© 2023 by Jordan Summers

SCARLET CHAPTERS 1-3

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Gina ‘Red’ Santiago stood naked in a barren valley near the remnants of a dead forest. The cool desert air brushed her skin, leaving gooseflesh in its wake. She shivered and took a deep breath. Closing her eyes, she curled her toes into the earth and pictured a wolf in her mind.

It took a few minutes, but eventually eyes the color of autumn stared back at her from a shaggy elongated face. Its deadly white teeth glowed in sharp relief next to its velvety black pelt. Not quite animal and definitely not human, the creature looked imposing. And dangerous.

Red sank deeper into her mind. Her stomach spasmed. She felt the wolf’s hunger. Its need for survival. The desire to escape. It took every fiber of Red’s being not to act on the urge to run blindly into the darkness. She longed to feel the compacted dirt and sand beneath her rough paws. Feel the air flow over her thick pelt. Feel the thrill that came from running down prey.

She mentally reached out, drawing the vision nearer, calling to her Other, beckoning the wolf inside her to come and play. It was time to embrace the thing she feared most.

Close. Closer. Red felt the phantom sensation of soft fur brushing her hands. Almost there.

Pain seared her flesh, causing her spine to contort. Her head jerked back like invisible hands yanked her hair. The night sky blurred before her eyes. Red closed them to keep from throwing up. Tremors wracked her. Her mouth opened in a silent scream.

Carried away by the fire coursing through her veins, Red could no longer control her movements. Her muscles bunched under her skin, twisting and bulging as the beast clawed its way out. The bones in her hand snap. Red shrieked and opened her eyes.

Tonight was the night. She could feel it.

Her body continued to coil, bending into unnatural shapes. Red thought she'd go mad from the agony. She stared out at the barren landscape, trying to breathe through the pain. Her vision dimmed until she could barely see. She was going to pass out. The moment fear engulfed her, the pain receded, taking the wolf with it.

“No!” she shouted. “Come back!” She lunged for the wolf’s image, but holding onto it was like trying to tether smoke.

Red looked down at her gnarled hand, expecting to see a smattering of fur—or at least a misshapen paw where her fingers should be. One claw protruded through the top of her fingernail.

All that pain for one lousy claw?

Blood dripped onto the thirsty desert floor. The glistening scarlet puddle spotlighted her failure.

She swore under her breath.

It had been weeks since Red had quit the International Police Tactical Team and moved to Nuria in the Republic of Arizona. Weeks since she'd first attempted to shift into her Otherform. And she still couldn't control the wolf inside her.

Red stared at her hand, watching the bones pop back into place. She was still amazed by how quickly her body could repair the damage. So amazed that she could almost ignore the excruciating pain that followed. Almost.

The agony was the same every night. Red would've thought that she'd be used to the pain by now, but she wasn't. She glanced to her right and quickly spotted her lover.

Sheriff Morgan Hunter waited quietly in the distance at the edge of the forest. He hid his disappointment well, but not well enough. Red still noticed. Morgan was worried. Everyone was.

How many more times could she fail to shift before the townsfolk decided to run her out of Nuria?

Red sighed.

Others who couldn't control their change were as dangerous to the town as a loaded laser rifle in the hands of a criminal. It wasn’t just the fear that they might harm other people. It was the damage they could do to themselves.

The old government created Super Soldiers via gene splicing human DNA with the top predators in the world. The new species known as Others were the last ditch effort to end the massive global war. Others could take several pistol blasts before they even realized that they'd been hit. It would take a lot more than that to finish the job. Not that Red would know firsthand, since she'd spent the majority of her time without fur.

Sleepwalking in her Other form didn’t count.

Morgan's influence as sheriff would only protect her for so long. Soon that would end, then it would be open season and Red would be fair game.

The pressure from that invisible clock only made it harder to concentrate. Morgan hid his worry well, but Red could still sense it. Hard to keep things like that from someone you're sleeping with. He hadn't come right out and said anything. Morgan never would. It wasn't his way. There'd be enough people in town to do it for him.

Disapproval she could deal with, but disappointment...

Red had spent her whole life trying not to disappoint anyone. She had succeeded with her parents and her grandfather, Commander Robert Santiago. At least Red thought she had, but there was no way to be sure that they hadn’t lied to spare her feelings.

Maybe like Morgan, they'd hid their disappointment and she'd been too young to realize it. Red debated whether to try to shift one more time. She glanced at the night sky. It was getting late.

They'd been out here for three hours already. Three wasted hours with only a claw to show for it. Red picked up a rock and threw it at a tank, half buried under the desert. The rock burst through the rotting reminder of the last world war, leaving a gapping hole behind.

Red picked up another rock and sent it hurling through the air out of sight. She had no doubt that the town would know about her failure come morning.

Morgan wouldn't lie, if someone asked. And someone alwaysasked how it went. Red didn't expect him to lie on her behalf, but sometimes she wished he would. She stared at him.

Scars etched Morgan’s chest and abdomen, carving out a tragic story that started when the military he’d served with honor tried to kill him and ended with his cousin Kane’s betrayal. The mental scars ran far deeper than the ones marring his skin. Kane Hunter’s obsession with her had tipped him into madness and ultimately drove him to try to kill Morgan.

Kane had conspired with Roark Montgomery, a politician determined to expose the Others. Had their plan succeeded, it would’ve meant genocide for Morgan and his people. Even though their machinations failed, Roark still posed a serious threat.

Red still couldn't believe how close she'd come to losing Morgan. What would she have done then? Gone back to the International Police Tactical Team? Doubtful. Found a new job? Unlikely. She was only qualified to do one job and that was hunt Unknowns.

The unregistered individuals continued to sneak through the boundary fence that separated the Republics from No-Man’s-Land. Seeing their fresh trails galled her, but Red no longer had the authority to stop them—or Roark for that matter.

The wind picked up.

Morgan threw his head back, letting the desert breeze caress his skin and shoulder-length dark hair. The air picked up the sweet musk that covered his body and carried the rich aroma over to her.

Despite his civilized appearance, Morgan’s wolf always lurked just beneath the surface, a barely leashed instinctual being that was impossible to ignore. The aura of dominant power he exuded was second nature to him. Without even trying, Morgan drew her to him. 

Red's body tightened in anticipation. She wanted to shift just to be near him. She wanted to feel what it would be like to have their wolves running side-by-side, but that would require her to lose control. Red had never been good at letting herself go.

In the back of her mind, she worried that if she released the beast inside of her that it might kill someone. Red didn’t want the death of a Nurian citizen on her conscience. Or worse yet, Morgan.

He might have years of experience shifting into his Other form and she knew he could fight, but Red wasn’t willing to take the chance. No matter how remote.

If Red accidentally killed someone, Morgan would be forced to put her down. His feelings for her and plans for their burgeoning relationship wouldn’t factor into the decision.

Nuria had survived this long by following a few simple rules: 1. Never tell an outsider that you're an Other. 2. Do not hunt humans. 3. Shape-shifters who live in town must be able to control their changes.

Violation of rule number two garnered an automatic death sentence. Breaking rule number three came with two options: banishment or death. Neither option appealed to Red, but she could live with those rules. At least she hoped she could.

When she'd agreed to the terms, Red had thought learning to shift wouldn't take her long. She'd always been a fast learner, even as a child. Her natural abilities hadn't changed as far as she could tell. If anything, they'd gotten better.

So why was she having so many problems? Shifting shouldn’t be that hard to do. She’d done it in her sleep multiple times. She just hadn’t been able to do it while she was conscious.

Red’s finger burned as the claw finally receded into her hand. She had to be doing something wrong, but she didn't know what that might be. She'd followed Morgan's instructions to the letter.

She was good at following instructions, when they suited her. Morgan had told her to hold the image in her mind, bring it toward her, then let her body do the rest. Watching him shift in seconds, seeing all the muscles in his body spring to life, made it look so easy. She should’ve known that wasn’t the case.

Morgan stayed in the woods, silently moving along the edge of the dead trees. He'd watched night after night, partly to bear witness and partly to make sure she didn't do anything she shouldn't while in her Other form. So far, there wasn't a chance of that happening.

Red could feel the tension rolling off him in waves. He wanted her to succeed. Morgan pushed her hard because he knew she could take it. And Red loved him for it, even though the pressure had started to get to her.

The wind shifted again.

Morgan inhaled and his amber eyes widened, pinning her in place.

"Gina, you're not concentrating." A feral grin lit his face.

Red’s heart skipped a beat, then trampled her rips as he stalked toward her. Grace and stealth gave fluidness to his movements. It was hard to concentrate, when he didn’t have a shirt on.

Morgan was the only one besides her grandfather that called her Gina. Everyone at her old job called her Red, a name that had started out as an insult due to her uncanny ability to cause excessive amounts of bloodshed.

It wasn't her fault that Unknowns refused to surrender.

Red did her best to bring them back alive, but rarely succeeded. In time, she'd embraced the negative nickname and now wore it proudly. Red wasn't ready to give it up just yet.

"I was concentrating," she said. "Just not on the change." She bent over to gather her clothes off the ground.

Morgan was behind her before Red could straighten. His strong hands gripped her hips. She tried to turn, but his blunt nails dug into her bare skin, holding her in place. Morgan leaned forward until his chest scraped her back.

"Do you know what you just offered by bending over naked in front of an Alpha wolf?" he murmured. His stubbled jaw brushed her ear.

Gooseflesh prickled Red’s skin and her nipples hardened into painful peaks. "Maybe." She laughed.

The truth was she'd been too distracted by her failure to pay attention. She'd only meant to gather her clothes to cover her embarrassment over another wasted evening.

"You won't be needing these for a while." Morgan grabbed her clothes out of her hand and dropped them onto the ground, then nipped her tender lobe.

Red groaned, her failure tonight temporarily forgotten. She heard a button pop behind her and the slow, teasing purr of a zipper being lowered. The musky scent of Morgan’s skin intensified, drowning her senses.

The material from his pants brushed the back of her thighs, as it slid down his legs. Red bit her lip. It was always like this between them, so heated and urgent. Like they'd never get enough of each other.

"Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to wait in the woods, while you're standing naked forty feet away?" Morgan trailed kisses along her spine, while his callused hands kneaded the round globes of her bottom.

"No," she gasped. “Tell me." Red rocked back into his growing hardness.

Morgan's breath strangled in his chest "Your delicious scent calls to me," he said, catching the tender flesh of her neck in a love bite.

Red’s knees shook.

Morgan flicked his tongue over the spot to soothe her heated skin.

Red practically howled under the onslaught.

"You watch me, when you think that I'm not looking,” he whispered. “But my wolf is always aware of your presence. It's so attuned to your body that I know the second you become wet." To prove his point, Morgan ran his finger over her skin until he reached her moist center.

Red shimmied to get closer.

"Do you want to know how I know?" he asked.

"Yes," she bit out, as he slipped two thick fingers inside of her, stretching her, caressing her.

Morgan slowly curled his fingers until his knuckles brushed the hidden nerves that would send Red over the edge.

"Because." His hot breath fanned her ear. "I get hard the moment your body sends out that signal." He rocked his hips to show her just how hard he was.

"Morgan, please," Red begged, mindless with passion. After her failed attempt to shift, she needed this connection. It was the only one they had, until she could embrace her Other.

His hot, length scalded her as he slid the head of his shaft to her entrance. Morgan swirled the tip in her juices, but didn’t enter her. "Please what?" he asked.

Red was beyond speech. She rocked her hips to deepen their connection.

Morgan growled and his hands tightened to prevent her from impaling herself.

"I want you." Red reached around and brushed his sac.

The slight caress sent the air rushing out of Morgan's lungs. His entire body clenched. "Stop!"

She stroked him again. This time giving his balls a gentle squeeze.

"Not fair." Morgan shuddered.

“That makes us even," Red said. If he didn't move soon, she'd die from the exquisite torture.

"You're mine. Don't ever forget that," he said, then thrust forward, burying himself to the hilt.

Red's knees nearly gave out as Morgan took her from behind. There was nothing gentle about their joining. This was an Alpha staking his claim.

Morgan’s hands seemed to be everywhere at once, teasing her nipples, stroking her center, and caressing her skin. His feral grunts only served to ratchet up her need. Their moans filled the air as flesh slapped flesh.

Morgan ground his hips into her bottom, lifting Red onto her toes. "I love you so much." The words came out as both a curse and a confession. His sharp teeth latched onto the piece of skin where her shoulder met her neck. "Please don't ever leave me again," he murmured almost too low for her to hear, then bit down.

The sensation of him drawing on her flesh and drinking her blood sent Red spiraling out of control. She screamed and her body convulsed against him. They collapsed onto the ground, Morgan still hard inside of her.

His rough tongue lapped the spot he'd bitten. Morgan’s taste for blood had grown since Raphael Vega had saved his life. The vampire had given him blood after Kane's vicious attack. He hadn't taken on any other vampiric quirks that Red could see, but it had only been a couple of months, so there was still time for that to change.

"That was incredible," Red murmured as she tried to catch her breath.

Morgan pulled her close and rolled them onto their sides. "I'm just getting started," he said, rocking his hips for emphasis.

They made love for the next two hours, sometimes slow and easy, others fast and heated. The wolf was nothing if not insatiable. By the time Morgan was spent, Red had lost track of the number of orgasms she’d had.

Lying on the desert floor, gasping like a couple of naughty teenagers who'd just discovered sex was becoming the norm. Red had thought the intensity would fade or at least cool, but as she listened to her heart pound in her ears, she realized if anything, the feelings were stronger. Was that her wolf responding to his Alpha or did Morgan just bring it out of her?

It didn’t really matter. She just hoped whatever caused it never went away.

Eventually her strength returned and Red stood. She helped Morgan to his feet, even though he didn’t need her assistance. They gathered their clothes and began to dress. The air had gone from cool to downright cold. Red hadn't noticed while Morgan had been wrapped around her, but now she did. The breeze chilled her flesh and cleared her love-fogged brain.

"You know I don’t want to ruin the mood, but I haven't managed to produce more than a claw in weeks. I know you're trying to help me, but I've heard the talk that's going around town."

His expression soured. "You can't listen to gossip." Morgan yanked his pants on.

"Maggie told me that by the time Others are teenagers that they can easily slip in and out of form. It's never taken anyone this long to learn. What if I can't do it? What if I'm some kind of freak?”Red croaked on the last word. Morgan’s assistant had been adamant, when she’d made the proclamation. 

Red had never fit in on the tactical team, even though her grandfather was the commander of IPTT. When her gift was revealed, she'd finally understood why. She thought that she'd finally found her place amongst the Others of Nuria, but now Red wasn't so sure.

What if she couldn't fit in here either?

Not being able to shift made her different. Made her stand out. Acceptance here was an illusion Red had created in her mind and religiously cultivated because of Morgan's love. And because she'd wanted so badly to belong. Maybe she didn't belong anywhere, and never would.

"Failure isn't an option," Morgan said matter-of-factly. "You keep forgetting you've already done shifted several times. Now you just have to learn to do it when you're awake. Think of it like learning how to talk. Some babies say their first words at seven months, others take over a year before they’ll speak. Do you think that the late bloomers' language skills poor compared to the early adopters?”

“No.” Red shook her head.

“That’s right,” Morgan said. “It just took them longer. You are the first—and only to our knowledge—human/Other hybrid to be born. So stop being so hard on yourself. It'll happen. I have faith in you." He smiled encouragingly.

He might have faith in her, but did she?

CHAPTER TWO

 

Nuria sat nestled on the desert floor of a wide valley just north of where the old city of Phoenix, Arizona, used to stand. The mountains that once surrounded the area had been reduced to rubble during the war, leaving monstrous boulders behind.

A boundary fence that separated the Republic of Arizona from no-man's-land could be seen on the horizon. The green glow from its electromagnetic defenses crackled in the darkness like heat lightning before a storm. It was a constant reminder that danger lurked only a few miles away.

Largely unscathed by the last world war, Nuria's buildings stood as a tribute to 21st-century small-town architectural design. Unfortunately, its economy hadn't fared as well. Most people had migrated to the cities where biodomes could regulate the environment and there was a better chance of finding work.

Few small towns survived in the 22nd-century without a biodome to protect them from the elements. Nuria got by on grit and stubborn determination. Those not fortunate enough to work for the sheriff's station, emergency care center, outfitter shop, share spaces, food dispensing station, or water trader had no choice but to farm animals in order to survive. It wasn’t a bad existence, since food was scarce on the dead world, but it was a tough way of life.

Lights were blazing in the sheriff's station when they arrived. Maggie had probably left them on because she knew Morgan had planned to work late.

"You going to come in?" he asked.

Red stared at the small concrete structure with its brick facade and hand-painted sheriff sign above the door. The solar panels on the roof and the side of the building reflected the stars, giving the place a magical quality.

Inside the door, the magic ended. The place went from sparkling to practical. As much as Red longed to stay with him, she knew it was best that she go. Morgan wouldn't get any work done with her distracting him.

"I think I'm going to call it a night," she said.

"Sure?"

Red nodded. "I'm tired and I have those interviews to prep for tomorrow."

"Okay." Morgan leaned down to kiss her. His firm lips lingered long enough to ignite the embers smoldering inside of her. "I'll be over as soon as I can," he said, then reluctantly released her and strolled inside.

Red watched him go, her heart thumping out a quick staccato from the kiss, then she headed over to the water trader.

She'd kept the room she had rented from her friend, the late Jesse Lindley. Red had had it since she first hit Nuria, even though Morgan had asked her to live with him. She’d been sorely tempted, but thought it best to slow things down after Morgan nearly died. But if she were being perfectly honest with herself, the real reason Red had kept the room was in case things didn’t work out.

Someday in the very near future, she was going to run out of credits. Red would have to decide on a more permanent living situation once that occurred. But until that happened, she'd continue with the present arrangement.

That was if the Nurians didn't run her out of town first.

Red opened the door and stepped into the empty bar area. Metal stools bellied up to the counter, waiting for tomorrow's patrons to arrive and place their water orders. There were stairs on the right, leading to the share space located on the upper floor. Jesse Lindley had run the water trader depot for more than forty years.

She'd died trying to protect Red and the people of Nuria from Roark Montgomery and Morgan's cousin, Kane. The place seemed obscenely quiet without her burly presence and dazzling eye-patch to fill it.

Red climbed the stairs and walked down the yellow hall that led to her room. Normally she stopped to look at the pale red roses that had been stenciled along the way, but not tonight.

The animal furs under her feet silenced her footsteps. She stopped in front of the glowing scanner next to her door. Red placed her hand against the flat panel and waited while it analyzed her palm. The machine hummed, processing her identity with the Republic of Arizona's registrar system.

Every legal citizen was scanned and chipped at birth so all the republics could identify them. Without a scan or identifier chip, you were considered an Unknown—an outlaw. The scanner beeped and the door opened.

Red entered the large square room with cheery yellow walls and dropped onto the rest pad. Her muscles ached and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't form a single coherent thought. She ran her hand over her face and came away with a layer of grit. Red forced herself off the pad and made her way to the cleansing unit. She undressed quickly and stepped into the chemical shower.

Having a private cleansing unit was still a luxury that took some getting used to. Red had shared cleansing space for as long as she could remember. Modesty ended in the twenty-first century, when water rationing arrived. These days it considered normal for groups of people to bathe in communal cleansing units. Nudity had gone from taboo to commonplace.

Sex, on the other hand, was still as complicated as ever, Red thought, as she rinsed the cleanser out of her hair.

There may not be anymore unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases, since births without medical intervention were almost nonexistent and all STDs had been cured, but men were still men and women were still women. And emotions were still complicated.

Red finished washing up, then grabbed the e-files that contained all the information on the applicants she'd be interviewing tomorrow. With any luck, she'd find several promising candidates for the new Nurian Tactical Team. Even if Red didn't manage to find anyone, reading the files would keep her awake until Morgan arrived. Red opened the first file and started to read. She was asleep within minutes.

 

Suddenly, she was frolicking in a valley with Morgan. Under his loving guidance, she'd shifted into a magnificent black wolf-like creature. They chased each other for what seemed like hours, playfully nipping at the other's haunches. The day was sunny and warm. Like most days, there were few clouds in the sky.

Her tongue lolled out of her mouth as she watched Morgan crest a rise and then disappear. Thinking it was part of their pre-coital game, Red followed. She sprinted up the hill, but when she reached the top, Morgan was gone. In his place was an endless sea of charred earth and nothingness.

Red looked around frantically to find him. She tried to call out Morgan’s name. The loud sound that erupted from her throat, eventually morphed into guttural growls. Red coughed and tried again to no avail.

What if she never found him? What if she was stuck in her wolf form forever?

Panic set in. She didn't like being in this place alone. Her tail curled until it was tucked between her legs. Red whimpered. Where was Morgan? He had to be here somewhere. She lowered her muzzle to the ground and sniffed.

The scent of sweat and fear reached her nostrils, making her dizzy. Was Morgan in trouble? Red took off at a run, loping down the hill with ease. Her new form landed quietly as she pursued her quarry's trail. Only after she'd been running for a while did Red realize that the sun had set. Night was upon the desert, magnifying the quiet.

Red heard a small cry. She scanned the sand dunes to her right, but didn't immediately spot him. She sniffed the air, catching a hint of his musk. With excited yips, she followed his aroma. Red found Morgan cowering behind the rubble of an old tank.

I've got you now, she thought, then leapt.

Something was wrong. Red sensed Morgan’s fear. She tried to pull back, but it was too late. She was out of control. Her sharp claws hit his neck, slashing the flesh easily. Red heard a hiss, then Morgan’s dark head fell back, dipping into the shadows, exposing the bloody smile that she’d created along his throat.

Revulsion battled with hunger as the coppery scent of blood filled her nostrils. Red wanted to stop, but she couldn't. Her body's demands were too strong—the wolf inside her was too strong. Red’s lips collided with Morgan’s warm flesh. Her tongue darted out. One taste of his blood and she was mindlessly lost.

Hot, sweet liquid rushed into her mouth, nearly choking her in her fervor to devour. It tasted so salty good she had to force herself to slow down for fear she'd get sick. Red savored the next few bites, her hunger far from abated.

Red ate until she was full, then licked her muzzle and looked at what she'd been feeding upon. Morgan's lifeless face stared up at her, his eyes wide with shock.

No!She shook her head, her mind refusing to believe what she was seeing. It can't be. She couldn't have. Yet there was no mistaking the identity of the man lying under her with his throat ripped out and half his organs missing.

Morgan was dead.

She’d killed him just like she thought she would.

CHAPTER THREE

 

Red dragged herself into the sheriff's station the next morning. She should’ve been more relieved, when she woke up to find Morgan sleeping peacefully beside her. Even though they’d made love, Red just couldn’t shake her nightmare’s ominous undertones.

What if it wasn’t a dream? What if it was a premonition? She’d never had one before, but a lot of things had changed since she’d arrived in Nuria. A shift in psychic ability wouldn’t be unheard of.

She rubbed her temples to ease the throbbing, then grabbed a cup of synth-coffee out of the break room in preparation for the long day ahead. Technically, Red didn't work for the Nuria sheriff's department yet, and wouldn’t until her transfer went through. Luckily, she and Morgan didn’t care about technicalities, especially when there was a job to do.

Today Red would be conducting interviews for the new tactical team. Acting in an official capacity put her in an awkward position with the other deputies.

Fortunately for her, Red was used to being in awkward situations.

She looked at the empty desk outside of Morgan's office. Where was Maggie? She must have had a busy night with Jim Thornton, the director of the dissecting lab, since she normally beat everyone into the office. The two had been carrying on for more than a year and no one had known until last month, when a disheveled Maggie had been spotted coming out of Jim's lab.

Red grabbed a spare metal desk in the back of the room and quickly scanned the applicants’ files. She'd just found her questions for the first interview, when Maggie rushed into the room, tossing her oversized purse onto her chair. She was a soft-spoken woman of moderate age, who'd lived and worked in Nuria her whole life.

She’d spent the last twenty years at the sheriff’s station, keeping everything and everyone in tiptop shape. Maggie took her management job seriously.

Sometimes too seriously, Red thought, but she wasn’t in a position to cast aspersions, since the same had been said about her.

"Sorry I'm late." Maggie fiddled with her brown curls in an attempt to make it look like she hadn’t just rolled out of bed. Half her shirt hung loose, while the other half had been haphazardly tucked in.

"Rough morning?" Red asked.

Maggie blushed and then gave her a quick once-over. "You're one to talk."

"Touché," she said.

Despite the fact Maggie had given up on Red ever controlling her Other, they were still comfortable enough with each other to tease on occasion. Red hoped that eventually they'd become friends just as she and Jesse had.

She hid her smile behind the compunit on her desk and went back to work. If the applications she'd read through were any indication of the quality of the recruits, it was going to take a while to put together a team.

The first candidate rolled into the station an hour later. He was neatly groomed and physically fit. Red watched the auburn-haired man walk up to Maggie and ask for her. She could tell by the way he moved that he wasn’t as aware of his surroundings as he should be for the job.

She waited for Maggie to send him back, then jumped right into the interview.

“So.” Red glanced down at his name. “Hank. Why do you want to join the team?" she asked.

"You have pretty eyes,” he said. “Has anyone ever told you that?"

His statement momentarily stunned Red into silence. What was he doing?

Hank sat across from her with his elbows resting casually on her desk.

Red glared at him until he straightened. Why had she volunteered for this job, when she could be cleaning her guns instead? "Answer the question," she said.

Undeterred Hank kept up his onslaught. "Would you like to go to lunch sometime?"

She blinked at his audacity. "You do realize you're at a job interview, right? I mean I know it's confusing given the men and women running around with badges and laser pistols, but try to stay focused."

"Iam focused." Hank gave her what Red suspected was supposed to be an engaging smile, but it came off more like a leer. He didn’t even try to hide the fact that he was staring at her chest. "It doesn't have to be all business. Does it?"

Red typed in the word "reject" next to his name. "Next."

By the time Red had interviewed the fourth applicant of the day, she was perplexed. Normally being asked out wouldn't bother her, but it had never happened this many times. Ever. She had a sneaking suspicion it was because of her wolf.

Red had been around plenty of male recruits in her last job. Thousands to be exact. Only two had ever asked her to... well, it hadn't been to dinner. One she'd accepted. The other she'd told to go to hell. She’d made an enemy of Bannon Richards that day.

It was possible that the recruits thought flirting with her would help their chances of making the team, but Red didn't think that was likely. When she’d looked at each of the applicants, she’d noticed something different in their eyes. The way that they looked at her was almost predatory in nature and Red didn't like it one bit.

It raised her wolf’s hackles and made her want to lash out. For someone not in control of her wolf, that could be a very dangerous prospect.

The morning crawled bloodied and beaten into the afternoon. Red's voice had grown hoarse from shouting "next" so many times. Applicants she’d interviewed had given her good cause to dismiss them. The faces of the rejected blurred before her tired eyes. Red didn't know how much longer she could keep this up.

Someone cleared their throat.

Red glanced up. She'd forgotten all about the potential recruit she'd been about to interview. With sandy blond hair and freckles dotting his cheeks, the man across from her didn't look old enough to shave, much less serve on a tactical team. Maybe she was just jaded. After all, she'd started at about his age.

She looked at the list of innocuous questions on her compunit. "So why do you want to join the Nurian Tactical Team?" Red paused as it dawned on her that she couldn't remember his name. She flicked her gaze at the screen once more. "Anthony," she added belatedly.

"I was told you'd issue me a laser pistol." He grinned like the answer should please her.

Red heard snickers from the deputies around her, but chose to ignore them. Someone had to do this, and since Morgan was busy making sure Nuria continued to run without incident, that left her.

"And?" she coaxed, waiting for Anthony to continue. Surely, joining a tactical team meant more to him than carrying a weapon. If not, then this would be a very short interview.

Anthony fidgeted and looked flustered. "I thought going on patrol outside of Nuria would be cool." A hopeful expression lit his face.

Red stared at him until he shrank under her regard. "Those aren't exactly the reasons we are looking for. This is a serious job. Lives will be on the line. If you think this is a joke, then you're wasting my time and yours."

"I don't think it’s a joke." He sat forward with newfound determination. "I can't spend the rest of my life raising hogs like my folks. Just tell me what you want to hear."

"I shouldn't have to," Red snapped. "But here's a hint. We want to hear that you want to join so you can look out for your people. That you want to join because you think justice should be for everyone, not just purebloods. That you understand in this line of work that death is always just around the corner."

Anthony perked up. "Yeah, that, too."

Red's eyes narrowed. "Next." She typed in the standard rejection by his name.

"Bitch," Anthony spat.

A growl rumbled out of Red's chest before she could stop it. She wasn't sure who was more surprised, her or Anthony. His blue eyes widened with fear, then his gaze dropped to the floor. The room grew deathly quiet.

Red straightened her shoulders. She could feel everyone's eyes on her, waiting to see if she'd snap. She quickly scanned the room. From their wary gazes, she could tell that expected her to shift and rip his head off.

Not today, she thought.

Red pushed the wolf back into the darkness of her mind, then glared at Anthony. "I said next I suggest you leave while you still can," she said with more force than she'd intended.

Anthony left quickly out the front door. He glanced back once to make sure she wasn't following. The urge to give chase caused Red’s muscles to twitch, but she kept the impulse in check. She sat back down and forced herself to focus on her work.

A few minutes later, a shadow passed over her, blocking out the overhead light. Red looked up and up, until she met a pair of piercing amber eyes. She cleared her throat.

"Are you here to interview for the tactical team?" she asked.

The man nodded.

“Then please take a seat."

He draped himself over the chair, flipping his long black hair gracefully away from his face. Red couldn't tell how long it was, but it fell well past his broad shoulders.

"Name?" she asked, trying not to react to his unflinching regard.

This was the type of man the new team needed. Strong, forceful, self-assured, and dominant. He hadn't even opened his mouth yet and he'd shown more presence and intelligence than all the other applicants combined.

“Takeo Alan Yakamura." The man threw open the coat he wore and dust floated through the air.

"Long trip?" Red asked.

"Very," he said without expanding his answer.

Red watched the material settle around him, mesmerized by his movements. "Current occupation?" She placed her fingers on the keys, prepared to type.

"Botanist."

Her head jerked up and Red stared at him. "Did you say botanist?"

The man’s sensual lips twitched and something in his almond-shaped eyes glittered. "Not what you expected?"

"Actually no," Red said. She’d expected Takeo to tell her that he was in the security business or a sheriff like Morgan. Working with plants wasn’t even in her top twenty guesses. "May I ask why you're interested in joining the Nurian Tactical Team?"

"Do I not look capable?" He stood and did a slow turn so Red could get a good look at him.

She swallowed hard as her eyes took in his lean muscular form. He looked more than capable. She inhaled, whether from habit or curiosity she didn't know. His scent was a mix of musk and a spicy floral aroma. Yet in no way could it be described as feminine. Definitely different from the other applicants. Different from anyone she'd ever encountered. The wolf inside her perked up with interest. Red quickly leashed it.

"What are you, Mr. Yakamura?" Red sat back and crossed her arms over her chest. "I don't sense wolf in you or any other known predator." She still hadn't perfected detecting the Other in individuals. Some people projected their power, while others kept it hidden.

"You wouldn't, but I can sense it in you.” He inhaled like he smelled a bouquet of flowers. “Rich, lush, and dare I say, inviting." A smile parted his lips, causing his amber eyes to slant even further.

Red's breath caught in her throat. She prayed Takeo hadn't noticed her reaction, but from the subtle change in his expression, she knew he had. Someone would have to be dead not to react to a man this good looking.

She cleared her throat. "I don’t believe we were discussing me. This interview is all about you. Now please answer my question."

Takeo shrugged. "I am something very rare. Something you’ve probably never heard of." He leaned over her desk until only inches separated them. "Are you sure you really want to know what I am?"

His sweet breath fanned over her face. The heat of it did strange things to Red’s insides and made her light-headed. Why was she responding this way to him? Sure, he was handsome. But Red had seen handsome men before and had never reacted this way. Something wasn't right.

“What are you trying to do to me?” Red's hand instinctively moved to her pistol. She drew the weapon and brought it up under his chin so fast that Takeo didn't have time to move, much less think. She heard the deputies draw their weapons to give her backup.

“Nothing,” he said.

“Liar,” she snarled. “Now what are you?” 

Takeo’s golden eyes narrowed dangerously and his round pupils flattened into slits. "You shouldn't have done that,” he said. “It feels threatened."

"Funny.” She sneered. “So do I." Before Red could ask what ‘it’ was, a snake with diamond patterns on its head and back sprang out from under Takeo’s coat and came straight for her face. It hissed ominously and extended its fangs.

"What the fek!" Red shouted. Her left hand caught the reptile around the neck mid-strike. It was warm and slick to the touch. The scales bunched and rippled as it tried to twist free. Red kept her laser pistol in place and held on tight.

"I warned you," Takeo said.

The snake coiled around her arm, cutting off the circulation. Red refused to release the scaly creature. It continued to hiss and snap.

Takeo, she noted, hadn't moved an inch. Smart man. "I'm going to ask you one more time," she said in an overly calm voice. "What are you?"

A look of admiration crossed his features before Takeo carefully schooled his expression. "I'm a chimera. If you let me go," he glanced at the hand holding the snake, "I'll put away my toys."

Red arched a brow. "One wrong move and I'll blow your head off, then I’ll take its."

Takeo nodded carefully.

She released the snake and watched it recede under the coat. It was already morphing, the color fading from its diamond-patterned skin. By the time it disappeared beneath the fabric, it was flesh colored.

"Neat trick." Red holstered her weapon and sat once more. "I don't want to know what I was just holding." She ran her hands over her pants.

Takeo’s lips quirked. "You're fast," he said. "Faster than I expected. I'd heard rumors, but they were hard to believe."

Red wondered what rumors he was referring to, but didn’t ask. "You sound surprised, which makes you dumb. Dumber than I expected given your abilities."

He grinned. "More like pleasantly pleased."

Red stared at him, but didn't respond. What could she say? She'd always had fast reflexes, but they'd never been that fast before. It was the wolf again, exerting its presence in her waking state. That was fine, but where was it when she was trying to shift?

"Why do you want to be part of the NTT?" she asked, as if their altercation had never occurred.

Takeo smiled. "I wasn't sure I did until now."

"It’s obvious that you can defend yourself," she said, nodding at his coat.

"So can you," he added, sizing her up. There was something different in his gaze this time. It held a modicum of respect.

“The question is are you interested in defending others?” she asked.

Takeo tilted his head. “There’s only one way to find out.”

"Report here at dawn tomorrow morning," Red said. "And try to keep the snake under wraps."

He nodded. "Is there anyplace in town worth staying?"

"The share space above the water trader still has plenty of rooms. They're clean, spacious, and come with private cleansing units."

"Thanks, Commander."

Red froze at the use of the term. In her mind, there was only one commander and that was her grandfather, Robert Santiago. "I'm not your commander."

Takeo gave her an odd look. "Sure act like one to me," he said, then strode out of the office.

After the chimera left, Red found two more promising recruits. Randall Jones and Keith Olson would make a nice addition to the team. Red was about to take a break, when a flash of color caught her eye.

A man walked forward covered from head to toe in white protective clothing. At least Red thought it was a man, given the height and size of him. She couldn't see his eyes yet, but her body tensed as he neared. One more person attacked her and she was going to call it a day.

The person pressed a button on the side of the mask. The plate cleared enough for her to see a face. She was right. It was a man.

Dreadlocks fell in long snaking spirals near his jaw. He smiled and dimples appeared on his velvety black skin. As he smile widened, Red caught a glimpse of fangs. That explained the protective gear.

Most vampires couldn't handle the sun's rays. It hardened their skin, causing them to expand until they exploded into a thousand tiny pieces of shrapnel. You could kill them, but they'd kill you back.

A few, like Raphael Vega and Mike Travers, were different. They could somehow tolerate the sunlight without it killing them. This man was obviously not one of the fortunate souls.

"Hi," he said, grinning from ear to ear, his dark brown eyes sparkling like onyx.

Red tried to remain professional, but found herself smiling back at him. "Please take a seat."

He sat down, his movements graceful despite the suit. The smile hadn't left his face.

"Name?" she asked.

"Demery Wilson." A lilt flavored his smoky voice.

"Origin?" That wasn’t part of the questions, but she wanted to know where that accent was from.

"Caribbean, mon. In the Republic of Floridian Islands."

Red stared at him. "You're a long way from home."

"My home is wherever I lay my head," Demery said cheerfully. "I am a traveler of the world."

"Any family?" Red strayed from her list of questions again. She was genuinely curious what had brought the vamp to Nuria.

His expression clouded, dimming his chocolate-colored eyes. It could've been a trick of the light, but Red didn't think so.

Demery shifted in his seat and his smile sagged. "I had—have a sister, but I haven't seen her in a while."

Red moved on quickly. She should've known better than to ask such a personal question. "Current occupation?"

"Bounty hunter." Demery perked up.

"Really?" Red laughed, not expecting that answer. He seemed too jovial to be a bounty hunter. The ones she'd run across on the job had been stoic and antisocial. "Any good?"

"I've been told I'm the best." He winked at her.

"Are we still discussing bounty hunting?" she asked, her eyes narrowing.

He chuckled. "But of course, mon." The sparkle in his gaze told her that he wasn't about to admit otherwise. "No one can hide from me for long. I am an expert at remote viewing." He waved a hand through the air.

Remote viewing was a talent they could definitely use on the team. Developed back in the twentieth century for military use, remote viewing allowed a person to mentallyfind things like weapons, secret military locations, or missing individuals.

The program had been abandoned publicly, but experiments and training continued to take place behind the scenes and through private organizations.

"If you have such a lucrative talent, then why do you want to join the NTT? There are other positions out there that would pay far more than we can offer." It was a valid question. Red would love to have someone like Demery on the team, but not if he wasn’t truly committed.

"Just want to do my part for the cause, mon. And who knows, the team may end up helping me in the long run." The cadence in his accent made his words sound melodic. Red found herself tapping her toes to the musical rhythm.

"Aren't you worried you will be at a disadvantage?" She nodded to his protective suit. A member that could be easily disposed of by a single cut in their clothing wasn't going to be of help to the rest of the team.

"No, mon. I've had it modified. I can see as well during the day through the mask as I can at night and the material allows me to move quickly.” Demery stood up and demonstrated, then sat back down. “I'm lethal in and out of the suit"

Red eyed him. His smile seemed to widen, if that was even possible. "We'll see," she said. "Be here tomorrow at dawn."

“Will do, mon. Will do.” Demery left.

Red climbed out from behind her desk, rubbing her back. The day hadn’t been a total waste. At least she'd found a few good candidates. There would be more interviews tomorrow. She groaned at the thought, thenstrode across the station to Morgan's office to fill him in on her progress.

Maggie buzzed Morgan before Red raised her hand to knock on the door. The door slid open. “Thanks, she said, then stepped inside and closed it behind her.

Morgan sat at his desk. His hair poked out at all angles like he'd been running his fingers through it.

"That good a day, huh?" she asked.

He looked up at her. "You don't look like you fared any better." He beckoned her closer.

Red walked over and sat on the corner of his desk. Morgan reached up and pulled her onto his lap. She wrapped her arms around his neck and he kissed her tenderly.

"It's better now," he said, nuzzling her neck. "I've missed you."

"I've missed you, too. I can't wait until we can get out of here."

Morgan grinned and waggled his eyebrows. "Me either."

The viewer in his office glowed to life. The only time it came on was when there was breaking news for the republics. They both turned, ready to see the latest announcement.

The Santa Fe Cloning Laboratory Corporation would like to announce an amazing breakthrough. We have developed an inoculation that repairs damaged and abnormal cells. Just think about it. No more diseases. No more illness. Reverse the signs of aging. We're calling it Project Scarlet.

With Scarlet running through your veins, your life will never be the same.

Have your credits ready to sign up now.

"What does that mean?" Red asked.

Morgan's brow furrowed. "An end to the Others."

"A cure? Are you saying they've developed a cure?" Red squealed in delight. Maybe she wouldn't have to learn how to control the change after all if the Scarlet vaccine worked. She could go back to the tactical team. The people of Nuria wouldn't have to hide any longer. "That's wonderful," she said. "Don't you think?"

Morgan's expression became unreadable. “This isn’t the first vaccine to make that kind of promise. There have been others before. None of them have worked."

"You sound like you're speaking from experience," she said.

"I am," he muttered.

She deflated. "But it's still possible."

"Anything is possible, but it sounds like the vaccine was developed to give purebloods all the benefits of being an Other without any of the nasty byproducts like shifting,” he said, looking more and more unhappy.

A woman's face flashed on the screen. She had warm brown hair and laughing green eyes. Her image slid to the left and a child's face popped onto the screen beside her.

The child reminded Red of someone, but she couldn't place whom. It was obvious that he was somehow related to the woman. He had the same coloring. Red reached for the remote and turned the volume up.

Santa Fe Cloning Laboratory Corporation would also like to announce its two latest clone models. The Sarah-3000, the woman's face enlarged on the screen, will be released as a pleasure model starting in the spring.

Sarah's face faded and the boy's smiling image took center screen. And Joshua-200, who will be a nice addition to any home. He can be used as laborer or you can make him part of the family. Just think what it would be like, having an eight-year-old child for life. We are taking preorders now.

What would they think of next? Red shook her head and looked at Morgan. The color had drained from his face and his features were twisted in agony.

"What's wrong?" Red jumped off his lap.

He didn't respond, only pointed to the screen with trembling fingers.

"Morgan, what's wrong?" Red shook him to get his attention. He didn't move. "You're scaring me," she said.

He turned to her, his amber eyes full of pain, before looking back at the viewer in disbelief. "It can't be. It's not possible."

"What’s not possible? I don't understand.” Red's chest clenched, strangling her breath. Morgan looked like he’d seen a ghost. She stared at the woman and child on the screen and a shiver ran down her spine. "Do you know those clones?" she asked.

Please say no. Please say no.

"Yes." Morgan's tormented gaze met hers once more. He was looking at her, but Red was pretty sure he couldn't see her.

"Who are they?" she asked. Her mind filled with various scenarios. All of them bad.

Tears shimmered in Morgan’s amber eyes. "That's my wife and my son."

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