and, after an unpleasant encounter in a parking garage after the trial, he’s lucky he doesn’t find himself sans teeth. Dex fears he’ll get transferred from the Human Police Force’s Sixth Precinct, or worse, get dismissed. Instead, his adoptive father—a sergeant at the Therian-Human Intelligence Recon Defense Squadron otherwise known as the THIRDS—pulls a few strings, and Dex gets recruited as a Defense Agent.

Dex is determined to get his life back on track and eager to get started in his new job. But his first meeting with Team Leader Sloane Brodie, who also happens to be his new jaguar Therian partner, turns disastrous. When the team is called to investigate the murders of three HumaniTherian activists, it soon becomes clear to Dex that getting his partner and the rest of the tightknit team to accept him will be a lot harder than catching the killer—and every bit as dangerous.

Blood & Thunder #2
When a series of bombs go off in a Therian youth center, injuring members of THIRDS Team Destructive Delta, and causing a rift between agents Dexter J. Daley and Sloane Brodie, peace seems unattainable. Especially when a new and frightening group, the Order of Adrasteia, appears to always be a step ahead. With panic and intolerance spreading and streets becoming littered with the Order’s propaganda, hostility between Humans and Therians grows daily. Dex and Sloane, along with the rest of the team, are determined to take down the Order and restore peace, not to mention settle a personal score. But the deeper the team investigates the bombings, the more they believe there’s a more sinister motive than a desire to shed blood and spread chaos.

Discovering the frightful truth behind the Order’s intent forces Sloane to confront secrets from a past he thought he’d left behind for good, a past that could not only destroy him and his career, but also the reputation of the organization that made him all he is today. Now more than ever, Dex and Sloane need each other, and, along with trust, the strength of their bond will mean the difference between justice and all-out war.

Rack & Ruin #3
New York City’s streets are more dangerous than ever with the leaderless Order of Adrasteia and the Ikelos Coalition, a newly emerged Therian group, at war. Innocent civilians are caught in the crossfire and although the THIRDS round up more and more members of the Order in the hopes of keeping the volatile group from reorganizing, the members of the Coalition continue to escape and wreak havoc in the name of vigilante justice.

Worse yet, someone inside the THIRDS has been feeding the Coalition information. It’s up to Destructive Delta to draw out the mole and put an end to the war before anyone else gets hurt. But to get the job done, the team will have to work through the aftereffects of the Therian Youth Center bombing. A skirmish with Coalition members leads Agent Dexter J. Daley to a shocking discovery and suddenly it becomes clear that the random violence isn’t so random. There’s more going on than Dex and Sloane originally believed, and their fiery partnership is put to the test. As the case takes an explosive turn, Dex and Sloane are in danger of losing more than their relationship.

Rise & Fall #4
After an attack by the Coalition leaves THIRDS Team Leader Sloane Brodie critically injured, agent Dexter J. Daley swears to make Beck Hogan pay for what he’s done. But Dex’s plans for retribution are short-lived. With Ash still on leave with his own injuries, Sloane in the hospital, and Destructive Delta in the Coalition’s crosshairs, Lieutenant Sparks isn’t taking any chances. Dex’s team is pulled from the case, with the investigation handed to Team Leader Sebastian Hobbs. Dex refuses to stand by while another team goes after Hogan, and decides to put his old HPF detective skills to work to find Hogan before Theta Destructive, no matter the cost.

With a lengthy and painful recovery ahead of him, the last thing Sloane needs is his partner out scouring the city, especially when the lies—however well intentioned—begin to spiral out of control. Sloane is all too familiar with the desire to retaliate, but some things are more important, like the man who’s pledged to stand beside him. As Dex starts down a dark path, it’s up to Sloane to show him what’s at stake, and finally put a name to what’s in his heart.

Overall Review for Books #1-4:
I'm going to start by saying that some of my most trusted book lover BFFs have been singing the praises of Charlie Cochet's THIRDS for ages now, I've even had the first two in the series on my Kindle for nearly three years.  With it coming up on October, I decided it was a perfect time to give it a read for my paranormal posts.  Simply put: THIRDS is BRILLIANT!

When I started Hell & High Water I thought, hmmm Dex is interesting.  Talk about an understatement.  As a high school graduate of the Class of '91, I grew up with the music of the 80's, now I can't say they ever filled me with the "drop everything, sing, & dance" adrenaline rush that Dex brings to the team, but it made me smile every time he starts singing.  As an life-long devoted Star Wars geek, I really loved Sloane's closeted geek side that he shares with Dex.

As for the mystery side of the series, to say it had me on the edge of my seat from cover to cover may sound cliche but its no less true.  I won't touch on the plot as I don't do spoilers but let me say I could not put it down, when I finished one I immediately started the next. The characters just blend together so well, even when they are at odds, as in Dex and Ash, he is not a fan of Dex's fire or his love of everything 80s.  As for the romance, well lets just say that its off the charts and the chemistry between Dex and Sloane is what we all hope to find.

Dex, Sloane, and Destructive Delta is the paranormal equivalent of Abigail Roux's Ty, Zane, and Sidewinder.  Now, I am not saying its a copy, far from it!  The passion, anticipation, intrigue, excitement it sparks in me is similar to how I felt with the Cut & Run series.  THIRDS is most definitely an incredible, emotional roller coaster all on its own and I can't believe it took me so long to check it out because now I'm waiting on tender hooks waiting for more of Delta's adventures.


Hell & High Water #1
DURING THE Vietnam War, the use of lethal biological warfare led to the spread of the Melanoe virus, infecting millions worldwide and causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Although no country would take credit for releasing the virus, the world’s top scientists came together to create a cure. The vaccine known as Eppione.8 used strains from animals found to be immune to the virus, but one year after distribution, the course of human history was forever changed. A dormant mutation within the virus was activated by the vaccine, resulting in the altering of human DNA, and giving birth to a new species: Therians.

When the first infected Humans began changing in the late seventies, some didn’t survive. Their Human bodies were unprepared for the shift. Others died of cancer or infections due to weakened immune systems, while others vanished. Rumors ran rampant about governments trying to clean up their mess. When it was clear the “problem” wasn’t going to go away, the US government tried to regain control of the masses, creating the Therian database and quickly passing new laws that would force all surviving Therians to register and get marked, supposedly for their own safety and that of their fellow Human citizens.

The government had been treating the first wave of Therians as a side effect of the war, one that would eventually die out. Then in 1976, scientists discovered what was really happening. The first generation of purebred Therians had been born. The mutation had perfected itself. Solidified, inside these First Generations. Suddenly, there was an advanced new species and along with it, a whole new set of fears.

In an attempt to restore social order, the US government quickly put new regulations and laws into place, along with a Therian branch of government. In 1990, Human and Therian legislators launched the Therian Human Intelligence, Recon, Defense Squadron A.K.A the THIRDS, an elite, military-funded agency comprised of an equal number of Human and Therian agents and intended to uphold the law for all its citizens without prejudice.

As long as Humanity continued to repeat the mistakes of the past, organizations like the THIRDS would be needed to ensure Humanity had a future, even if they had to stumble along the way to get there.

Chapter 1
FUCK. MY. Life.

Dex closed his eyes, wishing this was nothing more than some freakishly vivid dream where any moment now, he would wake up and everything would go back to the way it was. Of course, when he opened his eyes, nothing changed. He splashed more water on his face in an effort to ease the tension, but it didn’t help. Not that he’d been expecting it to. After wiping the excess water from his face, he paused to glare at the man in the mirror. The guy staring back at him looked like shit, pale with reddish-brown circles under his eyes that made him look as if he’d either been crying or using crack. There were definitely a hell of a lot of sleepless nights involved. Dex didn’t like the guy in the mirror. What an asshole.

“Are they out there?” His voice came out rough, as if waking from sleep—deep or otherwise—had been out of his reach for some time.

A hand landed on his shoulder, offering a sympathetic squeeze. “Yes. Remember what we talked about? As soon as you’ve had enough, you walk away.”

Dex let out a snort. It was way too late to walk away. Had been about six months ago. He straightened and snatched a paper towel from the automated dispenser. It was like drying off with newspaper, the same newspapers that had his image plastered all over their pages. Images that had been run through some Photoshop douchebag filter to make him look like even more of a prick. He chucked the paper into the wastebasket and stood there, finding it difficult to face his lawyer.

“Hey, look at me.” Littman stepped up to him and patted his cheek. “You did the right thing.”

Dex looked up then, searching for something, anything that might help the pain go away even for a little while. “Then why do I feel like shit?”

“Because he was your friend, Dex.”

“Exactly. And I fucked him over. Some friend.” He went back to leaning over the sink, his fingers gripping the porcelain so tightly, his knuckles hurt. “Goddamn it!” That son of a bitch! What the hell had Walsh been thinking? Obviously he hadn’t been, or neither of them would be in this mess. Or worse, maybe Walsh had thought it through. Maybe he’d been so certain Dex would have his back that he thought “fuck it.”

Dex closed his eyes, trying to get the man’s face out of his mind, but he could still see it clearly. That face was going to haunt his dreams for a long time coming. The mixture of anger and pain when the verdict had been given—anger directed at Dex, and pain brought about by what he’d done—had been there for the world to see, especially Dex.

“No,” Littman insisted. “He fucked himself over. All you did was tell the truth.”

The truth. How could doing the right thing turn out so goddamn bad? Had it even been the right thing? It had seemed like it at the time. Now he wasn’t so sure. Regardless, he couldn’t hide out in the restroom all his life.

“Let’s get this over with.” A few deep breaths and he followed Littman out into the corridor. The moment he stepped foot out there, the locusts swarmed him, microphones buzzing, recorders and smartphones at the ready, flashes going off, cameras rolling, a litany of questions flying at him from every direction. It was as if he were underwater, hearing everyone outside the pool yelling and screaming as he sank to the bottom like a stone, no discernible words, only muffled sounds. Littman stepped up beside him, one hand behind Dex’s back in assurance, the other held up to the crowd in a vain attempt to bring order to chaos.

“Detective Daley will do his best to answer your questions, but one at a time, please!”

A tall, gray-haired man in an expensive suit pushed through his gathered comrades, ignoring their murmured grunts of displeasure, to place a microphone in front of Dex. A half a dozen more swiftly joined it.

“Detective Daley, what would you say to all the Humans who believe you betrayed your own kind?”

At least he’d been prepared for that one. Dex buttoned up his suit jacket, the gesture allowing him a few seconds to calm his nerves and collect his thoughts. Smoothing it down, he met the reporter’s gaze. “I joined the Human Police Force to make a difference, and sometimes that requires making tough calls. I chose to tell the truth. No one is above the law, and my job is to enforce it.”

A blonde woman in a tailored navy blue pantsuit swiftly jumped in. “Is it because your brother is Therian? Are you a LiberTherian Sympathizer?”

It was hardly the first time he’d been accused of such. Having a Therian brother was the sole reason the Human Police Force had taken longer than necessary to consider him when he’d applied ten years ago. If his father hadn’t been a respected detective on the force, Dex was certain he never would’ve been considered, much less hired. Knowing what they thought of his brother should have been enough to make him walk away, but it was those same close-minded individuals Dex had wanted to reach. That was why he’d joined the HPF, to continue making a difference from the inside, like his dad once had. It turned out to be a whole lot harder than he’d imagined, but that only succeeded in strengthening his resolve.

“My brother and I share the same beliefs when it comes to justice. Our fathers taught us to treat both Therians and Humans as equals. I may be liberal-minded, but my strong belief in justice for both species hardly makes me a sympathizer.”

An auburn-haired man with a shit-eating grin shoved his smartphone in Dex’s face, almost hitting him in the teeth. His expression told Dex he didn’t much care if he had. Dex calmly pulled back, his jaw muscles tightening. “Detective Daley, why haven’t you joined your father and brother over at the THIRDS? Is it because you didn’t qualify?”

Dex returned the asshole’s grin. “Whatever you’re paying your sources, it’s too much. I never applied to the THIRDS.”

“But you did go through their training.”

“I was offered the opportunity to take the three-week training course in the hopes I might reconsider becoming a candidate. I complied as a courtesy to my family, and I admit, a part of me wanted to know if I was up to the challenge.” And damn, had it been one hell of a challenge! Three weeks of intense physical training and skill-building exercises, rappelling, fast roping, room entry procedures, building searches, close quarter combat, and tactical weapons training. Dex had been pushed to his limits, and when he thought he couldn’t give any more, he was forced to reach deep down and give an additional 10 percent. It had been the most grueling, demanding, psychologically stressful three weeks of his life. Nothing he’d ever done had come close to what he’d been put through in those three weeks, not even the HPF training academy.

The THIRDS were the toughest sons of bitches around, and Dex had wanted to prove to himself that he could hack it. But join them? That was something else altogether.

“Did you pass?”

Dex couldn’t help his pride from showing. “Top of the class.”

“Will you be applying now?” another journalist asked.

“I intend to continue offering my services to the HPF.”

“What if they don’t want you? Do you think they’ve lost their trust in you, knowing you helped send a good man, one of their own brothers, to prison?”

And there it was.

Dex turned his head to whisper Littman’s name. His lawyer smiled broadly and held a hand up. “Thank you all for coming. I’m afraid that’s all Detective Daley has time for. Please respect him and his family during this difficult time.”

“What about Detective Walsh and his family? Have you spoken to them? How does his family feel about what you did?”

Dex waded through the toxic pool of newspersons, refusing to think about the hurtful and hateful phone calls, texts, and messages from Walsh’s family. People he’d once had barbecues with, whose Little League games he’d attended. He’d never wanted to bring them so much pain, to take away their son, husband, father. Being on the receiving end of their anger was the least Dex deserved.

“Detective Daley! Detective!”

He ignored the onslaught of questions, from what his boyfriend thought about the whole thing to whether his career with the HPF was unofficially over, and everything in between. He wasn’t going to think about any of that now. All he wanted was to get home to said boyfriend and maybe cry a little.

Dex walked as fast, but calmly, as he could, with Littman at his side, making a beeline for the north entrance of the Supreme Court Criminal Branch. Outside, the news teams tried to crowd him in, and officers did their best to control the growing mob. The railings on either side of the exit only proved to be a nuisance, corralling him as he tried to push his way through. The steps were blocked, so Dex grabbed Littman’s elbow and hurried him down the makeshift ramp to the sidewalk. Thank God they had a car waiting for them.

Dex tried to be nice about getting the journalists to step back so he could get into the backseat. When a couple of jerks tried to cram in, Dex was left with no choice. He grabbed their smartphones and tossed them into the crowd behind them.

“You’re going to pay for that!” one of them called out as he scrambled to retrieve his device.

“Bill me!” Dex climbed into the car and slammed the door behind him. The town car pulled away from the curb, and he slumped back against the pristine leather, letting out a long audible breath. Finally, it was over. For the time being anyway.

“You sure you don’t want to be dropped off at home?” Littman looked nearly as haggard as Dex felt.

“Nah, the parking garage is fine. I need to drop off the rental anyway.”

“You know I would’ve been happy to pick you up at your home and drop you off.”

“I know.” Dex stared out the window as they drove up Centre Street, made a left on White, and then drove down Lafayette. When they made a right onto Worth, the Starbucks on the corner had him pining for some frothy caffeine goodness. “I needed to drive around a while before court. Listen to some music, try to relax a little.” He’d made sure to rent a car with the darkest tinted windows on the lot and a slamming sound system. Music was probably the only thing that had kept him from going crazy through this whole ordeal, what with his boyfriend’s busy schedule. It would have been nice to have Lou there with him, but he understood the man couldn’t drop everything for him. They both had demanding careers and sometimes sacrifices had to be made. Still….

“I understand. You should lay low for a while until this blows over. There’s talk of that heiress—the one who’s been having a not-so-secret affair with her Therian personal trainer, being pregnant, and Daddy’s not taking it well. That should keep the vultures busy for a while. I suggest you take some vacation time, maybe surprise Lou with a nice little penthouse suite in the Bahamas or something.”

In no time, the car pulled up to the curb in front of the deli next to the parking garage, and Dex mustered up a smile, holding his hand out to his father’s old friend. “Thanks. I appreciate everything you’ve done for me.”

“You know I’m always here if you need me.” Littman took his hand in his and gave it a pat. “Dex?”


“He would have been proud of you.”

The thought brought a lump to his throat. “You think so?”

Littman nodded, the conviction in his words going a long way to assure Dex. “I knew your dad a long time. Believe me. He would have been proud. And so is Tony. He’s left me about ten messages asking about how you are. Your brother’s probably worried sick as well.”

Dex pulled his hand away to remove his smartphone from his pocket and chuckled at the fifteen missed calls from his family. He held it up. “You think?”

“Call your family, before Tony hunts you down.”

“I’ll give them both a call soon as I get in. Thanks.” After saying good-bye to Littman, Dex once again thanked him for helping him keep his sanity throughout all this and what was surely to come. Dex headed toward the rental in the parking garage. He wasn’t stupid enough to drive his precious baby to the courthouse. It was hard to lose the media in an Orange Pearl Dodge Challenger. If they weren’t in the city, he’d leave them eating his dust, but since he was in the city, it would make him a sitting duck.

As soon as he walked around to the rental’s driver’s side, he was doubly grateful he hadn’t brought his car, though he was no less pissed. Someone had slashed his back tire.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

He kicked the tire, as if doing so might magically repair it. Goddamn it, he should have let Littman drive him home. All he wanted was to get indoors, get something to eat, and vegetate on the couch. Thank God for auto clubs. He reached into his pocket for his phone when someone across the lot called out.

“Detective Daley!”

Instinctively, he looked up. A split second later the air rushed out of his lungs when something solid struck him between his shoulder blades. He stumbled forward, a blow to his thigh forcing him onto his hands and knees with a painful growl. Around him, three large Humans in black ski masks and black gloves crowded him. Damn it, where had they come from? Dex moved, intent on pushing himself to his feet when someone kicked him in the stomach, leaving him once again winded. He landed roughly on his side, holding onto his bruised ribs and stomach, his teeth gritted as he breathed heavily through his nose.

“You fucked up, Daley. You shouldn’t have testified against your partner.”

“Fuck you,” Dex spat out. Another kick confirmed mouthing off wasn’t appreciated. They obviously didn’t know him. With a groan, he leaned slightly to take in the sight of their neat attire. Maybe they did know him. “Who sent you?” He didn’t need to know. What’s more, he didn’t care. All he needed was enough time to figure out who he was up against.

“The Human race,” one of them snarled.

Dex let out a laugh. What an ass. It hadn’t taken him long to piece things together after noticing the gang’s black dress slacks and shiny black shoes. With a curse, he rolled forward to press his forehead against the asphalt. The only surprising part of this whole encounter was the fact it hadn’t come sooner. At least they weren’t going to kill him, just make him bleed a little. “Well, I got the message, so you can all go home now. You did your duty.” He received a blow to the arm with the shiny steel baton; most likely the same object they’d used to hit him in the back. Man, he was going to be sore tomorrow.

They dragged him to his feet, one holding on to each of his arms as the third came to stand before him. Dex closed his eyes and braced himself, his mind chastising him for being such a coward. The punch landed square across his jaw, snapping his head to one side and splitting his lip. Fuuuck, that hurt. He ran a tongue over his teeth to make sure nothing was loose. Nope, nothing there but the tangy taste of his own blood.

“Hey! HPF! Hands where I can see them!”

The Humans bolted and Dex’s knees buckled beneath him. Strong hands caught him, helping him stay on his feet. His back stung, his arm, thigh, and face throbbed from the blows, and his stomach reeled at the knowledge he’d done nothing.

“Daley, you okay?”

Dex recognized that voice. He looked up, puzzled to find fellow Homicide Detective Isaac Pearce holding him up, concern etched on his face.


Pearce helped him to the rental and propped him up against it, performing a quick assessment. Seeming confident Dex could stand, he surveyed the parking garage, but the perpetrators were long gone. His attention landed back on Dex. “You all right?”

“Yeah. Wish I could say the same about my suit.” Dex straightened, wincing at the sharp pain that shot through his body. “What are you doing here?”

“The usual summons, but my guy never showed. It was a nice day, so I figured I’d walk it. Glad I left when I did.”

“Yeah, me too.” Dex let out a small laugh then winced at the sharp sting it brought his lip. Tony was going to lose his shit over this.

“Any idea who they were?” Pearce asked worriedly.

Yep. “Nope.” Dex shook his head, wiping his hands on his slacks. “Just some pissed off Humans.” He had enough on his hands without bringing a whole new level of crap down on himself. “To be honest, right now, I just want to get home.”

“Don’t blame you.” Pearce motioned toward the slashed tire. “Need a lift?”

If he called the auto club now, Dex would have to wait for someone to come out—because he sure as hell didn’t have the strength or will to change the tire himself, wait for them to swap it out then drive the rental back to the lot. Or, he could accept Pearce’s offer and worry about the rental later.

“A lift would be greatly appreciated.”

“Great.” Pearce beamed at him. “I’m around the corner.”

With a murmured “Thanks,” Dex accompanied Pearce to his car, a silver Lexus that was more befitting a homicide detective. At least that’s what his old partner Walsh would have thought. The guy never did approve of Dex’s tastes. Come to think of it, Walsh was always making snide comments about what a “special snowflake” Dex was. He’d never paid much attention to the remarks, but in light of recent events, it was possible Walsh had always been a judgmental prick. Had Dex simply turned a blind eye to all of it? What if Dex had called him out on it sooner? Could they both have been spared all this?

“You okay?” Pearce asked again as soon as Dex was settled into the passenger seat beside him.

“Yeah, sorry. I’m still trying to wrap my head around all of this.”

“Why don’t you put on some music? Relax a bit. I’ll even let you choose the station.”

Dex gave a low whistle as he slipped on his seatbelt. “You’re going to regret giving me that kind of power.” He turned on the radio and navigated through the touchscreen to Retro Radio. Dex grinned broadly at Pearce, wiggling his eyebrows when Billy Ocean’s “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” came blaring through the speakers. Pearce stared at him as if he’d lost his mind and Dex laughed. “I told you, you’d regret it.”

With a chuckle, Pearce drove out of the parking garage. “Where to?”

“West Village, Barrow Street.”

Despite Bobby McFerrin advising Dex a few minutes later not to worry and be happy, Dex was finding it difficult. If it were only that easy, Bobby. If only.

The ride down Sixth Avenue was quiet, filled mostly with power ballads and electro pop from the era of neon spandex, mullets, and shoulder pads with a wingspan to rival that of a Boeing 747. Dex appreciated Pearce letting him zone out instead of trying to make idle conversation. It was odd, being in Pearce’s car with him. They’d never offered more than the usual office greetings despite both working homicide from the HPF’s Sixth Precinct. Then again, Pearce had retreated into himself after losing his brother over a year ago, and no one at the Sixth could blame him. Having a younger brother of his own, Dex could imagine how hard it must have been on the poor guy.

Traffic wasn’t too bad this time of day, slowing down mainly near Tribeca Park and a few pockets down Sixth Avenue. Less than ten minutes later, they were driving onto busy Bleecker Street. Maybe he could convince Lou to pick him up a burger and fries from Five Guys on the corner. It was dangerous, having that place so close to his house. They pulled up in front of Dex’s brownstone, and Pearce turned to him with a smile. “Well, here we are.”

“Thanks for not kicking me out of your car,” Dex said, shutting off the radio.

“I’ll admit I came close when Jefferson Starship came on, but then I saw you tapping your hand in time to the music, and you had this sappy smile on your face… I didn’t have the heart.” Dex gave a snort and leaned back in his seat, smiling when Pearce started laughing. “You are one weird guy.” Pearce’s smile faded, and he suddenly looked a little embarrassed. “Want to get a coffee sometime?”

“Sure.” Dex tried not to let the surprise show in his voice.

“I know we’ve never said more than a few words to each other, but you’re a cool guy, Daley.” His brows drew together in worry, making him appear older than he was. Dex wasn’t more than a couple years younger than Pearce, but their job didn’t exactly allow for aging gracefully. “Be careful. I’d hate—” Pearce’s voice broke and he cleared his throat. “I’d hate for you to get hurt over all this. My brother, Gabe, believed in what he was doing and look where it got him.”

Dex frowned, trying to drum up what he remembered from the incident. He remembered it had been especially hard on Pearce, not having access to the case. But since Gabe had been a THIRDS agent, the HPF had no jurisdiction. “I thought the guy involved had been a Human informant?”

Pearce shook his head. “He was an HPF informant, but he wasn’t Human. He was Therian. A kid.”

Shit. Pearce’s brother had been killed by a Therian informant and here he was, coming to rescue a guy who’d testified against his Human partner in favor of a young Therian punk. “So, why aren’t you kicking the shit out of me too?”

A deep frown came onto Pearce’s face. “If your partner was stupid enough to let his personal prejudice affect his judgment, he deserves what he got. The truth is I admire you. Not everyone would’ve had the balls to do what you did. What happened to Gabe… was different.” He sighed, his expression troubled. “I’m just saying to watch your back. There are a lot of zealots out there looking for any excuse to carry out their own justice and things have been getting worse since that second HumaniTherian was found dead a few months ago. Some of these Humans are out for blood.”

Pearce wasn’t wrong on that. Two HumaniTherian activists had been murdered in the last six months and the evidence was pointing toward a Therian perpetrator, which meant jurisdiction fell to the THIRDS. Although the organization was doing its best to reassure the public, a storm was brewing between Humans and Therians, especially if they didn’t catch whoever was behind it soon. Dex’s testimony against his partner couldn’t have come at a worse time.

“Thanks for the warning, Pearce.” Dex stepped out of the car and closed the door behind him, taking a step to the side to wave at Pearce as he drove off. As soon as the guy was gone, Dex let out a sigh of relief. He loved his quiet little treelined street. With a smile, he painfully climbed up the steps to his front door. Finally, he was home. He stuck the key into the lock, turned it, and pushed the door open, baffled when it went thump halfway. Christ, now what? Something heavy was wedged up against it. With a frustrated grunt, he forced it open and carefully stuck his head in, frowning when he saw the large open cardboard box filled with DVDs, CDs, and a host of other things that should have been in his living room. His initial thought went to burglary, except he’d never run into thieves who stopped to bubble wrap their stolen merchandise.


Dex locked the door behind him and wandered into the living room, his jaw all but hitting the floor at the near-empty state of it, along with the many cardboard boxes littered about in various stages of completeness. Something banged against the floor upstairs and Dex took the stairs two at a time.

“Babe?” Dex found his boyfriend of four years upstairs in their bedroom throwing shoes into empty boxes. “What’s going on?”

“I’m moving out.”

The words hit Dex like a punch to the gut, a feeling he was growing all too familiar with these days. “What?” He quickly maneuvered through the obstacle course of boxes and scattered manbags to take hold of his boyfriend’s arms, turning him to face him. “Sweetheart, stop for a second. Please, talk to me.” He went to cup Lou’s cheek, only to have Lou move his face away. Ouch. Double sucker punch. Tucking the rejection away for later, he focused on getting to the bottom of this. “Lou, please.”

“The nonstop phone calls, the reporters knocking on the door, the news reports on TV calling you a disgrace to your species. I can’t take it anymore, Dex.”

Guilt washed over him, and he released Lou. How many more casualties would there be as a result of his doing “the right thing”? “Give it some time. This will all blow over. What if we go somewhere far away from this, the two of us, huh?”

Lou shook his head and went back to packing. “I have a life to think about. I’ve already lost half a dozen clients. I can’t afford to lose any more.”

“This is New York, Lou. One thing you won’t run out of is parties to cater. It’s almost September, next thing you know it’ll be Halloween and you’ll be knee-deep in white chocolate ghosts and tombstone ice sculptures, telling your clients how throwing a party in a real graveyard is a bad idea.” When his lighthearted approach failed, Dex knew this was serious. Of course, to most people, the packed boxes would have been a dead giveaway, but Dex wasn’t most people. He refused to believe Lou would walk out on him when he needed him the most. “What about me? Aren’t I a part of your life?” Dex was taken aback when Lou rounded on him, anger flashing in his hazel eyes.

“You sent your partner to prison, Dex!”

Unbelievable. It wasn’t bad enough he was getting it from everyone else, now he was getting it at home too? Dex was growing mighty tired of being treated like a criminal. “I didn’t send him to prison. The evidence against him did. He shot an unarmed kid in the back and killed him for fuck’s sake! How am I the asshole in this?” He searched Lou’s eyes for any signs of the man who’d wake him up in the middle of the night simply to tell him how glad he was to be there with him.

“It wasn’t like you’d be able to bring the kid back. Not to mention he was a delinquent and a Therian!”

Dex’s anger turned into shock. “Whoa, what the hell, Lou? So that makes it okay? What about Cael? He’s a Therian. You’ve never had a problem with him.” At least Lou had the decency to look ashamed.

“He’s your family. I had no choice.”

This was all news to him. Dex loved Cael. He would never push his brother out for anyone. He’d been upfront about his Therian brother when he and Lou had first started dating. If his date couldn’t accept Cael, he couldn’t accept Dex. “Where is all this coming from? Since when do you have a problem with Therians?”

“Since one ruined my fucking life!” Lou chucked a pair of sneakers at one of the boxes with such force the box toppled over.

“Your life?” This conversation grew more astounding by the minute. Dex thrust a finger at himself. “Have you seen my face? I got the shit kicked out of me in the parking garage, thanks for noticing. If a fellow detective hadn’t come along, I’d probably be in the hospital right now. And you know what the most fucked up part of that is? They weren’t even street thugs. They were fucking cops!” Dex had known the moment he’d seen their attire and the telltale signs of an ankle holster on one of them. The bastards had probably been at the trial.

Blood & Thunder #2
Chapter 1
“YOU SURE this is the place?”

Dex shifted his entry weapon to one side and stepped up behind his brother at the surveillance console while the rest of the team double-checked their equipment at the other end of the BearCat. Cael tapped away at the keyboard, bringing up a grid of the area, satellite mapping, and a host of surveillance feeds from local businesses he’d undoubtedly “borrowed.”

“College Point, Queens, near the Canada Dry bottling plant. That’s what our source tells us.”

“Reliable?” Dex asked, receiving a curt nod.

“Hasn’t let us down yet.”

Hopefully this wouldn’t be the first. The last thing they needed was to waste more time with another dead end. Four months of reconnaissance and intel gathering from Unit Alpha’s Intel and Recon agents, and Defense agents finally had something useful to go on regarding the whereabouts of The Order of Adrasteia, though they still didn’t know how big the group was or how spread out they were.

Despite being Human perpetrators, which should have fallen to the jurisdiction of the Human Police Force, the threat was against Therian citizens, not to mention the Order had declared war against the THIRDS by executing a THIRDS agent. The online video of Agent Morelli’s death had gone viral and ended up being broadcast on television two days before Christmas. Dex could still hear the bastard’s voice in his head as if he’d watched the whole thing yesterday, the spiteful words dripping with venom.

In order to cure our city of its disease, we must dispose of its carriers, starting with the organization that promotes the sickness. We will unleash Hell upon these sinners, starting with the THIRDS.

Seconds later, the THIRDS organization went to Threat Level Red. They had to stop the Order before they had any more loss of life and before any more zealots jumped on the crazy train. Since then, the already tremulous relationship between Human and Therian citizens was growing more unstable by the day, which was exactly what the Order wanted.

The THIRDS had recruited volunteers to patrol the city, removing the Order’s hateful propaganda, but it was a futile endeavor. With every poster spouting “Humans 4 Dominance” or sporting the Adrasteia goddess symbol the THIRDS took down, three or four took its place. So many flyers littered the streets, they resembled the aftermath of a ticker tape parade. Everywhere Dex looked, the Order was leaving its bloodred mark, promising hellfire and chaos, refusing to give in unless they got their way, or the city burned, whichever came first. The media wasn’t helping any either. Turning on the TV, one would think a presidential election was going on, what with all the ludicrous accusations and childish attempts to discredit the opposing side.

In the middle of it all were the THIRDS. Since the Order had surfaced, the organization had been accused of everything from sitting on the fence (too cowardly to pick a side), to being traitors to their species (depending on the agent being accused), to being the source of evil itself, to being the only thing keeping this city from crumbling. No matter what they did, someone accused them of something—not working hard enough or fast enough or not giving enough of a shit. It would have driven Dex out of his mind ages ago if he let it get to him, which was why he didn’t. Most importantly, he wouldn’t allow it to get to his team.

Sloane strode up to him, addressing Cael as he handed Dex his ballistic helmet. “What do we know about the area?” Dex snatched the helmet from his partner with a groan.

“I hate this thing.”

“When a bullet hits your helmet instead of your skull, Rookie, you’ll love it.”

Damn. Can’t argue with that.

Cael didn’t bother hiding his amusement as he answered Sloane’s question. “Mostly industrial estates and construction firms. Fifteenth Avenue ends at the East River, though there’s a small dirt drive that heads into the sign and window factory’s parking lot—if you can call it that.” His expression sobered, his Therian pupils dilating in his silvery eyes. “But the immediate area surrounding it is residential, with Popps a couple of blocks away.”

“What’s Popps?” Dex asked. He wasn’t all that familiar with the area, and after months of running around the city, the neighborhoods were all starting to blend together.

“The Poppenhusen Institute. It’s a community center offering programs for kids and families.”

Ash joined them with his usual cheerful growl. “Great. Bastards know what they’re doing. The industrial sites offer plenty of cover, but the residential area makes it difficult to go in aggressive. Last thing we need is a stray bullet catching some poor kid.”

Sloane nodded his agreement before motioning to the console’s large flat screen. “Do we have an exact location?”

“Here.” Cael pointed to a small area near the edge of the river at the end of Fifteenth Avenue. The property consisted of two small buildings on a small expanse of dirt with a chain link fence going around the front and the East River around the back. “It’s listed as IGD Construction Supply Services, but it’s a front. At least now it is. I conducted a search for businesses and individuals who’ve had contracts with them and turned up plenty of hits, but they were all jobs completed over a year ago, with nothing in the works since. I called from one of our secure lines back at Recon, pretending to be a client and the ‘secretary’ said the company was in the middle of a restructure and not taking on any new projects.”


“A piss-poor security network, consumer-grade crap. There’s a camera on the north side, another on the south, and one on this house here, which acts as the office. I can have the feed looped faster than Dex can sing the chorus to Alice Cooper’s Poison.”

Dex opened his mouth, and Sloane clamped a gloved hand over it. “No. Cael, don’t encourage him. Ash, entry.”

“I don’t like this.” Ash studied the screen, his beefy arms folded over his tac vest. “We’re talking confined quarters. If they’re in there, they’ve got to be prepared. The second structure is our primary target and where they’ll most likely be. It has no windows, two small entrances on the side, and three vehicle entrances at the front. The good news, it’s aluminum, so it’ll be easy to blow that shit sky high.” Ash’s frown deepened.

“Either way, 110th Street is out of the question. They’ll see us coming. I say we have three teams. Team one comes up Fifteenth Avenue, past the bottling plant, to there,” he said, pointing to a medium-sized, tan brick house on the screen. “They can use that entryway. The wooden fence and the house will cover them. They go around the back, cut through the chain link fence, and end up in the back of IGD’s yard. They can sneak up on them from behind, take out whoever’s in this office, and then come in strong from the front, especially since the windows have burglar bars so our perps won’t be able to get out that way. Anyone comes at the team, they can throw the bastards in the river, but that’s just my opinion.

“Team two takes the same route, comes up behind the primary target, breaches the perimeter using this door here, giving you room to maneuver should the bastards come through the second and third entrance, or the side doors. And speaking of, if they do, we’ll have the third team ready across the street having approached through the back of the sign and window factory. There’s enough construction equipment and debris to conceal them.”

With a curt nod, Sloane gave Ash a firm pat on the shoulder. “Good work. You heard him, team. Cael, you’re our eyes. Keep us informed of all activity.”

“Copy that.” Cael turned back to the console while Sloane addressed the rest of the team.

“Letty, Rosa, you’re team one. You take the office. Calvin, Hobbs, you’re team two. Go around the back of the primary target, take out the door, and smoke ’em out.”

Calvin gave him a curt nod and walked off with Hobbs close behind to prepare the necessary explosives and nonlethals.

“Ash, Dex, you’re with me. We’re coming in behind the sign and window factory.” Sloane tapped his earpiece. “Agent Stone, Agent Taylor, this is Agent Brodie.”

The Team Leaders’ gruff voices came in over their earpieces. “Agent Stone, here. What are your orders, Agent Brodie?”

“Agent Taylor, here. Ditto.”

Sloane rolled his eyes. “Agent Stone, I want you and your team situated at the corner of 110th Street and Fourteenth Road. Make sure no one comes in or out. Have Beta Pride on standby and keep an eye out for civilians.”

“Copy that.”

“Agent Taylor, you and your team take the corner of 112th Street and Fifteenth Avenue. You know the drill. Have Beta Ambush on standby and keep an eye out for civilians. Try not to scare any kids today.”

There was a deep rumble of laughter from the other end. “And take away Keeler’s fun? Perish the thought.”

“Kiss my ass, Taylor.”

“You just come on over here and bend over, Keeler. We’ll have ourselves a gay ole time. Taylor out.”

“Pussy,” Ash muttered.

“That’s kind of the opposite of why I’d kiss your ass,” Agent Taylor said with a laugh.

Ash opened his mouth for a rebuttal—undoubtedly one laced with enough obscenity to make their ears bleed, but Sloane was too quick, tapping Ash’s earpiece and jutting a finger at him. “You and Taylor can have your battle of wits some other time.” Ignoring Ash’s glare, Sloane turned his attention back to the team.

“All right, watch your backs, and let’s show those sons of bitches what happens when they mess with our city. Letty, Rosa, give us a five-second lead.”

“You got it.” Rosa put on her ballistic helmet and lowered the visor; the rest of the team followed suit. Sloane’s voice came in loud and clear.

“Let’s move out.”

Destructive Delta’s BearCat was parked at the corner of 112th Street and Fifteenth Avenue, and they gave a small wave to Beta Ambush’s truck as it pulled up to the sidewalk a few feet away from them. Everyone scrambled out, heading toward their respective starting points.

Dex fell into formation behind Sloane with Ash at his back, their rifles in their hands as they quickly jogged down the sidewalk and turned onto Fourteenth Road. They could see Beta Pride’s BearCat parked near the corner, and they headed toward it, alert to everything around them as they passed all the two-story houses with their white picket fences. The sky was blue with some wispy clouds hovering over them, the weather in the mid-60s, and the neighborhood quiet at this time of day. No one would ever suspect anything was wrong, unless they looked out their windows and spotted the three heavily armed THIRDS agents dashing by.

Before they got to the truck, Sloane signaled for them to cross the road, where they stopped at the corner of 110th Street. Although they were a block away from IGD, Sloane wasn’t taking any chances of their getting spotted. They turned the corner, and following his silent signal, they dashed behind the parked cars and waited. As soon as they received the okay, they darted across the street, down the side of one of the businesses, and around the back to its parking lot.

A man in a gray suit carrying a portfolio and armful of papers froze on the spot, eyes going wide. Dex motioned for him to go inside, but it took three tries before the guy snapped himself out of it. He made like the wind back toward the building’s exit, nearly running into the glass door in his attempt to flee. Sloane motioned forward, and Dex readied himself, inhaling deeply and releasing it. Eight months on the team and at times he still couldn’t believe he was a Defense agent for the THIRDS. His agency dog tags pressed against his skin under his uniform reminded him he was no longer a homicide detective, but a soldier. He’d been awarded his tags six months in, after passing his probation with flying colors.

Despite his initial reluctance to join the THIRDS after HPF bureaucrats had all but forced him into it, Dex had never felt more content than the moment his lieutenant placed those tags around his neck, with his dad and brother looking on nearly busting at the seams with pride. Those tags were a reminder of his new life, and everyone who now depended on him. Destructive Delta had taken him in, even if it had been a shaky start, but one thing he knew for certain, he had no intention of letting them down.

They reached the wooden fence separating them from the back of the sign and window building. Sloane stepped aside and gave Dex a nod. Rookie gets to breach. Let the fun begin. Dex turned, giving Sloane access to his backpack and the Hooligan kit inside. Seconds later, Sloane handed him a small crowbar, and Dex jammed the end between two of the wooden boards before giving the iron bar a fierce jerk. The wood creaked and splintered. He grabbed the looser board with a gloved hand and tore it off. Once the second board was off, it was easier to remove a third. He turned to give the crowbar to Sloane only to be met with a set of scowls.


Ash motioned to the fence. “Your skinny Human ass might fit through there, Daley, but we’ll be lucky if we can get a shoulder in.”

Seriously? Dex turned back to the fence, grumbling under his breath as he stabbed the crowbar between two planks. It wasn’t his fault his Therian teammates were built like brick shithouses. He was lucky he didn’t end up having to remove half the fence. Not only was he still getting used to being on a tactical team, but on a Therian one. Being inconspicuous while armed to the gills took skill. Being inconspicuous while standing at nearly seven feet, weighing almost three hundred pounds, and armed to the gills took some kind of voodoo magic. He was still trying to figure out what manner of sorcery Hobbs had used to disappear behind a Scion iQ during their last assignment.

“Move your ass, Rookie,” Ash growled.

“You’d like that wouldn’t you?” Dex replied with a groan, tearing off one particularly stubborn board. “You really need to stop eyeballing it, man, or I’m gonna start getting ideas.” He chuckled when Ash cursed him out under his breath. With the task complete, Dex handed the crowbar to Sloane, who quickly returned it to its place in Dex’s backpack. He gave Dex a pat on the arm to signal he was done, and Dex stepped aside, falling into formation once again. He paused, arching an eyebrow at Ash.

“I’m not going to look at your ass, Daley. Not if you were the last fuckable thing on this planet.”

Dex grinned widely. “So you’re saying I’m fuckable?” God, he loved winding the guy up. It was so damn easy.

Ash gave him a shove through the fence. “I’m saying if you don’t shut your trap, the next time I look at your ass will be while I’m taking aim to shoot it.”

“The next time?” Dex laughed. “Oh shit. Keeler’s been looking at my ass.”

“Sloane,” Ash grunted.

Sloane shook his head as they used the heavy machinery around the sign company’s yard to conceal them. “Dex.”

It wasn’t quite a warning, more a friendly reminder to shut his pie hole. Regardless, Dex looked over his shoulder at Ash who was grinning smugly. Dex mouthed the word, “narc,” causing Ash’s grin to fall away to a glower. That was more like it.

They scurried along the side of the building, their sights on the target across the street. A small bulldozer was parked a few feet away from the building’s back entrance, and they crouched down beside it in the dirt and patches of dry weeds. He heard Sloane’s quiet words come through his earpiece.

“Letty, Rosa, what’s your twenty?”

“We’re coming up behind the office now.”

“Copy that. Calvin?”

“We’re about to fix the det cord to the door. Do you want us to—”

Calvin was cut short when a shot popped through the air.

“Calvin?” Sloane edged toward the front of the bulldozer. They could hear low groans coming through their earpieces, and Dex’s heart was in his throat. Sloane’s curses continued as he tried to get an answer from their teammate. “Goddammit, Calvin, talk to me. What the hell happened?”

“Shooter,” Calvin wheezed, his breath ragged as he tried to talk. “I’m okay. Got hit in the vest. Fuck, shit hurts. We’re under fire.” Just as he said the words more shooting erupted. It was coming from somewhere close by.

Sloane peeked around the bulldozer looking to pinpoint the location of their shooters. “I’ve got a visual. There’s a charter bus just ahead. All the windows are smashed to shit. It’s been stripped. I make two shooters inside.”

“Looks like someone wasn’t happy with their service,” Ash muttered.

“Cael, is the area clear?” Sloane asked.

“Aside from our shooters, affirmative. No civilians.”

“Agent Stone, Agent Taylor?”

“This is Agent Stone. Area’s secure.”

“Agent Taylor here. Area’s secure.”

“Copy that. Destructive Delta, we’re going in aggressive. Go, go, go!” Sloane darted out from behind the bulldozer with Dex and Ash on his heels to a chorus of gunfire, bangs, and shouting across three locations. They sprinted to the stripped black-and-gold charter bus, and Sloane pitched a couple of smoke bombs through one of the smashed windows before they breached the bus through the open driver’s side.

“On the ground! Get on the ground now!” Sloane yelled. The two Human shooters threw their rifles to one side just as Ash grabbed them and roughly forced them onto the floor of the bus.

“Hands behind your backs,” Ash spat out, taking zip ties from his utility belt and securing their wrists.

Calvin’s warning came through their earpieces. “Fire in the hole!”

“Dex, side doors!” Sloane pushed Dex to the front of the bus. They ran across the street to the aluminum structure as the third vehicle door catapulted off the building in a burst of smoke, skidding across the dirt until it launched off the side into the river. Like there wasn’t enough shit down there already.

Dex and Sloane positioned themselves to either side of the smaller entrances with their backs to the aluminum structure and waited. They didn’t have to wait long. The doors swung open, a rifle poking through the doorway beside Dex. He snatched it with his right hand and thrust his left elbow into the gunman’s face, snapping his head back and bloodying his nose. Dex tossed the gun to the grass beside him with one hand, and with the other, pointed his rifle at the emerging Humans coughing and gasping, their eyes bloodshot and tearful from the smoke.

“On the ground! Get on the ground now!” Dex ordered. “Hands where I can see them!” One of the gunmen tried to reach under his open plaid shirt, but Dex shoved a boot down against his back, pushing him harshly onto his stomach against the dirt. “I said hands where I can see them!” He unhooked a handful of zip ties from his belt, crouched down, and lifted the hem of the guy’s shirt to find a revolver. He tossed it out of their reach, then looped a tie around the man’s wrists and gave it an extra tug, enough to make the guy hiss. As soon as he’d checked all three for additional weapons and secured them, he stood and tapped his earpiece. “I’ve got three in custody.”

Rosa’s breathy voice came through, “We’ve got four in custody.”

“We got five in custody,” Calvin added roughly, yelling something at one of the perps. His teammate sounded grumpy, but then who wouldn’t be after taking a bullet to the vest? Dex took a step back, watching in amusement as Ash dragged over the two gunmen from the bus, both practically dangling off the ground. Unit Alpha’s Therian Defense agents were all made of Apex predators, large Felids, each Therian agent with the strength of two Human agents. When the teams faced Therian perpetrators, the score was pretty even, with a Therian agent’s advantage depending on the shape they were in, their skill, and their smarts. When facing Humans, Therian Defense agents didn’t even break a sweat. Dex liked those odds.

Sloane stepped up beside Dex and patted him on the back in approval as he gave his orders. “Beta Pride, Beta Ambush, move in. I want our perps lined up, asses to the floor. Agent Taylor, Agent Stone, see if you can get any information out of them.”

As soon as their fellow agents from Beta Pride and Beta Ambush showed up, they left the perps to them, and Sloane motioned for Dex to follow. Along the way, they removed their ballistic helmets and handed them to one of the agents standing by. They headed into the main structure, which was still smoky from Calvin and Hobbs’s entry.

“What have we got?” Sloane asked as they took in their surroundings. The aluminum structure was supposed to be a three-car garage, but instead had been set up as a base, with insulated walls, rows of metal shelving running down two of the walls, a third wall strewn with corkboards containing maps, newspaper articles, invoices, and a host of other random paperwork. In the center of the room were three large metal tables with supplies, boxes, burner phones, masonry tools, and weapons. Dex caught Hobbs’s gaze and followed the silent agent’s finger pointing to one of the large shelving units. Calvin joined his partner and called them over.

“Sulfuric acid, nitroglycerine, batteries, timers.” Calvin picked up a box of heavy-duty nails. “From the looks of it, they weren’t thinking about just taking out buildings.”

Sick bastards. It was bad enough they wanted to plant bombs, but to build them with the specific purpose of killing and maiming innocent citizens? How deluded could they be to think they’d be doing good? Like crime in this city wasn’t bad enough, now they had a whole new level of fucked up to deal with.

“Any explosive devices already constructed?” Sloane asked.

Calvin shook his head. “No, just the materials, though Hobbs says they’d need more than this. He thinks maybe they were in early stages, collecting supplies, getting ready to build the bombs.” He cast Hobbs a glance, and his large Therian partner nodded somberly.

“Okay, thanks, guys.” Sloane let out a sigh, and Dex knew what his partner was thinking. Unless one of those bastards out there spilled, they wouldn’t have much to go on. Getting these assholes off the street was a win, but until they had Isaac Pearce, the danger was nowhere near over. Who knew how many more bases just like this one were out there. How many already had devices waiting to go off?

Dex stepped up to the corkboards, hoping to glean some information, anything that might give them a clue as to where to find the Order’s leader. “Everything’s so neat.”

“What do you mean?”

Sloane joined him, and Dex waved a hand over one of the corkboards. “All the maps are brand new, like they’d just been bought, and they’re not of any specific locale. There’s a street map of Brooklyn, a subway map of New York City, a bike map of Manhattan, and I’m pretty sure that one there of this area is an Internet printout. The news articles are perfectly clipped and all from the last two months. They pinned up the invoices for Christ’s sake. What bomber pins up their supply invoices? Are they planning on writing off the expenses?” He leaned in closer. “They’re also all dated two months ago.” Looking around the room, he strode back over to one of the shelves, where he ran a gloved finger over one of the timers. “There’s a thin layer of dust on most of the supplies. Like they’d been placed on the shelves and not touched since. They could have been waiting for orders, or….”

“They could have been waiting for us,” Sloane finished. He stroked his jaw. “Good job, Dex. You’re right. This all seems too… easy. Let’s see if anyone’s cracked.” He tapped his earpiece. “Cael?”

“Call in the CSA’s?” Cael replied over their earpiece.

“Yeah. I want this place swept from corner to corner, and I want to be notified as soon as they get the detailed inventory attached to the case file.”

“You got it.”

Dex followed Sloane outside where fifteen perps were sitting on the ground in a neat row, hands secured behind their backs with nearly twice the number of heavily armed agents positioned around them in case someone got a stupid idea in their head. It was amazing what some criminals did when they were desperate. Just as the thought crossed his mind, one of the men jumped to his feet and started running.

Ash stared after the guy. “Where the fuck does he think he’s going?”

With an agent drawing in from every angle, the guy came to a skidding halt then stunned them all by jumping into the East River where he proceeded to sputter, gasp, and in between drowning, call out for help.

“Seriously?” Dex had seen some pretty stupid shit in his time, but this one was right up there with the guy who tried to steal his patrol car with him in it back when he’d been an HPF rookie. Ash let out a snort of laughter. “What an ass hat.”

After losing a round of Rock-paper-scissors, one of Beta Ambush’s Therian agents started stripping, cursing up a storm the whole way. Down to his colorful boxers and flipping off his fellow teammates whistling and throwing catcalls at him, he dove into the river, popping back out a few breaths later and dragging the wheezing man with him. The dark haired agent pulled himself up with one hand and tossed the man up onto the dirt with the other.

The agent climbed out, snatched the towel from a teammate, and glared at their arrestees. “That’s the last time I’m doing that. Someone else want to be a moron, you’re going to drown. Shit, that water’s cold.” He gave a sniff. “Ugh, it reeks. Am I going to be quarantined? This shit smells toxic.”

His teammates laughed until Sloane held up a hand, silencing everyone. He stepped up to the line of somber looking men, a couple looking no older than Cael. In fact, one in particular caught Dex’s attention. The kid was sixteen, seventeen at most.

“Where’s Isaac Pearce?” Sloane demanded. He paced slowly in front of them, his intense amber gaze studying their perps. Dex wasn’t surprised to find fear creeping into some of their defiant gazes. None of them looked like hardened criminals. Standing over six and a half feet tall and weighing 240 pounds without the eighty pounds of equipment strapped to him, Sloane Brodie was imposing to most even when he wasn’t in intimidation mode. Add the fact he was a Therian with the government tattoo on his thick neck marking him as a jaguar Therian and the twenty-odd years of field experience, and you’d have to be dumber than the guy who swan-dived into the river not to be scared shitless.

“Do you realize the severity of your situation? Do you think the THIRDS takes terrorism lightly? Your so-called leader murdered an officer of the law in front of the world. He’s made threats against innocent civilians, against innocent children. He’s looking at life in prison, if he’s lucky. This is your chance to do the right thing, to save what’s left of your future.”

One beer-gutted idiot spat at Sloane’s feet. “We’ll never talk to you, Therian freak. Your kind is a mistake. The Human race is superior. You’re nothing more than a glorified pet. Your kind should be locked away in zoos with the rest of the animals or put down. Humans for dominance!” The guy started chanting and Dex rolled his eyes. “Humans for dominance! Humans for—”

Sloane’s boot against the guy’s chest, knocking him over and onto his bound up arms, put a stop to the chanting. It wasn’t even a kick. A tap from Sloane was enough to send the guy tipping over and flailing like a turtle on his shell trying to right himself. Dex put a gloved fist to his mouth to keep himself from laughing. “Anyone have something useful to say?” Sloane asked.

Dex studied the silent, glaring group, his gaze landing on the teenager again. The kid swallowed hard, his eyes not moving from the ground. An older man with a strong resemblance knelt beside him. Dex tapped his earpiece. “Sloane.” His partner glanced at him, and without a word walked over, following Dex to one side.

“What’s up?”

“I think we should try the Deceptive Dash.”

Sloane arched an eyebrow at him. “You think it’ll work?”

“That kid’s ready to shit a brick. I’m thinking the guy next to him is his old man. Probably dragged him into this mess.”

His partner rubbed his jaw then nodded. “Okay.” Sloane turned and signaled Ash over.

“What’s going on?” the surly agent asked, and Dex could tell Sloane was trying hard not to smile when he spoke.

“We’re going with the Deceptive Dash.”

As expected, Ash let out a low groan. “Fuck me.” He glared at Sloane. “I can’t believe you not only allowed him to make this a thing, but you let him name it.”

Sloane shrugged, his eyes lit up with amusement. “You couldn’t come up with anything better.”

“Because I didn’t agree with the stupid idea.”

“Yeah, well, it’s effective, so suck it up.” Sloane gave him a hearty pat on the shoulder, chuckling at their teammate’s pout.

“Who’s the target?” Ash grumbled.

“The kid.” Dex tapped his earpiece. “Cael, drive the BearCat up.”

“Copy that.”

Dex headed toward the approaching BearCat and hopped into the back when his brother opened the doors.

“What’s up?”

“We’re doing the Deceptive Dash.” Dex positioned himself to one side of the truck, hearing Ash cursing and growling as he approached.

Rack & Ruin #3
Chapter One
“HE’S GONNA run.”

Dex took his partner’s tech vest from him and handed it to his brother in the BearCat. “You think?” He peered out one of the BearCat’s ballistic windows but couldn’t see jack this time of night, especially since their little friend was well camouflaged among the Central Park greenery. It didn’t help that Hobbs had somehow managed to park their black tactical vehicle in a thicket of trees shrouded in enough darkness to make Dex feel as if a black hole had sucked him up. He had to give his Therian teammate credit. Hobbs could park the BearCat up a freakin’ flagpole if he had to. Maybe being a huge-ass Therian made it easy for him to maneuver huge-ass vehicles. Parks and Recreation was going to be so pissed if they found out they’d been driving off the roads.

“He always runs.” Sloane removed his thigh rig next and handed it over. Dex promptly passed it off to Cael. His brother huffed but took it without question, undoubtedly knowing Dex was doing it to annoy him. Ah, the perks of working with family. Rosa sat on the bench, looking on in amusement and checking her Postshift Trauma Care (PSTC) kit, while Hobbs sat in the driver’s seat inside the front cabin bugging his spiky blond-haired partner. Calvin was in the passenger seat, being a grump as he cleaned the scope of his sniper tranq rifle.

Dex had no idea what had Calvin sporting the pouty face. He wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with his best bud sitting across from him. Either Hobbs was oblivious to Calvin’s mood, or he was purposefully ignoring it. Considering he was sitting inches away from the nozzle of his partner’s tranq gun, it would probably be in Hobbs’s best interest to play nice. Dex had walked in on the pair sucking face back at the hospital after Hobbs had been hurt in the Therian Youth Center bombing. It had been one hell of a surprise and explained the pair’s off behavior leading up to the incident. Things quickly returned to normal between the two afterward. Somewhat. If Dex were a betting man, he’d say that was the problem. Hobbs was carrying on as if nothing had happened, and Calvin had been hoping something had changed. He’d confided as much to Dex back at the hospital. Whatever was going on, Dex hoped the two managed to work it out soon.

Letty was checking the magazines of her various guns. And Ash… Dex didn’t know where the hell Ash was. Just another shift for Destructive Delta.

Sloane pulled off his boots, and when he stood to remove his uniform shirt, Dex couldn’t help but try again. “As much as we all love seeing you get nekkid, partner, I wish you’d at least reconsider—”


“Dude, the rest of your shit is heavy enough,” Dex whined, lifting his arms to show the various pieces of tactical equipment hanging off them, the heaviest being the PSTC kit he carried to aid his partner postshift.

“I’m not getting rid of my sneakers.”

Dex let his arms fall back to his sides. “They’re not even government issued!”

Sloane shrugged. “Don’t care.”

“You’ve had to replace two pairs in the last four months.”

Sloane paused in the middle of unbuttoning his shirt to arch an eyebrow at him. “And whose fault is that?”

“It was an accident.” Dex blinked innocently. The look on Sloane’s face told him his partner wasn’t buying it. Damn it. One would think being the Team Leader’s secret boyfriend at the very least would earn him the right to get away with things others couldn’t. But in Dex’s case, it meant he got away with less because Sloane knew him far better than anyone—with the exception of his family—and loved to burst his bubble.

“As in you accidentally dropped my sneakers off the Brooklyn Bridge?”

Dex did his best to look affronted. “What are you suggesting? It was a windy day.”

“Funny how nothing else got blown away,” Sloane grumbled, pulling off his shirt and tossing it over Dex’s head. He felt like a coatrack. The rest of the team didn’t help at all with their snickering. A loud thunk sounded at his feet, and Dex pulled the shirt off his head to swipe up a boot.

“Size fourteen, man!” Dex waved Sloane’s huge black boot at him. “Somewhere on the Hudson, a duck’s using your sneaker as a flotation device.”

“Ducks already float.”

“Yeah, but their little legs must get tired of moving them about.” Dex wiggled his index and middle fingers to simulate duck feet. His half-naked, sexy-as-sin boyfriend held a hand up to stop any further protest. Dex wished the truck were empty so he could do some of his own pouncing on his jaguar Therian partner.

“Do you mind if I pause this incongruous exchange on water fowl to catch our guy?”

Dex held back a smile. “Ooh, someone’s been playing online Scrabble with Cael again. How many points did incongruous get you?”

When Sloane didn’t reply, Dex turned to his brother.

“Fourteen,” Cael offered cheerfully, earning himself a scowl from Sloane.

Dex shook his head. “Could have gotten twenty on Words With Friends.”


Rosa cut Sloane off, motioning to the large console’s surveillance monitor, which had been keeping an eye out for their target via infrared video. “Looks like Sloane’s right. Cabron’s in his Therian form.”

“Striptease is over,” Sloane informed them, hitting the large button on the BearCat’s side panel, causing the screen to drop from the truck’s roof so he could finish undressing and shift in private. Without his favorite peepshow, Dex turned to his brother who was looking somewhat spaced out. It started a few weeks ago, and it was beginning to worry Dex.

“What kind of Therian is our friend?” Dex asked. When his brother didn’t reply, Dex gave him a nudge. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Austen Payne is a cheetah Therian.”

So his brother had heard him? And what? Chose to ignore him? “Cael—”

Cael shook his head, his stern expression telling Dex his brother wasn’t in a sharing mood. Dex had considered pushing the matter but conceded now was not the time. Something was up with Cael and had been since he’d been in the hospital along with Hobbs after the bombing. Whatever was going on, it had to do with Ash. The guy had called in sick this morning, which was apparently like the second time he’d done so in the twenty-something years since joining the THIRDS. Lately Cael was easily distracted, his head elsewhere, which was dangerous not only for him but the rest of the team. Yeah, Dex would definitely be having a talk with his little brother. For now, he turned his attention to Rosa.

“So tell me something about this Austen guy.”

“He’s a slippery little shit,” Rosa said, though she was smiling affectionately when she said it. “Fast as fuck too.”

“Is that your professional opinion?” Dex teased, receiving a couple of loving expletives in Spanish. “How the hell is Sloane going to catch him?” If a cheetah Therian didn’t want to get caught, he didn’t get caught. Unless he made a stupid mistake. Rosa was right about how fast they were, whether in their Human or Therian forms. Dex remembered all the times he’d attempted to outrun his brother when they were kids. He never even came close to catching up with him despite being older and having longer legs—at least in his Human form. The only problem for cheetah Therians was the distance. They could only handle high speeds in short bursts. If Austen ran, Sloane could still catch up once the guy tired out. ’Course, who the hell knew where he’d run to by then.

“Sloane’s not going to chase him,” Rosa said, a wicked gleam in her eye. “He’s going to hunt him. No one stalks like our Team Leader.”

“Tell me about it,” Dex muttered. The guy had a bad habit of walking in a room and scaring the ever-living fuck out of Dex. It wasn’t right that a guy of Sloane’s size made no sound when he walked in his Human form. He was like a sexy ninja.

Speaking of his sexy ninja partner, the screen rose, and Dex crouched down in front of the huge black jaguar, talking quietly. “You be careful.” Sloane’s glowing amber eyes stared at him, and Dex eyed him warily. He was familiar with that look. “Don’t do it. Don’t—” A broad, sandpaper tongue licked him from his chin to his ear. “Damn it! Right in the ear! Every freakin’ time.” One would think he’d have learned after the first few dozen times his partner had licked him to annoy him. “That was—as usual—extremely unpleasant. Thank you. I appreciate it.”

Dex stood and wiped at his face and ear with his sleeve, ignoring his teammates chortling behind him. Letty opened one of the BearCat’s backdoors, but Sloane had to quickly rub up against Dex’s legs to leave his mark—as if it wasn’t all over Dex already—before leaping out of the truck. That done, Dex went to the console where his brother was tracking Sloane. He watched his Therian partner pad silently toward some bushes before he disappeared into the shadows. Dex could have sworn there had been something stuck on his partner’s back paw. Well, there was no way to know until Sloane returned. “You sure Sloane will be able to catch him?”

“Always does,” Cael murmured.

“So why does Austen run?”

Cael shrugged. “I think he likes it.”

“What do you mean ‘he likes it’?”

His brother’s cheeks flushed. Uh-oh. Dex knew that look. Cael worried his bottom lip and Dex waited while his brother racked his sweet little head trying to figure out whether he should spill or not. “Austen’s got a crush on Sloane.”

Dex eyed his brother, a silent conversation going on between them in which Cael gave him a shrug and apologetic smile. Interesting. Dex pursed his lips but said nothing. He sidled up to the bench before squeezing himself in between Rosa and Letty. There wasn’t much to do now other than wait and tease a little information out of his teammates.

“Is this Austen guy reliable?” Dex asked. “And how come this is the first I’m hearing of him?”

Letty looped her arm around Dex’s, and he smiled. He could always count on Rosa and Letty to bring him down to earth. They were both brutally honest and straightforward, but always with the best intentions at heart. Sometimes it felt like they were the only two with functioning relationships. Rosa was happily attached to her long-time girlfriend, and Letty was happily attached to whichever hottie made her toes curl that month. This month it was a firefighter from Brooklyn with dimples in all the right places.

“Austen’s good,” Letty offered. “Practically grew up working for us thanks to Sloane. He found the guy years ago when he was just a kid, got him a job. I don’t remember the story, but I’m sure Sloane’ll tell you if you ask. Austen’s a THIRDS SSA—Squadron Specialist Agent. You haven’t heard of him because, technically, he doesn’t exist. Those guys don’t work out of the office. You have to have high-level clearance just to access a file with his name on it. Every squad has their own specialist agent. Since they also function as confidential informants, they have to keep a low profile. Austen’s been off on some job for Lieutenant Sparks. He’s got mad skills. If you see him or talk to him, it’s because he wants you to.”

“Sloane’s coming back. And he’s got Austen,” Cael called out over his shoulder.

“That was quick.” Dex sprang to his feet and decided he’d meet his partner outside in case Austen decided he didn’t fancy getting in the truck. Having had no experience with the agent, Dex had no clue how Austen would react. Sometimes Therians were cooperative until they neared the big, scary black vehicle. The idea of being caged didn’t appeal, and Dex couldn’t blame them.

Dex jumped down and started for his partner when he noticed Sloane was walking funny. It was only until Sloane got close that Dex could see the reason why.

“Oh shit!” Dex doubled over laughing as Sloane hobbled over like he was drunk, the ferocity of having Austen in his jaws offset by the sheer hilarity of his partner trying to shake a black sock off his back paw. “Oh my God, I can’t breathe,” Dex wheezed, tears in his eyes.

Sloane huffed and continued to shake at his back paw, at one point skipping on his other three. Dex thought he was going to need Rosa to bring him oxygen. He’d been right. There had been something stuck on his partner’s paw when he left the truck. How Sloane had missed a sock was beyond him, but it was the funniest shit Dex had ever seen. “Hold up!” Dex managed to get himself together long enough to jog after his partner who stopped and stuck his back leg out. With a grin, Dex tugged the sock off. “Okay.” He received a huff in thanks.

Dex couldn’t help but feel somewhat bad for the cheetah Therian dangling from Sloane’s lethal jaws. The cheetah reminded him too much of Cael. Austen was small, lean, and clearly used to being dragged away by Sloane, judging by the way he hung in there looking almost bored by the whole thing. He didn’t attempt to get away even once. His front paws were crossed as if he were chilling. It became obvious to Dex that Austen trusted Sloane. Any other Therian would be shitting himself.

As soon as his partner reached the truck, he released Austen and hissed. Austen chirped and pushed his nose against Sloane’s, which made his partner’s ears flatten against his head before he let out a roar. Not surprising it startled Austen so bad; had he been a cartoon, his spots would have fallen off. A bristled Austen promptly jumped up into the BearCat with Sloane on his tail. Dex followed and closed the doors behind them. The privacy screen dropped, and Austen shifted first while Sloane sat patiently beside Dex, waiting his turn. Since Rosa had experience working with cheetah Therians—considering her partner was one—she provided Austen with Postshift Trauma Care, along with a THIRDS supplied disposable set of clothes, which she handed to him once he was strong enough to stick an arm out from behind the screen. A low grumble later, and Rosa disappeared behind the screen.

While Rosa helped their SSA regain Human functionality, Dex took a seat on the small single bench beside the weapons’ cage. Sloane immediately dropped his head on Dex’s lap, looking for an ear scratch, and Dex obliged, smiling when he heard the deep chainsaw-like purr and felt it vibrating against his leg.

“At least when he sheds all over you, you can’t see it.” Calvin cast his tiger Therian partner an accusing glare. Hobbs sat up with a frown. He reached over and gave a light tug on Calvin’s blond hair. “I don’t shed,” Calvin protested. Hobbs nodded. Clearly he disagreed. Dex watched the two in amusement as they argued, despite Calvin being the only vocal one. It was amazing how much Hobbs could say with his expressions and hand movements alone.

A slender, sinewy young Therian who seemed to be in his midtwenties stepped out from behind the screen with a fierce yawn. He ruffled his dark hair and strutted over to the bench where he dropped down beside Letty with a wide grin. The guy looked like he’d just rolled out of bed after performing at some rock gig, despite the out-of-place outfit he sported.

Dex didn’t have time to further study the agent before Sloane disappeared behind the screen. By now no one thought twice about Dex following his partner in. They figured after nearly a year of working closely together, Sloane no longer cared if his partner saw him naked postshift. Of course, they had no idea Dex and Sloane did a lot more than work together, and seeing his partner naked usually led to naughtier things in private.

As soon as Sloane had shifted, Dex began the Postshift Trauma Care. He hoped whatever information Sloane was looking to get from Austen, he’d be able to get it quickly. Sloane needed to eat a hefty meal filled with meat and carbs if he was going to regain his full strength. With the power bars and Gatorade finished, Dex helped Sloane back into his uniform. Not long after, Sloane was on his feet. He gave Dex a wink and a playful smack on the ass before hitting the button for the screen.

“Why did you run, Austen?” Sloane asked as he took the seat Dex had vacated earlier. “Again.”

Across from him, Austen blinked at Sloane. “What do you mean, why? Because you guys are fucking scary, that’s why. I never know who’s gonna come after me. There are all these big dudes with guns running around these days and even bigger Therians with sharp teeth that could crush my tiny bones. Also, we cheetah Therians are skittish by nature, you know.” He looked up at Cael and held his fist out for a bump. “Am I right, bro?”

Cael scowled at him.

“Dude,” Austen whispered hoarsely. “You’re gonna leave me hanging in front of the fit jaguar Therian? Not cool.”

With a grunt, Cael bumped his fist against Austen’s, drawing a big grin from him.

“We small Felids gotta stick together.”

“You done socializing?” Sloane asked.

“Yep. What can I do for you, Agent Broody?”

Dex bit his bottom lip to keep himself from laughing at the nickname. Sounded like something he would come up with. It certainly described his sexy partner to a T.

“Don’t suppose you’re going to reconsider my offer for a private workout session?”

Cael hadn’t been kidding. Austen did have a crush on Sloane. Dex was still trying to get a read on the guy. Part of him wanted to like the cheeky cheetah; the other part wanted to dislike him for the sheer fact he wanted to get his grubby little paws on Sloane. The guy made no attempt to hide his attraction to the larger Felid. Then again, Austen wasn’t the first to have a crush on Destructive Delta’s Team Leader. Dex had heard plenty of talk around the office from both male and female agents attracted to his partner, though no one ever approached Sloane. Hell, if Dex hadn’t been partnered with him, he would have chalked Sloane up as being out of his league. There was also something about his sexy partner that screamed, “Approach with caution”.

Austen turned toward Dex, seeming to notice him for the first time. He opened his mouth to say something, then paused before leaning in Dex’s direction. “Damn. Look at those baby blues. Aren’t you going to introduce me to your new pouty-lipped partner, Broody Bear?”

“That’s Agent Daley. I told you if you called me that again I was going to kick your ass. You wanna pay attention even a little?” It was as if Sloane hadn’t even spoken.

“Well hello, Agent Daley. You are one lucky dude. Destructive Delta has fine agents.” He lolled his head back to grin widely at Hobbs. “And I do mean fine.”

My God, it was like the guy was in heat. Hobbs smiled shyly before noticing his partner’s subtle glare, prompting him to drop his gaze to his tac pants and brush off some dust Dex doubted was even there.

Sloane sat back and laced his fingers over his stomach. He stretched his long legs out in front of him and crossed them at the ankles. “Am I going to have to get you neutered?”

Austen gave such a start that he nearly fell off the bench. “That ain’t funny, man. You shouldn’t joke about shit like that.”

A wicked grin came onto Sloane’s face. “Who said I was joking?”

“I see. It’s business as usual, then. Fine. It’s getting ugly out there. I’ve got no sympathy for those bastards from the Order, but it’s pretty messed up the way the Coalition’s dealing with them. These dudes don’t fuck around. I mean, they hunt the Humans down, catch them, beat the tar out of them, then leave them somewhere visible to warn the others. That’s usually when someone calls you guys.”

“Any luck tracking the Coalition?” Sloane asked.

Austen shook his head. “I haven’t been able to get close enough. These guys aren’t like the Order. They’ve got training. Not official government training, but like they’ve been shown the basics by someone who’s trained. They know how to stay hidden. Wherever they go, they have two members in their Therian forms to sniff out anyone who might be stupid enough to follow them. And before you ask, it’s never the same two Therians. So cross-referencing their classification through your fancy computer will probably give you a hit on every Therian agent in your organization.”


“Sorry. I know it’s a big load of nada. But I can confirm you do have a traitor in your midst.”

Crap. Not that they hadn’t known, but having someone else confirm it made it doubly fucked up. “How do you know?” Dex asked.

“Like I said. These guys haven’t been officially trained. They’ve been shown the ropes by someone who has. An agent. There are two male Therians leading the Coalition. One of them communicates with someone several times a day and usually gives orders based on whatever he’s been told. I’ve seen him answer his phone several times and right after, tell his team to retreat. Seconds later, THIRDS agents show up.”

Sloane nodded his acknowledgment. “Are you able to identify any of them?”

“No. They wear black masks that cover their heads and necks. The kind tactical teams wear under their helmets. Makes it so you can’t see any distinctive features. The main guy I’ve seen only once. Well, all I saw was his figure. He’s fucking huge. He was wearing one of those black masks, a black long sleeve shirt with bulletproof vest, and black-and-gray camouflage pants. It’s no wonder the press keeps thinking they’re THIRDS agents the way they’re geared up. For all we know, your rat might be in there, but there’s no way to tell. They don’t let their guard down for a moment. I get the feeling they don’t reveal their identities to anyone, not even each other.”

“What about names?” Dex asked. “They have to call each other something, don’t they?”

Austen’s frown didn’t bode well. “They use numbered codes, like one-eleven and twenty-three twenty-six. Have fun trying to figure out what the hell they represent.”

Sloane nodded to Cael who added the numbers to the notes he was taking on his tablet. Cael would undoubtedly be adding an algorithm to Themis to find out what the numbers could pertain to. They’d be looking into that later, though Austen had a point. The possibilities were staggering.

“Any idea how many there are?”

Again Austen shook his head to Sloane’s question. “I can’t imagine there are many. Whenever I’ve seen them, they’ve been in groups of five or six at most. Couldn’t say how many groups there are, but maybe if you cross-reference incident times with locations across the boroughs, you might get a rough idea. Can’t be two places at once right?” Sloane gave Austen a nod of approval, which made Austen grin widely. “See. I’m not just a pretty face.”

“All right,” Sloane replied with a smirk before continuing with his questioning. “Anything on the Order?”

“I’ve thrown a few hooks out on that one. I’ll let you know if anyone bites.”

Sloane stood and held his hand out to Austen. “Good work. Contact me if you get anything.”

“You bet.”

“And next time,” Sloane warned, though there was a hint of teasing in his voice, “try not to run.”

Austen strode over to the end of the BearCat and turned to give Sloane a wink. “Now why would I give up the chance to be chased by a hot agent?” He saluted Sloane before opening up one of the doors and hopping out. He disappeared into the trees before Dex blinked. Rosa wasn’t kidding. The guy was fast, even in Human form.

“All right, team. It’s been a long day. Let’s head back to HQ. Hobbs, get us out of here and stop by a drive-thru on the way. I’m starving.” Sloane took a seat on the bench next to Rosa, and Dex dropped down beside him. They buckled up as Hobbs drove them out of the park.

Dex noticed his partner lean back against the truck’s padded wall, then abruptly sit forward. Rosa and Letty didn’t notice as they were chatting away, and Cael was secured behind the console, though he was staring off into space. Now that Dex thought about it, he never saw Sloane sit back against the wall like everyone else did. Dex leaned into his partner, his voice low.

“Hey you okay?”

Sloane’s smile went straight to Dex’s groin. “Yeah, why?”

“The way you pulled away from the wall all of a sudden.”

“You noticed that, huh?”

“Yep.” There wasn’t much Dex didn’t notice about his partner, whether on the job or off. They might not have been officially dating for long, but they’d been seeing each other for nearly eight months. In that time they’d been through a hell of a lot together.

Sloane seemed to think about Dex’s observation before answering. “It makes me feel sick.”

“Motion sickness?” That couldn’t be right. Surely if his partner felt motion sickness, Dex would have figured it out long before now.

Sloane shook his head and leaned into Dex. “It feels too much like that chair.”

Chair? What chair would make Sloane feel sick? An image flashed through Dex’s mind, and he winced. Right. That chair. For years Sloane had been strapped down into a padded chair at the First Gen Research Facility while scientists did God only knew what to him and countless other Therian children in order to learn more about Therians. Dex could only imagine what the government had put Sloane through, and he saw enough pain in his partner’s eyes to know it was horrifying.

Dex’s experience with that damnable chair had come only recently, and although he was certain it couldn’t compare to what Sloane had suffered, Dex was still finding it difficult to forget. His ankles, wrists, and head had been strapped down to the padded medical chair. It was the last thing he remembered from that day at the facility before Isaac Pearce plunged a needle into his neck and pulled his strings like a puppet, with Dex eager to please.

Instinctively, Dex rubbed the small, newly healed scar on his leg. If Sloane hadn’t shot him and taken him down, Dex would have done exactly what that bastard Isaac had asked him to do. He would have killed an innocent man and then himself. Months later he still couldn’t remember anything no matter how hard he tried. All he knew was what Sloane had told him. It frustrated the hell out of Dex.


Dex snapped out of it to find Sloane watching him worriedly. “Are you okay?”

“Sorry. Just thinking. My next dentist appointment should prove interesting.”

Sloane’s expression softened, and he gave Dex’s leg a pat, allowing his hand to linger a few seconds longer than necessary. “It’ll get easier.”


Five minutes later they’d pulled up at a fast-food drive-thru, and Dex said a silent thanks to Austen for forcing Sloane to shift. The only time his partner indulged in anything remotely unhealthy was postshift when his Therian body demanded meat and lots of calories. Hobbs waited patiently while Dex sat on his lap, facing the drive-thru speaker, putting in the team’s order. This particular fast-food chain offered Postshift meals that had enough double quarter pounders to send a Human heart screaming for the hills. Dex put in everyone’s order, then turned to Hobbs.

“What do you want, big guy?”

Hobbs pointed to the Therian specials and a meal with an Angus beef burger that looked like it was the size of Dex’s head.

“You got it. Cal?”

“I’m not hungry,” Calvin muttered. Dex twisted to look at Calvin who was staring moodily out his window. Turning back to Hobbs, Dex arched an eyebrow at him, and Hobbs shook his head. He pointed to the regular Human sized menu and held up four fingers.

“Number four it is.” Dex put in the order, Calvin protesting behind him.

“Damn it, Ethan. I said I wasn’t hungry.”

From the corner of his eye, Dex saw Hobbs give Calvin a pointed, no-nonsense look. Come to think of it, Dex couldn’t remember Calvin having had anything when they’d stopped for lunch earlier that day. They’d been called out on a Coalition sighting, but as Austen had remarked, by the time they got there the group was long gone.

“Fine,” Calvin grumbled, then pulled out his iPhone from one of his pockets along with his in-ear headphones and stuck them in his ears. Dex got off Hobbs so the guy could drive up to the next window.

“What’s eating him?” Dex asked Hobbs, his voice lowered. “You two still haven’t worked things out?”

Hobbs shook his head, his expression troubled but he didn’t “say” anything else. He simply pointed forward to let Dex know the line was moving. He clearly wasn’t ready to share.

“Okay, but if you want someone to talk to, you just come find me.” “Talk” being a relative term where Hobbs was concerned, though by now Dex had learned Hobbs could communicate just as easily with little to no words than most people did with whole conversations. Dex enjoyed Hobbs’s company. The silence was never uncomfortable, and although Dex knew he fell into the category of people who talked too much, he appreciated Hobbs’s sedate nature.

After they picked up their food, Hobbs parked the BearCat across a row of empty parking spaces, and they all got busy eating. Dex noticed how Hobbs reached over and plucked the closest ear bud out of Calvin’s ear. That earned him a scowl, but Hobbs smiled widely. It was a sort of crooked schoolboy smile that was hard to stay mad at. Dex was glad Calvin wasn’t immune either, and the blond agent’s frown faltered before he laughed.

Rise & Fall #4
Chapter 1
“YOU’RE GOING to get us fucking killed!”

Dex ignored Ash and hit the gas, speeding after the ambulance heading up route 9A toward NY Presbyterian Hospital, its wailing siren and flashing lights an unyielding reminder of what he stood to lose. The ambulance had left before them, but Dex was in his Challenger with its own THIRDS-installed lights flickering and sending out a warning to everyone around him to get the hell out of his way.

When Ash had finally released Dex from his iron grip, Dex had stood on the sidewalk in front of his house, amidst the smoke and burning car parts unable to believe what had happened. He’d been at a loss, watching the chaos unfold as emergency teams and THIRDS agents flooded the scene. Orders had been shouted, the area evacuated, blue-and-black THIRDS tape marking off his personal disaster zone. And then a bright orange beacon parked near the end of the block gave him clarity.

Dex maneuvered through four lanes of traffic, changing gears and working the pedals. No one knew how to drive his baby like he did, and nothing on God’s green earth was going to make him lose that ambulance. Not with Sloane in the back of it fighting for his life.


No matter how hard Dex tried, his head kept replaying the scene like a goddamn looped video: Dex bolting for the front door, not caring what might be on the other side—getting to Sloane had been all that mattered. He has to be okay. Please God, let him be okay. Clouds of thick black smoke. The sidewalk in front of his house looking like a war zone, littered with debris and pieces of twisted car parts. The trees on fire. Dex tackled to the ground, the breath stolen from his lungs. Ash on him keeping him safe. Bullets flying. Sloane under a piece of mangled door. Screeching sirens and uniformed bodies rushing in. Blood everywhere. Sloane unmoving. A jagged piece of metal sticking out of his side. Blood, so much blood.

It should have been me.

“Fuck! Mother fucking asshole son of a bitch!” Dex slammed his hand against the steering wheel before swerving around some bastard going the speed limit. He was losing his shit. It was fast approaching much like the yellow—soon to be red—light ahead of him, yet he was helpless to stop it. The Challenger flew past the red, missing an oncoming taxi by inches.

“Enough!” Ash snapped at him. “You’re gonna get us fucking killed! Keep your shit together and get us to the fucking hospital in one goddamn piece, or I swear to Christ I will fucking knock your ass out and drive us there myself.”

Dex wanted to tell Ash where he could stick his threats, but he didn’t. He heard Ash suck in a sharp breath, and Dex eased his foot off the accelerator just enough to keep the ambulance’s flashing lights in sight a few cars ahead. Ash held on to the passenger door with one hand, his other pressed against his side to ease the pain along with the slow trickle of blood seeping through his torn stitches. Stitches he’d torn saving Dex.

“Sorry,” Dex said through his teeth. They were almost at the hospital, which meant more traffic. “Sorry for being an asshole and for what I’m about to do. Hold on.” He hit the gas pedal again, and the engine thundered as he raced forward. After a couple of close calls, they got to the hospital before the ambulance. He skidded into valet parking, put the Challenger in park, jumped out, and tossed the keys to the valet guy. Ignoring his teammate’s bitching, Dex called out over his shoulder for Ash to take care of it. The ambulance arrived seconds later, and Dex ran up to it, watching with his heart in his throat as the backdoors swung open and the EMTs rushed out. The gurney swiftly emerged with Sloane strapped down on his uninjured side, an oxygen mask covering his nose and mouth, and the jagged metal piece jutting out from the right side of his torso. Removing it without surgery was clearly out of the question.

Dex followed the EMTs as they rushed Sloane through the huge open glass doorway into the hospital, shouting out codes and medical jargon Dex couldn’t make out. One of the EMTs said something about the THIRDS, and a Therian nurse behind the desk snatched up a phone and rambled something off. Within seconds, a handful of Therian doctors and nurses came running, joining the EMTs as they stole Sloane away into a wide, brightly lit corridor. Dex attempted to follow only to have his path blocked by two male Therian nurses.

“He’s my partner,” Dex pleaded, trying to get around them.

“I’m sorry, sir, but you can’t go in there.”

“The hell I can’t. He’s my partner!” Dex grabbed one of the nurses when a pair of beefy arms wrapped around Dex’s waist, lifting him off his feet and away. “Fuck off, Ash! Get off!” He couldn’t leave Sloane in there all alone. Sloane hated hospitals as it was. What if he woke up and freaked out? What if he didn’t know where he was? What if something happened and Dex wasn’t there? He couldn’t lose Sloane now. It wasn’t Sloane’s time. They hadn’t had enough time!

“You’re not the only one who needs him.”

Dex stilled. It wasn’t so much Ash’s words, but the subtle desperation behind them. Ash put him down, and Dex turned, the look on Ash’s dirt-smudged face taking the fight out of Dex. He’d never seen the gruff agent looking so helpless, and despite clearly having his own fears, Ash met his gaze.

“He’s all the family I’ve got. Just let them do their job. It’s the best we can do for him.”

Dex swallowed hard and nodded. He had to get a hold of himself. It was only when Ash winced that Dex remembered the guy was slowly bleeding out. “Shit, Ash. Come on. We need to get you fixed up.”

“I’m fine,” Ash muttered, wiping the sweat from his beaded brow.

“Yeah, you look fine.” Dex refused to give in to his teammate’s stubbornness. He called over a nurse who took one look at Ash and ran off to get assistance. Ash continued to argue when Dex spotted his dad marching their way. Tony stopped beside them, his gaze dropping to Ash’s hand against his bleeding side before he barked out an order.

“Keeler, get your ass in there and get those stitches seen to.”

Ash looked like he wanted to argue but knew better. With a resigned sigh, he headed for the anxious looking nurses. As soon as Ash disappeared, Tony put a hand to Dex’s shoulder, concern in his deep brown eyes. It was too much for Dex right now.

“Hey. I’m going to take a walk. Call me if anything happens.”

Thankfully, his dad knew him well and gave him a nod. He removed his hand from Dex’s shoulder and let him go. Right now, Tony had to be his sergeant. Anything else would break Dex’s tremulous hold on his emotions. He walked off to gather his strength. He was going to need it.

IT’S NOT fair.

How many others had thought the same as they paced these halls? It wasn’t fair. But then life rarely was. Dex had learned as much from a young age. Some naïve part of him had believed he’d never find himself in this position again. First his parents, now…. He quickly shook the morbid thought away. God, he was such an idiot. His job was as high risk as it was before he ended up falling for his Team Leader.

For the first time in his life, he was a hot mess over a guy. Then again, Sloane Brodie wasn’t just any guy. He was rolling thunder and a sweet summer breeze. Passionate, complex, and intense. Mysterious and brooding. He made Dex laugh, beg, and want to scream. With one look he could crush Dex’s heart, with one whisper have him on his knees. It was terrifying and exhilarating. Dex thought he’d been in love before, when he was in high school, then college. Now he knew the difference. Their relationship was hard work, had been from the day they’d met, but every moment with Sloane was worth it. Dex had never met anyone so resolute in tearing through the obstacles the world threw his way than Sloane Brodie. There were moments of hesitation where he faltered in his steps, but he reached deep inside and found the courage to keep going. And no matter how damaged or dirty he ended up, he came out the other side more determined than ever.

Outside it was a warm September day. The temperature was in the midseventies, and the sky was sunny. The street buzzed with its usual activity while the city continued to pulsate with life. Tony, Cael, and the rest of the team sat in the waiting area, had been for hours while Sloane was in surgery. Dex couldn’t get himself to sit still long enough to wait with them, not with the way his blood pressure skyrocketed every time someone in a white lab coat or teal blue scrubs walked out. Plus the TV kept running news reports of the explosion, posting images and video footage of Sloane out in the field. The imposing and larger-than-life images of his lover, the depths of those amber eyes, mesmerized Dex. No one knew what was behind them like Dex did.

THIRDS Team Leader in critical condition after car bomb explosion…. THIRDS agent Sloane Brodie rushed to hospital after Coalition attack on THIRDS teammate goes awry…. THIRDS issues Threat Level Red alert after one agent is shot and a Team Leader is critically injured by Coalition leader Beck Hogan.

The headlines went on and on and on, dredging up anything connected to Sloane. They posted images of Gabe, ran old news footage of his death, of the funeral, before they moved on to Sloane’s new partner. Once again Dex found his image plastered all over the news, footage of him leaving the courthouse after sending his HPF partner away. It didn’t end there. The whole team was dragged into it, most of the footage from before Dex had been recruited.

There was Ash tackling some Therian perp to the ground during a case and restraining him, looking fierce and menacing. Rosa rushing to give medical aid to a wounded citizen. Letty shooting the lock off a warehouse door before the team rushed in. Calvin running toward his partner after setting an explosive device that Hobbs then set off. When Cael’s face came on the screen, Dex couldn’t take it anymore. He’d wanted to punch something so bad, he’d been forced to leave the waiting area.

For hours he walked up and down the halls, around the hospital grounds, and drank enough coffee from the Garden Café, the staff was on a first-name basis with him. He tried to keep himself busy so he wouldn’t drive himself out of his mind with worst-case scenarios. He’d wandered around the Greenberg Pavilion and its wings. Then the Baker, Payson, and Whitney Pavilions before making his way back to Greenberg.

These days, hospitals were trying to look less clinical with art on the walls, bright colors, comfy couches, restaurants, and hotel suites. That was fine with him, but it wouldn’t ease his nerves or alter the sick feeling in his stomach. It wouldn’t stop him from seeing Sloane unconscious under the battered car door, or the jagged piece of metal sticking out of him. The images had his stomach reeling, and the reality of what had happened, what could still happen, had Dex running to the nearest trashcan. Once he was done losing what little was in his stomach, he wiped his mouth, grateful for the café attendant who ran over to offer him help and some antibacterial wipes. He cleaned himself off and allowed them to lead him to a chair where he sat down and thanked them. The young man brought him a bottle of water and made sure he was okay before going back to his duties. Dex had no idea how long he’d sat there trying to hold on to his composure.

Dex’s family and teammates took turns scouring the hospital for him to make sure he was okay. It was usually a quick assessment. No one was ready to utter a word. As if any kind of conversation might influence the outcome. Dex had been staring out the glass doors of the hospital entrance when Cael rushed over. Dex braced himself.

“Dex, the nurse said the doctor’s going to come out and speak with us.”

“Did they say anything about Sloane?” He hurried after his brother to the waiting area.

Cael shook his head. “Nothing.”

When Dex joined the rest of his team inside the tastefully decorated lounge of soothing gray hues, they acknowledged him before returning to their previous fretting. They looked lost. Like they were waiting for Sloane to come out and tell them everything was okay. Dex knew the feeling. The team spent so much time together on the job—and off it—it was hard not falling into their roles no matter the situation, and Sloane’s role was of leader. They’d follow him to hell and back. Dex understood how this might be doubly hard for the team what with having lost Gabe. He could imagine what was running through their minds. It was probably somewhere along the same line as his thoughts. Would they be attending another funeral? Dex buried that thought down deep. He couldn’t go there. While he waited for the doctor to come out, Dex stood to one side and observed his teammates.

Letty and Rosa were huddled together speaking quietly, their arms linked, while Calvin gave Hobbs a reassuring pat on the shoulder, both glassy-eyed and tense. Dex hadn’t seen Hobbs whisper to Calvin once since the two had arrived at the hospital, and Dex feared Hobbs was retreating into himself again like he had after Gabe’s death. Ash was sitting in one of the two-seaters, red-eyed and groggy. He sat up and rubbed his eyes. Dex felt for the guy.

The nurses had taken care of Ash’s stitches hours ago, and despite whatever they’d given him making him drowsy, Ash refused to close his eyes, even for a moment. Dex had a whole new level of respect for him. The longer he knew the guy, the more layers he discovered. Ash might be a certified prick, but Dex was growing to appreciate the rough agent’s underlying qualities. Dex understood Sloane’s loyalty now.

Ash bitched and groaned about almost everything. He was tactless and unapproachable, but if you needed someone to go to war for you, Ash Keeler would bring down his wrath like some vengeful Greek god and make it rain blood and pain on whoever made the stupid mistake of crossing him. Despite all that, somewhere deep inside, Ash Keeler still had a heart, because Dex saw evidence of it breaking every time Ash’s gaze landed on Cael. Why the guy was so damned determined to be without someone he would die for was beyond Dex.

A Therian doctor who Dex recognized as one of several who’d come out when the EMTs had arrived with Sloane, came barging through the door and into the waiting area, straight to Tony. Dex had learned months ago from his own stay at the hospital after some of Pearce’s hired goons ambushed him that the THIRDS had their own appointed medical staff here at the hospital, so he wasn’t too surprised to find the doctor royally pissed off. Dealing with the government had that effect on people. Whatever the hell had happened, the doctor was furious. When he spoke, his tone was harsh and clipped.

“Sergeant Maddock, a word please.”

Clearly dealing with the THIRDS didn’t mandate the same patience required for civilians. The doctor pulled Tony off to one side, and although their voices were quiet, it was clear by the doctor’s dilated pupils and his hand movements something wasn’t right.

“Screw this.” Dex marched over and butted in. “What the hell’s going on?”

The doctor eyed him with a frown. “Who are you?”

“I’m Agent Daley, Agent Brodie’s partner. If something is going on with him, I have the right to know about it.”

“Well, Agent Daley, I hope you care about your partner more than your organization does.”

The words hit Dex like a punch to the gut, and he did his best not to panic. “What happened?”

“The THIRDS withheld vital information regarding agent Brodie’s medical history, and it nearly cost him his life.”

“What?” A series of emotions swept through Dex, everything from shock, to anger, to confusion. The doctor must have picked up on it because he expanded his reply.

“Your partner suffers from malignant hyperthermia, a potentially fatal muscular disorder triggered by general anesthetics. As the anesthesiologist was given no information regarding Agent Brodie’s susceptibility to this crisis, he was administered anesthetics along with a paralyzing agent, causing him to suffer an episode. We immediately began emergency procedures, stabilizing his vitals before he could go into cardiac arrest. These complications could have been prevented had the THIRDS been forthcoming.”

“Is it possible they didn’t know?” Dex asked, hoping their organization hadn’t purposefully withheld such important information. Something told him he already knew the answer.

“It’s possible Agent Brodie was unaware of his susceptibility, but malignant hyperthermia is inherited, and the THIRDS refused to release background and medical information on Agent Brodie’s family, merely stating there were no concerns.”

“Those sons of bitches.” Dex’s jaw muscles clenched along with his fists. There was no doubt in his mind Sloane’s condition stemmed from his time at the research facility. It would explain why those bastards up in Washington were more concerned with keeping their secret safe than saving one of their agents. It had nothing to do with Sloane’s parents. The Therian Defense Department withheld information from Sloane’s First Gen records in order to prevent the risk of exposure to the First Gen Recruitment Program. After all, what was one agent in the grand scheme of things? Tony placed a hand to Dex’s shoulder in an attempt to calm him.

“Take it easy, son. Now’s not the time.”

His dad was right. He’d lose his shit over this later. Dex returned his attention to the doctor whose anger appeared to have subsided. “So what now?”

“He’s out of surgery and will remain in ICU under close observation for the next thirty-six hours. Until Agent Brodie regains consciousness, we won’t know what—if any—damage may have been caused by the episode. Once I have additional information, I’ll determine the next course of action. Hopefully it will simply mean moving him to a general private room before he’s well enough to discharge.”

“Can I see him?” Dex asked. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe the doctor, but Jesus, they’d almost lost him. Not that Sloane still wasn’t in danger. “Stable” was a word doctors and law-enforcement officers used for the media. It meant a patient’s vitals were unchanged. All Dex could do was pray Sloane pulled through this without further complications.

“While he’s in ICU, outside visits are restricted to spouses or partners only. We need to minimize the amount of outside contact to prevent any infection.”

“But, he’s my partner. I swear I’ll stay in the room.” The last few hours had been excruciating. How the hell was he supposed to get himself through another thirty-six hours without at least having seen Sloane?

The doctor shook his head. “I’m afraid even the THIRDS need to respect the rules. I’m sorry, Agent Daley.”

Tony’s hand came to rest against Dex’s lower back, the Tony Maddock signal for don’t kick up a fuss. But if there was ever a time for Dex to stick to his guns, this was it. He had to see Sloane. “Can I speak to you privately, Doctor?”

“Of course.”

The doctor walked to one side, and Dex accompanied him, his voice low when he spoke. “When I said I was his partner, I didn’t just mean work partner.”

“Oh.” With a puzzled frown, the doctor removed a tablet from his pocket and scrolled through his information. “I have him listed as ‘single’ with his emergency contact a Mr. Ash Keeler.”

It was risky, but Dex had to chance it. “Yeah, um, it’s kind of against the rules. Now I don’t want to get transferred from my team. I love my team. But I love him even more. Please. You have to let me stay with him.” Dex met the Therian doctor’s gaze. The tattoo on his neck marked him as a wolf Therian, and despite his flustered state, Dex got a good vibe off the doc. He couldn’t be much older than Sloane, and he had a kind face with sharp golden eyes.

“Agent Daley—”

“If he wakes up or something happens and I’m not there with him….” Dex couldn’t bring himself to finish his sentence. He cleared his throat and tried again. “You know what brought him here. You said it yourself, you almost lost him. In our line of work, every moment we have is precious. Please, don’t deny me this time with him.”

The doctor looked like he was going to politely refuse once again, but instead he let out a resigned sigh. “All right. I’ll make the necessary arrangements, but it’s important you try and remain in the room. You’ll have to wash up first. I’ll inform the medical team.”

Relief flooded through Dex, and he wanted to throw his arms around the doctor and squeeze, but he restrained himself. “Thank you so much. You don’t know how much this means to me. Thank you.”

The doctor smiled at him and motioned over to the rest of the team. “Why don’t you let them know, and I’ll escort you inside.”

“I’ll be right back.” Dex sprinted over to his dad. “Hey, um—”

Tony arched an eyebrow at him. “Let me guess. You convinced him to let you stay.”

“Any chance I can have some time off?”

“Sure. I’ll take care of it. I’ll have Cael bring you your overnight bag and leave it with one of the appointed nurses.”

“Thanks, Dad. I’ll call the second anything changes. Let the team know, will you?” He hugged his dad.

Ash was watching him, and Dex held a thumb up. He’d send Ash a text message later. Ash gave him a nod in understanding, and Dex was off. He joined the doctor and accompanied him down a long corridor through a door that led to a medium-sized shower room. There were four closed-off stalls in a blue-tiled area with a wall of lockers to the left and around the corner to the right he could make out bathroom stalls and sinks. The doctor walked to one of the lockers and pressed his thumb to the small keypad. Inside, toiletry items and stacks of sealed plastic packaging containing gray scrubs filled it. He looked Dex over, shuffled through the packs, and handed Dex a Human size medium, followed by a small toiletry bag.

“We keep supplies for special visitors. There are clean towels on the racks next to the showers.” He removed an empty plastic bag from the locker and handed it to Dex. “Place your clothes in here. I’ll get one of the housekeeping staff to get them cleaned. You can leave your shoes outside the room. The less we expose your partner to outside elements the better. At least until he’s out of danger. I’ll return for you in fifteen minutes.”

“Thank you.” Dex took his supplies and headed for a stall. With everything going on, his clothes and appearance had been the least of his worries. Obviously he couldn’t see Sloane covered in dirt and grime. The doctor would return soon, and Dex didn’t want to keep him waiting, so he showered quickly, concentrating on washing off evidence of the explosion. He did his best not to let his thoughts drift off to Sloane and the state he might be in.

As soon as Dex was clean, he dried himself off, changed into the new scrubs and socks, pulled on his sneakers, and shoved his dirty clothes into the plastic bag marked for the housekeeping department. As the doctor had promised, he was there exactly fifteen minutes later. “I really appreciate everything you’re doing,” Dex said, handing the doctor his clothes.

“To be honest, your organization isn’t the easiest to deal with.” The doctor headed out and Dex followed. Sounded like this wasn’t the first time the guy had issues with the THIRDS.

“Yeah, I’m starting to see that,” Dex muttered. He still couldn’t believe they’d deny vital information that would impact one of their agent’s lives. For all the good the THIRDS did, it was still part of the government, and Dex wasn’t so naïve as to have blind faith in any one institution. He’d seen too much in his career, both at the HPF and now at the THIRDS. The THIRDS was a step in the right direction toward uniting Therians and Humans, but it wasn’t without its flaws.

“I take it you haven’t been with the THIRDS long?” The doctor stopped by one of the nurses’ stations and handed Dex’s clothes over as he spoke quietly to a young curly haired Therian. She gave the doctor a nod and was off. They were immediately moving again.

Dex shook his head. “A year this month. I was homicide for the HPF.”

“Wait.” The doctor frowned thoughtfully. “Daley. I’ve seen you on the news. You testified against your Human partner.”

“My claim to fame,” Dex replied dryly.

“I apologize. I didn’t mean anything by it. I thought I recognized you. Considering the options, I’d rather deal with the THIRDS than the HPF. No offense.”

“None taken.” He hadn’t exactly left on friendly terms. Still, he’d had a good run there. He wasn’t about to throw away ten years of good work over a bunch of bureaucratic douchebags. “They’re not all bad, but unfortunately the assholes are usually the ones who speak the loudest.”

The doctor chuckled. “Preaching to the choir, Agent Daley.”

They walked down the ICU and stopped outside one of the rooms where Dex used the hand-sanitizer dispenser on the wall despite having scrubbed himself from head to toe. The glass sliding door was closed, and the white curtain with a blue and pink pattern was drawn, preventing him from seeing inside. He toed off his shoes and nudged them to the side so no one would trip over them before he reached for the large button that would open the door. He hesitated. Whatever he expected, it would undoubtedly appear worse. Dex reminded himself about everything his partner had been through in his life, no matter how bad, he’d persevered and he’d do it again. He held on to that. The doctor placed his hand on his shoulder, his gaze sympathetic.

“Your partner’s a fighter, but he’s going to need your strength.”

Dex nodded, his lips pressed together to keep himself from giving in to the turmoil bubbling up inside him. With a small smile, the doctor gave his shoulder one last squeeze before walking off, leaving him on his own.

Well, he couldn’t stand out here all day. Bracing himself, he pressed the button and waited for the door to slide open before he parted the curtain and slipped inside. There was a male nurse with his back to Dex as he checked Sloane’s vitals.

“Excuse me,” the young Therian said before turning and slipping past him.

Dex thought maybe he recognized the nurse, but it was out of his mind the moment his eyes landed on Sloane.

“Jesus.” He wiped a hand over his face in an attempt to compose himself. It was growing more difficult with each breath he took. Stepping up to Sloane’s bed, Dex stood, attempting to take it all in. He’d known what to expect, but seeing Sloane laying there in such a state…. It was a sucker punch to his heart. The left side of his handsome face was swollen and covered in bruises. The purplish blotches continued down his neck and disappeared under the hospital gown, the blue of which was a stark contrast against his tan skin, skin that was scratched to hell. There were IVs and tubes sticking out all over, while the hum of machines and beeping monitors resounded through the otherwise silent room. Dex had seen worse during his career, but on the job, he found ways to cope. When it was someone he loved fighting for his life, how the hell was he supposed to cope with that?

He dragged a cushioned armchair over to Sloane’s bedside and took a seat, refusing to lose his composure. Sloane needed him to be strong. When his partner regained consciousness, who knew what the doctor would find? Dex could only hope for the best. He couldn’t afford to think about anything else.

“Hey, Beautiful.” Dex wanted to touch him but was hesitant to. He’d never seen Sloane like this, and he was finding it difficult figuring out what to do. The bed had been adjusted for Sloane’s comfort and raised at a low angle, making it possible for Dex to see the terrible shape he was in. How could a Therian so tough look so fragile?

Many Humans feared and despised Therians, felt threatened by them and their abilities, believed them to be unsusceptible to Human flaws. Therians might be resilient, but they were hardly immune to pain, illness, or death. They weren’t perfect, and yes, there were Therians who felt they were superior to Humans, but in Dex’s opinion that only went to prove that although the mutation in their DNA made them physically different, on the inside, they were as fallible as Humans.

Dex lifted Sloane’s hand to his lips for a kiss and shut his eyes tight against the tears threatening to burst free. Hold it together, Rookie. He smiled despite the situation. The word had become a term of endearment when spoken by Sloane. What he wouldn’t give to hear that low, gravelly voice or see those soulful amber eyes. He tried not to give too much thought to their future, considering his tendency to move too quickly, but at times silly notions would slip into his head. Like them living together, spending the rest of their lives together. Being a family.

“You have to be okay. I need you to be okay. Hell, I just need you. You promised me an afternoon in bed, remember?” A tear rolled down his cheek, and he swiftly wiped it away. It’s okay. Breathe. Just this morning he’d stood in Sloane’s arms, smiling up at those sparkling eyes. They’d teased each other and laughed before Dex all but melted against Sloane like he always did when Sloane kissed him. He’d been stupidly happy. Everything had started to feel normal again after the last few months. And now…. He put Sloane’s hand to his lips again and kept it there, his eyes shut tight as another tear escaped. It would be okay. The doctor had said so himself. Sloane was a fighter.

“I need you to be okay, Sloane. Please. I don’t know if you can hear me. You probably can’t, but I’ll say it anyway. I love you. I love you, and you can’t leave me.”

Author Bio:
M/M romance author by day, artist by night, Charlie Cochet is quick to succumb to the whispers of her wayward muse. From Historical to Fantasy, Contemporary to Science Fiction, no star is out of reach when following her passion. From hardboiled detectives and society gentleman, to angels and elves, there’s bound to be plenty of mischief for her heroes to find themselves in, and plenty of romance, too!


Hell & High Water #1

Blood & Thunder #2

Rack & Ruin #3

Rise & Fall #4