Authors: Vivi Andrews
Her betrayal is unforgivable. But their passion? Unforgettable.
Lone Pine Pride, Book 3
Hawk-shifter Adrian Sokolov made the mistake of trusting the beautiful Dr. Rachel Russell once—and wound up drugged, captured, and experimented on inside Organization Labs.
He isn’t about to make the same mistake again, but when she offers to help him escape this hell hole, he can’t say no. Her only condition? That he take her with him.
From the moment Rachel discovered her bosses’ true intent, she’s been secretly smuggling shifters out of the Labs. But now the higher-ups suspect they have a mole, and it’s time to flee—but not before she frees the golden-eyed hawk she was forced to betray.
When their escape goes wrong, Adrian wakes, confused and alone, in the safety of the Lone Pine Pride infirmary and realizes he may have left behind the one ally the shifters had within the Organization—the same breathtaking woman who invades his dreams.
Now he must face the Organization that destroyed him… before she pays for his freedom with her life.
Warning: This book contains betrayals, escapes, rescues, plots, double-crosses, a sexy surly hero, a heroine who deserves sainthood… and a pride full of trouble.
Dedicated on behalf of Lea Eldridge to Melina Horn, “the best BFF a person could have.” Happy Birthday, Melina.
They say you can’t keep a good man down, but the truth is with enough horse tranquilizers, you can drop just about anyone.
Adrian drifted up through the layered fog of his consciousness, the sensation oddly familiar, mirroring the memory of his wings catching air current above air current to lift him higher into the sky. The
Panic wanted to arise, but the fog wouldn’t allow it. The pharmaceutical cocktail they’d been feeding him was thorough, dulling everything. His senses. His thoughts. His ability to shift. But not his will to fight. That still burned, an angry ember in his gut, fueling this latest push toward consciousness.
He became aware of his body in a hazy, detached way. Muscles heavy and aching. Head throbbing. How long since he’d moved his arms and legs? He didn’t want to think about how badly his muscles must have atrophied by now.
His throat was so raw and dry it felt like it had been lined with sandpaper and his eyes stung and burned from a dozen needle pricks. An endless source of fascination for the bastards, his eyes. Gauze and surgical tape bound the top half of his face—either in a half-assed effort to bandage the latest wounds to his corneas or an attempt to blind him, hooding him like the raptor he became, as if that would make him more docile.
He’d often overheard them talking—when they didn’t realize they were in range of his hawk-fine hearing—complaining about how troublesome he was, debating how to deal with the difficult subject. Fucking with their experiments was one of his few sources of pleasure and he took a fierce satisfaction in being as disruptive as possible, refusing to be cowed.
The rough fabric padding the restraints at his wrists itched, chafing the skin. Instinctively, he tried to call to the hawk, but the dense, syrupy fog blocked his other half from rising.
It was a mistake, he knew. The block. The doctors had argued for hours about whose fault it was. One of the drugs they’d given him was designed to force a shift so they could observe the process—but it had been designed for felines, and avian shifters were a different breed entirely.
His body had rejected the shift, violently, and at the time he’d been viciously satisfied. Served the bastards right if they broke their own fucking toy because they were too busy shooting him full of shit with side effects they didn’t fully understand.
But now—however many months later—the vindictive satisfaction had faded and he felt the loss of his feathers like a missing limb, a piece of his soul that had been hacked away with pharmacological amputation.
The door slid open with a pneumatic whisper. Soft footsteps. A whiff of delicate, feminine perfume.
“Hello, Hawk. Waking up again, love?”
He jerked, twitching against his restraints.
There it was. The voice. That same fucking voice that always whispered in his dreams. Soft and ladylike, with that genteel southern lilt.
The voice of his betrayer.
It sounded different now. Edged with cruelty. Or maybe that was just the sound of his illusions being stripped away.
He wanted to snarl at her not to call him
but his tongue was sluggish and uncooperative.
Anger sharpened his thoughts, rushing him up through the last few layers of drug-induced morass until he could open his eyes. The gauze was thin and the light in the room harsh and bright enough to let him see the outline of a woman leaning over his bed. His memory eagerly filled in the details he couldn’t see—the curve of her cheek, the chocolate brown curls and bright, save-me-protect-me-trust-me clarity in her rich brown eyes.
She wasn’t meeting his gaze now. He hadn’t had a good look at her in months—or what he assumed was months. Not since his capture. She was always just outside the edges of his vision, weaving in and out of the drug-induced fever dreams with her silky southern accent and soft touches that could turn excruciating in a heartbeat. And the laughter, always the laughter.
But he didn’t need to see her to know she’d still be just as heart-stopping as ever. The backstabbing bitch.
“How are you feeling, darling?” A caress drifted across his forehead and he jerked, avoiding her touch as much as the restraints would allow. She heaved a sigh, the melodramatic sound striking him as out of character—but what did he really know about her? He’d thought he’d known her, thought she could be his mate, the one he’d do anything for and she for him, and then she’d jabbed a needle full of sedative into his shoulder and stood by while her bosses at the Organization collected his body for testing.
Good work, Dr. Russell.
He’d been paralyzed, all but unconscious, his system shutting down one sense at a time, but those words had been clear as a bell. Matter-of-fact. Just another day at the office.
Good work, Dr. Russell.
Adrian couldn’t cling to the hope that she’d been coerced, forced to betray him, not with those words playing on repeat in his brain.
And not with the way she spoke to him during her visits over the last few months. She was an Organization power player, he now knew, higher up than he could have imagined. All those months when she’d been helping shifters escape from Organization cells, funneling them to Adrian on the outside so he could whisk them away to safety, all those
had been a lie, designed to lure him in.
He could almost admire her perseverance, if he didn’t despise her with every fiber of his being.
Her outline drifted out of his line of sight, returning a moment later. “You must be thirsty.”
A straw pressed against his lips. Probably another serum. Another poison corrupting his body so they could observe the effects, but his throat was jagged with thirst and he knew from experience they would only force a tube down his throat if he resisted.
Adrian sucked greedily, the relief of the liquid worth the risk. When he was confident he could get the words out, he spat out the straw and grated out the one question that mattered: “The date?”
He needed to know how long he’d been out of it this time, helpless and senseless as they used his body as their personal science experiment. How many months he’d be adding to the prison sentence he was constructing for the angel-faced doctor for the day he got out of this hell hole. Because he
get out. And she
pay for every second.
He’d tried to do the math, tried to add it up. It was hard to string the lucid moments together and he couldn’t be sure, but he thought they’d had him for two months. Maybe three. Hell, for all he knew it had been three years—his only source of information was what he managed to overhear from the doctors. No one ever told him shit. He wasn’t a person, after all, just another animal.
“September twenty-ninth,” she answered, and he flinched.
Jesus. Six months. Six months of his life gone.
If she could be believed. He didn’t know why he bothered to ask her. He knew from bitter experience Dr. Russell wasn’t exactly reliable with the truthfulness. He’d learned that lesson all too well. Six months in captivity could really drive home a point. If it was six.
“You’re being transferred,” that genteel southern lilt continued. “I’m afraid you aren’t going to enjoy your new habitat. The C Blocks are…something of a hostile environment. But I can help you, if you’ll let me.” A fingernail traced the side of his neck and he swallowed back his revulsion. “We have reason to believe you were part of a conspiracy to remove shifters from our facilities. Obviously you couldn’t have done this alone. You’ll save yourself a lot of pain if you tell me who your contact on the inside was.”
The drugs were fucking with his brain. What the fuck kind of game was she playing?
was his accomplice on the inside. She didn’t need to make a show of asking him—
Unless she was still working to free them. Still maintaining her cover so she could get more shifters out. He wanted to believe it. Wanted with an ache in his gut to believe she’d only betrayed him so she could continue to do their work. Someone could be listening to them now. Perhaps someone was forcing her to interrogate him. His Rachel could still be innocent. Still be
. She wasn’t this creature.
The idea was too seductive to be trusted.
But on the off chance that she was the woman he wanted her to be, he played along. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I think you do.” The words were silky, awash with sensuality. “I can make it good for you if you cooperate, love.” Her hand slithered down his pecs, over his stomach and toward his waistband. “All you have to do is talk to me and I can make sure you feel so good. You won’t get another offer like that.”
“I’ll take the torture, if it’s all the same to you.” He’d been trained to withstand it. He’d die before compromising the safety of the shifters he’d relocated in the last three years.
“Shame.” She released another dramatic sigh. He saw her shadow move, heard her adjusting the machines at his bedside. “I suppose the C Blocks it is. You will be a challenge,” she purred. “And I do like a challenge.”
The words started to blur and bleed into another as the familiar fog of the drugs surrounded him.
“Sleep well, my hawk. When you wake up…well. You’ll probably wish you hadn’t.”
And when I get free,
wish I hadn’t…
It was the thought he clung to as the world washed away.
Rachel flashed her ID badge at the gate, fighting to keep her smile natural and easy as her heart climbed up her throat and she waited to see if the guard would look too closely at the fudged clearance area marker. She wasn’t allowed to be here, but this guard didn’t know that.
She was relying on complacency—and, yes, the typical masculine reaction to her appearance—to keep him from asking questions she couldn’t answer. Like what the hell a reproductive specialist was doing at a transfer station visiting a patient who was no longer under A Block jurisdiction.
The guard smiled, a little too broadly, as he scanned her ID, focusing more on giving Rachel an appreciative look than inspecting her badge—
—and waved her through.
Only when she was through the gate and well clear of the guard post did she let herself breathe. First obstacle cleared.
Eleven million and two to go.
In all the extractions she’d ever done, this was perhaps the worst plan she’d ever concocted. She never would have attempted it if she hadn’t been desperate. And if this wasn’t going to be the last.
They were onto her.
She’d bought herself some grace when she’d betrayed her hawk, but that was gone now.
Her co-conspirators were already in the wind, some walking out with classified data in their pockets and computer viruses in their wakes. Those who could get out, anyway. The others were burrowing in and hoping for the best.
Rachel reached over, nervously checking the backpack in the passenger seat, though it wasn’t as if the thing could have vanished into thin air in the five minutes since the last time she’d touched it. A plain green nylon bag. With three hard drives and a sheaf of papers inside. Everything she’d been able to steal with the help of a computer tech who was now halfway to Costa Rica.
Each of the hard drives was encrypted, with two possible password keys. One which would unlock stores of innocuous medical data to match the decoy papers and a second to display the real intel. Financial records for the Organization. Schematics for their facilities. Files on all shifters known to the Organization.
Those three hard drives were the key to bringing the Organization down, if she could get them into the right shifter hands. And she knew only one man who she would trust to deliver them. The Hawk.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t likely to trust her at the moment.
She almost hadn’t been able to do it. Jab that needle into his back. Take away his freedom. It had been so much harder than she thought it would be.
Even six months later, she could still remember the exact expression on his face when he’d fallen. The confusion. The shock. The flash of rage. The surge of disgust. She hadn’t been able to escape the memory of her betrayal. It revisited her every night in her dreams.
Her biggest mistake. It didn’t matter that she’d been aggressive in the last six months, freeing as many shifters in that time as they had in the previous three years combined. She still wished every day that she could go back and do it differently. Tell him the truth. Fight with him. Run away with him. Anything else.
One hundred seventy-three days, thirteen hours and twelve minutes. That was how long her hawk had been in captivity.
She hadn’t been able to let his capture be for nothing. His sacrifice—even if it wasn’t voluntary—had to mean something. And it had meant the lives of all those shifters.
But the recent extractions hadn’t been without risks. She hadn’t been as careful. Some of the shifters were moved on the fly, with thrown together identities and relocations. The famous Hawk wasn’t on the other end anymore, making sure that part went off without a hitch. Rachel got them out, but over the last couple months, some of them had started coming back, being recaptured—which, considering they were listed as dead in the Organization databases, had raised some serious red flags.
The Board of Directors knew now they had a problem. They were actively looking for a mole and Rachel had been in too many of the right places at the wrong times.
They weren’t certain. If they had been sure, she would’ve been in a cell somewhere in the C Blocks. Or dead in a ditch on the side of the road, the victim of a convenient accident.
But they were suspicious. Far too suspicious. They’d been pushing her, testing her loyalties, and she was afraid she wasn’t fooling them anymore.
Time was up.
The second she helped the Hawk escape, the last shred of her cover would be blown and she would have to disappear too. No more helping the others—but security was tightening another strangling notch and their chances of success with any other extractions were rapidly dwindling anyway.
Besides, he was scheduled to be sent to the C Blocks—the torture division—and if they broke him, if they managed to get at the information he carried, then all of her work for the last three and a half years was forfeit.
No. Better if he escaped. If they both did.
Not exactly what she’d had in mind when she’d envisioned herself running away with the man of her dreams.
Rachel parked her Civic in the lot beside the transfer station. She grabbed the backpack and climbed out, locking the doors by habit, though there wasn’t really any point. If everything went according to plan, she wouldn’t be back for the car.
The Organization guarded the roads leading into this valley, no escape that way, but the wilderness at its back was all but ignored—an oversight Rachel had always thought indicated an arrogant lack of understanding about shifter strengths. With the Hawk at her side, Rachel could vanish into those woods.
At least that was the idea.
She flipped the backpack onto her shoulder, hoping the move looked casual and her grip on the shoulder strap less desperate than it was as she strode toward the front door of the transfer station as if she had every right to be there.
The C Blocks always seemed to be overcrowded—never enough torture chambers for all the intended victims—so these transfer stations had been set up to keep the shifters drugged and waiting for their turn in the chair. Rachel had only been to one once before—when a particularly volatile cougar female had been believed to be pregnant and the Board wanted Rachel’s expert opinion on her gestational state before they decided whether she belonged to the A Blocks or the C Blocks.
The cougar had been pregnant. And she’d gone to the C Blocks anyway. Rachel hadn’t been called back to a transfer station since.
The guard at the front door took a much closer look at her badge, frowning when she told him which captive she needed. “Popular guy.”
She jolted, jumpy with adrenaline. “Sorry?”
“Ms. Clarke is with him now.”
Rachel fought to keep the sheer blinding terror from showing on her face. “Oh? Maddie’s here?”
The people who worked for the Organization could generally be divided into three categories, in Rachel’s experience. Those who were paid to be there—typically the guards who got off on the power and barely veiled sadism of their jobs. Those who were coerced to be there through threats or blackmail—often scientists and doctors with unique specialized knowledge, like Rachel herself. And the third, most terrifying subset of Organization employees—the True Believers. Like Madison Clarke.
“Rachel!” As if called up by the thought of her, Madison came striding around the corner at the end of the hall, her long legs eating up the yards between them. From a distance, looking at Madison was like looking in a mirror. They were a similar height and build, but Madison was more muscular, her brown hair curlier, and on closer inspection her features were a little too pointed and sharp to fall within the boundaries of the classical beauty that an accident of genetics had given Rachel. A scattering of tattoos on her left wrist, the back of her neck and her collarbone leant Madison’s appearance an edginess that contrasted Rachel’s own feminine, southern style. Rachel had always found her eyes too hard and her intensity a little terrifying.
“I didn’t know you were going to be here today,” Madison called as she approached.
Because I’m not technically authorized to be.
It wouldn’t take much for Madison to figure that out. The fudged clearance marker would fool a lazy gate guard who wanted to get Rachel’s phone number, but it wouldn’t hold up against Madison’s scrutiny for a second. She was too smart and too much of a stickler for protocol.
The guard handed back her badge and buzzed her through, obviously satisfied now that Madison had proven to know her. Rachel quickly pocketed the incriminating badge and moved to meet Madison halfway.
Her mouth was dry, but her prepared cover story came easily. “I heard the avian was being transferred. We never did manage to get sperm samples. Be a shame to waste the only avian we’ve ever had in captivity.”
“You need the Hawk?” Madison came to a stop in the middle of the hallway, casually blocking Rachel’s way. “Isn’t your access to him restricted?” she asked, too sweetly.
Maddie knew damn well that Rachel hadn’t been allowed within fifty feet of him since she’d assisted in his capture.
Not your concern, Dr. Russell. Tend to your own work and leave the Hawk to us.
Rachel swallowed around the knot in her throat. “Special circumstances. The breeding program is high priority.”
“I suppose. Though you’re going to have a time getting samples out of him now. I just dosed him. He’s doped up to kingdom come at the moment.”
She’d expected as much. Drugging the shifters was standard operating procedure at the Organization. Unless lucidity was required for a test, they were kept so out of it they couldn’t fight their restraints or try to maul their captors. Much. She’d known he would be surfing a chemical cocktail—which was why she’d brought a pair of syringes to shock him out of it—but she could hardly admit as much to Madison.
“Depending what he’s on, I might be able to get my samples without waking him,” she said instead.
Maddie chuckled. “
I might be able to get my samples
,” she mimicked, imitating Rachel’s accent with eerie perfection.
Madison had always had a disturbing chameleon-like tendency to try on other voices—one she frequently engaged to manipulate shifters desperate to hear from loved ones they’d been separated from. Blindfolded and bound, shifters would hear the voices of their loved ones—pleading, crying or sometimes even playing the role of torturer. The skill had made Madison a cornerstone of the C Blocks interrogation teams. If she’d been with the Hawk, had his inquisition begun already?
“You must love your work,” Madison snickered in her own voice.
Rachel bristled, but kept her expression placid. “It pays the bills.”
Madison snorted. “Look at you, all righteous and disapproving. You feel sorry for them, but we’re doing good work here, protecting the human race from these creatures. If the world at large knew about the shifter threat, they would thank us for our work. They’re animals, Rachel. I know they can seem very human at times and it’s easy to get attached to them, but thinking of them as real people is a mistake. It doesn’t pay to be soft with them. It’s like having a pet tiger—you have to maintain control at all times or you wind up like Siegfried. Or was it Roy?”
She didn’t seem to want an answer, so Rachel ignored the question. “The avian?”
“Hm? Oh, right. Down this hall, first left gets you to the cells. You want number five.” She smiled, catty and snide. “Good luck, Doc.”
“Thank you.” When Madison stepped to the side, Rachel strode past her, hyper conscious of every movement. She was good at this game after years of practice. Don’t walk too fast. Don’t look guilty or try too hard to look innocent. Breathe normally.
Even when it felt like a semi was parked on her chest and her lungs refused to expand all the way.
She didn’t breathe any easier when she was around the corner and out of sight. With Madison here, her entire plan was a thousand times riskier. The guards could be counted on to do the bare minimum, but Madison was a different beast. And a much more frightening one.
Rachel paused in front of number five.
Thanks to the computer tech now on her way to Costa Rica, the code she punched into the access panel both opened the door to the cell and sent an “upgrade” into the security system that would play hell with their video and audio surveillance systems for the next half hour. They would have privacy. Provided Madison didn’t come to investigate.
Rachel stepped into the room and the door slid shut behind her. Only then did she let herself look at the figure on the bed—and a soft, horrified cry escaped her lips.
It wasn’t his real name. It had been too dangerous for her to know his real name when they first met as two links in the underground railroad to free shifters from Organization captivity. She’d picked the name for him that first night she’d seen him in person, loving the way his firm, unsmiling lips had twitched up at the corner when she teased him about rescuing enough shifters to fill an ark.
They’d already been corresponding for nearly three years by that point, working together to free the shifters being held and experimented on by the Organization—Rachel on the inside, Noah whisking them to freedom once she got them out. Nearly seventy shape-shifters disappeared into the night and wiped from Organization records. She’d often wondered, during that time, what her counterpart looked like. She’d built up an image in her head of a knight in shining armor, glowing with goodness like some Arthurian legend.
When she had finally met him in person, he hadn’t looked at all like she’d expected. He was supposed to look so
. Honest and wholesome and pure. Like all the good deeds he’d done, all the lives he’d saved, would have shaped his face into soft, easily trustable lines. Her Galahad. But no, from the very first glance it was obvious he was dangerous. Hard. Chilling. His extraordinary yellow eyes harsh and unyielding.
In retrospect, it had been naïve of her to expect him to be anything else.
His face was all angles and edges. Every mannerism quick and sharp and purposeful, a predator in the guise of humanity. He was tall, with a lean narrow build and the slight hunch to his shoulders that some tall men developed to adapt to the shorter world around them. His hair was dark and cut short, in an almost military style, as if he’d never quite gotten away from his Special Forces background.