Darkest Hour Before Dawn Excerpt
“SPREAD OUT, and watch your backs.”
Seb motioned for his partner, Dom, to follow him as the rest of Theta Destructive split off into pairs, with Peyton, Brianna, Lee, and Zoey in their Therian forms. They spread out through the trees, and Seb was grateful for the sunny day despite the biting chill in the air. In a couple of days, March would give way to April, which accounted for the temperature rising from polar ice caps to just above meat locker. In Seb’s opinion, spring couldn’t come quickly enough. Winter wreaked havoc on his joints, especially his bad knee.
“What did you get your boy for his birthday?” Dom asked from behind his raised tranq rifle as he scanned the woods around them.
“I still have two weeks.” Seb held his rifle at the ready as they approached the pagoda where the four tiger Therians had last been spotted. “Sort of. I’ll find something this weekend.”
They were getting closer. Seb could feel it. They needed to round up these assholes before anyone else got hurt, especially since the perps were running out of places to hide. THIRDS agents managed to shrink the original perimeter around Prospect Park down to the boathouse, the pagoda, and Binnen Bridge. Cornering Felid Therians never went well.
“You’re the only guy I know who buys presents for his ex,” Dom said, stopping in his tracks. “Did you hear that?”
Seb didn’t tear his gaze away from the path ahead as he tipped his head toward a tree to his left. “Squirrel.”
Dom nodded, then moved forward, muttering something about furry pains in the ass.
Theta Destructive along with several other teams had been called after a shooting outside an auto club on Empire Boulevard led to one death, two injured, and four tiger Therians leading THIRDS agents on a chase through Prospect Park. Human agents cleared the park while Therian agents in their Therian forms sniffed out the perps, formed a perimeter, and hastily began to close in to reduce the square footage. Everyone knew parks provided the best cover to hide in. Unfortunately, parks were filled with citizens, tourists, pets, and wildlife. It was a security nightmare.
“Dex buys presents for his ex,” Seb pointed out, smiling at Dom’s snort.
“Are you seriously using Dexter J. Daley as an example of rational behavior?”
“Right.” Seb chuckled. “What was I thinking. Anyway, you know Hudson is more than an ex-boyfriend.” Dom knew a hell of a lot more than that. He was one of two people Seb had bared his soul to in his lifetime. Hudson was the first, and as of three months ago, Dom became the second.
“Cutting it kind of close, aren’t you? What did you get him last year?”
Seb peered into a thick brush of shrubbery, but nothing stirred. He needed to be careful, making sure to sniff out their fellow agents so he didn’t accidently shoot a tranq into one. Of course, that would only happen if the Therian attacked, pretty much assuring him it wasn’t one of their own.
“I got him this really nice, soft, blue robe that matched a pair of TARDIS boxer shorts he loves, and some fuzzy slippers.”
Dom snickered. “The doc is such a nerd.”
Seb couldn’t help his dopey grin. “Yeah.”
“Did he like it?”
“Are you kidding? He practically lives in it. He’s a wolf Therian, remember? They love fluffy, cozy stuff.” Unlike Seb, Hudson’s favorite seasons were fall and winter. During the cold weather, Hudson wasn’t content to simply sit or lie on the couch under a blanket. Nope. He’d draw his legs onto the couch and wrap up like he was cocooning himself, with only his face exposed, and even then he’d pull the blanket over his nose so it wouldn’t get cold. Hudson hated having a cold nose. Fuzzy blankets brought out his Therian side like nothing else. It was the most adorable thing Seb had ever seen. Movie nights always included a host of snacks and a nest of blankets.
The air changed, and Seb stilled. Dom followed his lead, coming to a halt beside him. Seb tapped his nose and motioned ahead to the woods behind the pagoda. He was picking up two very distinct tiger Therian scents—neither THIRDS agents. Dom motioned to the right, and Seb gave him a curt nod. Seb would take the left.
Silently he stalked through the trees, listening for sounds not meant to be there. Wind rustled the leaves, water trickled somewhere in the distance, and birds chirped. A squirrel bounded from one tree to another. Seb’s pulse picked up, and his muscles tensed as he hunted. The scent drew closer, and he followed it to a thick patch of shrubs. Finger on the trigger, Seb approached as the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He spun on his heel, and a near three-hundred-pound tiger Therian barreled into his knee head-on.
Pain exploded through Seb’s body as he slammed onto the ground, his helmet cracking against a cluster of rocks, momentarily stunning him. The blow to his head was nothing compared to the electrifying burst of sheer agony shooting through his leg. He blinked away the tears and sucked in a sharp breath. His lungs burned from the gulps of air he rapidly dragged in. He couldn’t black out. Not now. A feral growl got him moving, and his adrenaline spiked. If he stayed on the ground, he was dead. The tiger Therian shook himself before charging again, and Seb was still down.
Three tranq darts to the neck and a punch across the muzzle, and the tiger Therian was out. Good thing, considering Seb was still seeing stars. His muscles rippled with spasms, and he gritted his teeth. He felt as though his ligaments and tendons were being torn from his bone. As though someone had taken a hammer to his kneecap. He cursed his genetics for the thousandth time—not that it helped.
Seb was always careful in the field, as careful as someone in his position could be, and although he’d suffered plenty of injuries, it was the first time some asshole had head-butted his knee. If Seb had been a Human, something would have shattered. Instead, it only felt as if it had. The pain was blinding, and he was faintly aware of Dom hauling ass in his direction. Damn it, what now?
A roar had him rolling onto his side, plowing through the pain and pushing up onto his good leg, putting all his weight on it. He needed a second to get his bearings, but the tiger Therian speeding toward him wasn’t going to give him that chance. Two darts stuck out of its neck, but adrenaline was helping it push through, and with Dom being chased by a third tiger Therian, Seb was left to deal with this bastard. One wrong move, and it was over.
Seb readied his rifle, cursing under his breath when the last tiger Therian showed up, barely missing Dom as it leaped from the shrubbery.
“Fucking fuck!” Dom pulled a move worthy of any NFL running back, turning sharply and throwing his gloved hand to the ground to keep from keeling over face-first. He regained his balance and took off toward Seb just as a round of hair-raising roars resounded through the trees. Seb grinned.
Lee was the first through the trees, his mane providing protection when one of the perps tried to snap at his neck and got nothing but a mouthful of fuzzy mane. A second bite was thwarted by Brianna, her slender cougar Therian frame landing on the larger tiger Therian, claws outstretched. The perp’s pained roar shook the trees around them.
Peyton and Zoey leaped from the greenery, fangs bared as they each faced off against a perp. Zoey was slightly smaller than the three male tiger Therians around her, but she was by no means the least fierce. In fact, Seb was glad he wasn’t on the receiving end of her fury. Zoey could take down a Therian twice her size, no matter what form they were in, and she wouldn’t even break a sweat.
Peyton eclipsed everyone, a gentle giant who stood at seven and a half feet tall and weighed three hundred and twenty pounds. He was the largest Felid Therian in Unit Alpha. Of course, right now, Peyton was anything but gentle. Not when defending his team.
“Get on the ground!” Dom demanded over the roars and hisses, his rifle aimed at one of the tiger Therians circling Peyton. The guy was hesitant to attack Peyton—so not a total idiot.
Realizing they were outmuscled, the three tiger Therian perps submitted, mewing and backing away to flop on the grass. Dom radioed for backup, and two BearCats pulled up onto the path to their right. Their back doors opened, and Human agents flooded out. Seb left them to round up their perps and get them into the cages. He turned to his Therian teammates.
“Collect your partners and get PSTC.”
Lee trotted off, his mane swishing majestically, while Brianna bounced behind him, playfully swatting at his tail. Lee didn’t pay her any mind. Zoey whizzed by them, and Lee grunted. He took off after Zoey, unwilling to be left in her dust, and Brianna was quick on their heels. Peyton, as usual, wasn’t interested in his teammates’ shenanigans. He released a huff and leisurely sauntered after them. Dom stayed behind, and Seb braced himself. He knew what was coming.
“I’m fine,” Seb assured him. “Just knocked the wind out of me.”
Dom pressed his lips together in a thin line. He wasn’t buying it, but Seb was in too much pain to care. With teeth gritted and jaw set, Seb headed in the direction his team had gone. Thankfully, Angel hadn’t parked the BearCat very far. Instead of fighting the pain, Seb let it wash over him. He’d lived with physical discomfort and pain the majority of his life. It went with being a Pre–First Gen Therian. Granted, this was a hell of a lot worse than his usual bad days, but he wouldn’t let his team know the extent of it. He straightened to his full height and squared his shoulders as he walked.
They all knew about the nerve and tissue damage to his leg. He was hardly the only Pre–First Gen at the THIRDS with health issues, but if his leg gave up the ghost, he’d be pulled off Defense, and he’d worked too damned hard to make Team Leader to give it up now.
“You okay, boss?” Cat asked, studying Seb as he approached.
Seb smiled and gave her shoulder a pat. “I’m good. Wasn’t expecting to be used for a bowling pin.”
“Must have learned it from Lee,” Zoey said with a delicate snort. Having received PSTC and not eaten anything substantial yet, Zoey was in rare form, and as usual, Lee was the target.
Oh boy. Here we go.
“Fuck off,” Lee grumbled before taking another swig of his Gatorade. “Not all lion Therians do that.”
“What? Use their heads?” Zoey arched an eyebrow at Lee. “Ain’t that the truth.”
“Screw you, Z,” Lee snarled.
Screw was what those two needed to do before they drove everyone nuts. The only ones who seemed oblivious to the attraction were Zoey and Lee. They were always giving each other a hard time. Seb hoped his team wasn’t going the route of Destructive Delta. He loved Sloane like a brother, but if he had to deal with all the relationship drama Sloane did, he might start thinking about early retirement.
Zoey rolled her eyes. “In your dreams.”
“All right, everyone in the truck,” Seb grumbled. He needed to sit his ass down. Of course, he wouldn’t be doing that until he reached his office, because once he sat down, getting up would require help, and weakness was something his team didn’t need to see in him.
As soon as they reached HQ, his team escorted the perps into their holding cells, where they’d be ordered to shift back into Human form. They’d receive Postshift Trauma Care, then get processed. Seb dropped his equipment off at his locker in the armory before heading upstairs to his office, greeting fellow agents along the way.
Beside him, Dom was quiet. Not a good sign. As the youngest of four sons born to a Cuban mother and Italian father, Dom joked he only had three volume settings—“loud,” “louder,” and “make sure they heard you over in Jersey.” When someone told him to bring it down, he just laughed in their face.
Finally they reached the office, and Seb gritted his teeth as he attempted to sit behind his desk. It required gripping the desk hard enough to turn his knuckles white and his good leg to ache in protest. Once his ass was in his chair, he felt marginally better.
“Let’s see it.”
“Dominic, we’ve discussed this,” Seb replied gently, schooling his expression. “I like you, but I don’t, like, like you.”
Dom was not impressed, judging by his expression. “Don’t be an ass. I know that’s going to be a real stretch for you, but just give it a try. Now let me see.” He reached for Seb’s knee, and Seb smacked his hand away with a growl.
Next to Hudson, Seb trusted no one more than Dominic Palladino, and no one was a bigger pain in his ass. Dom was a mother hen. He fussed over the team, treated them like his baby birds, even Peyton who could easily crush Dom’s skull with his bare hands. At some point, the team had lost the will to fight him on his mothering and accepted him as their surrogate father, some more begrudgingly than others.
“I said I’m fine. Stop fussing. What’re you, my husband?”
Dom let out a snort. “Fuck no. I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last dick left on the planet. I’d end up smothering you in your sleep.”
“Like you haven’t tried that already,” Seb said with a grunt, amused when Dom threw up his arms, cursing in Spanish, then Italian—meaning Seb was really trying his patience. Seb tried not to look so happy about it.
“Seriously, bro?” Dom’s face flushed a deep red, and he folded his arms over his expansive chest. “How many times do I have to tell you it was an accident? I knew I shouldn’t have bunked with you. Is it my fault you take up so much fucking space? I could’ve bunked with Peyton and still had more damn room in that bed than I did with you.”
“So now it’s my fault you pushed a pillow into my face while I slept?” Seb kept his features stoic, even if he was laughing his ass off on the inside.
During one particularly bad snowstorm, Theta Destructive and several teams in Unit Alpha were forced to sleep at HQ in the sleeper bays. The agents outnumbered the bays, so teams had to share. Seb got the bed, not because he had senior status on his team, but because of his leg and lower back. Dom decided to bunk with him because, well, it was Dom and he wasn’t “sleeping on the damn floor if there’s a bed”—he didn’t care who was in it.
Seb held back a smile. “I don’t know anyone who moves that much in their sleep and takes their pillow with them,” he managed with a straight face.
“So what? You’re the one who kept trying to spoon me.”
Seb shrugged. “I’m a cuddler.”
“Fine. Whatever.” With a huff, Dom marched over to his desk and dropped down in his chair. Seb grinned. Winding Dom up was too much fun. Of course, Dom gave as good as he got. Seb pulled up the file of today’s incident and added his account of events. An hour later and it was time for his team’s afternoon coffee run, this week being Angel’s turn. The man popped his head in with a smile.
“Hey, boss. The usual?”
“Yeah, thanks, Angel.”
Angel nodded. He turned his attention to Dom. “Dom Corleone?”
“No matter how many times you say it, Herrera, it still ain’t funny,” Dom griped. “If anything, I’m Clemenza.”
Seb and Angel looked at each other before having a good laugh.
“What? Seb’s obviously the Don, which makes me his oldest and dearest friend.”
“We haven’t known each other that long,” Seb reminded him, holding back a smile, “but continue.”
Dom flipped him off. “Unfortunately, I feel like I’ve known you for fucking eternity. Anyway, I’m also a great judge of character, have a keen eye for talent, and possess an unparalleled training record.”
“Nope.” Angel shook his head.
“I don’t see it,” Seb teased.
Angel snapped his fingers. “I know. Sonny.”
“You know what? Fuck the both of you. Go get me my cappuccino, and tell Dex if he hogs all the powdered chocolate, I’m going to tell Sloane how his midafternoon coffee runs include scarfing down a frosted donut bigger than his head. Seriously. How is that dude still alive with what he eats? I’ve never seen a Human polish off a whole Therian-sized burger, fries, and still have room for a milkshake.”
Angel nodded his agreement. “I think whoever put him together got the parts all mixed up and gave him a Therian stomach.”
Or he got mutated by his jaguar Therian boyfriend and is no longer Human. Of course, Seb wasn’t about to mention that.
Angel went off to get the rest of the team’s orders, and on his return, he was accompanied by a scowling Dex.
“How dare you try to come between me and my afternoon donut?” Dex placed his hands on Dom’s desk and leaned in to peer at him. “That powdered chocolate is mine, Palladino,” Dex rasped. “Debbie brings it for me as a thank-you. I practically delivered that woman’s child.”
“You stepped in as a Lamaze coach, like twice,” Dom drawled.
Dex straightened with a sniff. “That’s why I said practically. You’re not listening.”
“Oh, I’m listening all right. Listening to all the reasons I should call Sloane this second. Today was triple chocolate frosting with bacon bits, wasn’t it?” Dom put a finger to his earpiece, and Dex all but launched across the desk to grab Dom’s wrist.
“Yes?” Dom smiled sweetly.
Dex let his head hang in defeat. “I may have been a little hasty.” He straightened and wrinkled his nose. “Fine. I’ll tell Debbie I’m willing to share.” With a grunt, he walked out the door, then spun on his heel to glare at Dom, a finger pointed at him menacingly. “But this isn’t over, pal. I’m watching you.”
Dom waved a hand in dismissal. “Yeah, yeah. Less watching, more sprinkling chocolate powder on my cappuccino.”
Dex let out a snort of disgust before turning his attention to Seb. “Your partner’s a jerkface.”
Seb chuckled. “It must be my shower gel. I think it attracts them.” He thanked Angel for his coffee and told Dex to get lost.
“I know you love me,” Dex said in a singsong voice as he skipped off—literally skipped—to make mischief elsewhere. How Sloane kept up with that man was beyond Seb. He was already exhausted from the interaction.
Ignoring the crazy around him, Seb got back to work on his report and enjoyed his latte. He’d just signed off on the first set of documents when he looked up at Dom. He narrowed his eyes. Why was Dom grinning? Dom leaned back in his chair, his hands behind his head. Shit.
“What did you do?”
Dom waggled his eyebrows, and Seb’s frown deepened. This wasn’t good. What the hell had his asshole partner done now? Seb loved the guy, but sometimes he wanted to strangle him.
“Sebastian Hobbs!” a familiar voice demanded.
Seb’s jaw went slack. “You didn’t.”
Dom’s grin got bigger.
“You did! You narced on me?”
“Aw, are you mad?” Dom put a hand to his heart. “Well, tough shit. You brought this on yourself.” Dom jumped from his chair, smiling widely as he patted Hudson’s back. “Give ’im hell, Doc.” He moseyed off, leaving Seb to face one very pissed-off Brit.
Hudson planted his hands on his hips. He had that narrow-eyed, thin-lipped glare on his face. Seb was very familiar with it. There was a time Seb could coax that stern frown away with a few strategically placed kisses. The good doctor wasn’t easily deterred, but neither was Seb. He could be just as stubborn as his spirited little wolf. Especially when it concerned Hudson’s happiness. Unfortunately, happy was not what Hudson was at the moment.
“I have half a mind to give you a right earbashing. Get in my office. Now.”
Seb groaned. He waited for Hudson to turn around, but as Seb expected, Hudson didn’t budge. He studied Seb, waiting. The man was too smart for his own good. Unwilling to show Hudson how right he was, Seb clenched his jaw, put his weight on his good knee, and stood. The only Therian more pigheaded than Hudson was Seb, and Hudson was well aware of it. Hudson turned, cursing under his breath, and Seb did his best not to limp as he followed him out into the bull pen.
The agents didn’t bother pretending not to notice what was going on, and the majority of them looked on in amusement. Seb had a reputation for being a hardass, albeit a fair one. His fellow agents respected him for a variety of reasons. No one would dare challenge him, disrespect him, or fuck with him. Which was why they found this situation so damned entertaining. There was only one man in this building Sebastian Hobbs didn’t stand a chance against. One sole little wolf Therian who could make him quake in his boots.
The best part? After all this time, Hudson still had no clue the power he had over Seb. His Lobito simply was who he was, and in Hudson’s eyes, Seb wasn’t a tiger Therian who had one hundred and thirty pounds on him or stood a foot taller than he did. Hudson was the only Therian Seb knew who didn’t tremble at Seb’s roar. He wagged his tail.
“What are you smiling at?” Hudson scolded. “I’m very cross with you.”
“I was just thinking about you wagging your tail.” Crap. He probably shouldn’t have said that.
Hudson stopped to gape at him. The few agents who’d heard Seb snickered. Poor bastards. Hudson turned his glare on them. It was pretty spectacular as far as glares went.
“Something you’d like to share, Agents?”
The huge Felid Therian agents stumbled and practically mowed each other down in their haste to get away. Seb pressed his lips firmly together to keep from laughing. For a sweet wolf Therian, Hudson could be pretty scary.
The elevator ride down to the forensics department was a silent one. Seb knew better than to make things worse by speaking. Once they arrived, he followed Hudson out and greeted the medical examiners and agents he passed. Most noticed Hudson first before giving Seb a sympathetic look, though he was pretty sure a few of those looks meant “better you than me.”
As Chief Medical Examiner, Hudson’s lab and office were the largest on the floor, taking up the whole end of the corridor. Although Hudson was part of Destructive Delta, his title and status meant he could oversee and take over any case in Unit Alpha. Sparks often had him working on several cases at once for various teams. They finally reached the last room on the right, Hudson’s private office. Once inside, Hudson hit the security panel, and the door swished closed behind them. He turned to face Seb and folded his arms over his chest, one eyebrow arched before he spoke.
“Drop your trousers.”