Chapter One

Alexis Venizelos dozed in the back of the SUV. Getting what sleep she could before they arrived, whatever the broken excuse for a back road did to thump and shake the hell out of her. Sleep wasn't about to be had, nor anything vaguely resembling it, but just resting her eyes a bit was welcome enough. It had proven to be an unusually busy week so far.

Two runaways in three days, one in Maryland and the other in Scotland of all places. Then another two days tracking down the truck driver that the House in Canada hadn't been able to find themselves. A Matron's daughter having developed a sudden wild hair and picked that idiot up in a bar months ago. Another day dragging him back there so she could take care of him before it was too late.

Seven months pregnant and the woman had still gone hand to hand with the hysterical redneck. Dislocated his shoulder and cut his throat right in front of the whole House. So she'd more than regained her honor with that, unsanctioned pregnancies apparently notwithstanding.

It was still a terrible and oppressive thing to have to come away from, though. Never mind the gravity of the thing to begin with. The palpable sense of relief that had descended on the House from it. That had been the thing. That they were so desperate for daughters that even that horrible blunder had been taken as a good thing.

Things were…slipping. Had been for decades…hell, centuries really. Losing a little more ground as time went on.

They were losing the war. Slowly…very, very slowly…but no less surely.

So not exactly the best thing to come away from just now. It was a little hard to play gung-ho having had that thrown in your face just the day before.

"Almost there, Lexi."

Ebony, sharing the front seat with her. Letting her know it was time to stop pretending she was asleep and start being in charge of things again. So she cocked an eye open to get a look. And the trees out there in the dark looked a little different than they had a minute before, when last she'd taken a peek.

Hell, maybe she had dozed off a bit.

But she had her eyes clear and had dug around to find her commanding presence again by the time they pulled off the road. Because the team was already there waiting.

She was moving before her feet hit the gravel. Long brown hair thrown back in a quick ponytail, dark eyes and stony gaze. Plain blue jeans, tee shirt and black blazer. And, yes, steel toed boots. Beautiful and commanding, as if she hadn't been dozing and probably snoring in the back of the SUV just moments before.

She even shucked the blazer as she strode toward them, to show off her shoulders a bit. They were very broad shoulders. They gave her a powerfully athletic look, she knew. They even called her Wonder Woman behind her back. Not always disrespectfully. And since that's who they needed her to be tonight, that's who she was.

Cassandra and Penelope were at the front of the car, already pouring over the map with a flashlight. Chloe and Melissa idling nearby. So she knew them and had worked with them all before.

They glided in, forming a half circle before her, the moment she was there. Old hands at this and probably knowing the drill well enough already. They could practically go out and do this thing without ever speaking.

Cassandra spoke before she could, though.

"Alexis, good to see you." She smiled. And she meant it a little even. "Kind of short notice…what's going on?"

Alexis shrugged, buying time for everyone to gather around and pay attention a bit.

"Oracle called it in a few hours ago." She explained. "It slipped past her up until now, so she was a little upset about it. You already have the target?"

Cassandra nodded, leading her to the map on the hood of the car.

"Farmhouse just up the road. Chloe scouted but we don't have a floor plan. I'm thinking Melissa sniping from the western tree line, me and Penny with shotties in the back wood?"

Alexis nodded, stepping over to the map. Which Ebony helpfully shone a flashlight on for her.

"The drainage ditch back there?" She said, looking it over.

"Right." Cassandra said, reaching over to point out spots on the map. "We've got a couple of silver spike nets we can throw down here…and here. Assuming Melissa lets them get that far."

"Nope." Melissa said, grinning a little from the other side of the car.

Cassandra jumped ahead again. "I'm guessing we can't just burn the house and be done with it."

"No." Alexis frowned. "Oracle says we've got wolfen. Two or three at least, so we'll have civilians in there. And Intelligence insists they're guarding something."

"And so we want it." Cassandra guessed. "What is it?"

Alexis shrugged. "No idea. But they're guard dogs, so…"

Cassandra nodded, while she thought that over.

Until she worked up the courage to ask the obvious question.

"Let's say four wolfen in there." Cassandra said. "Since Oracle's bound to be off by one or two. And we don't have a floor plan. Are we sure three sentinels are enough of a strike team? Penny can take the back wood and I could go in with you…"

"No, it's fine." Alexis said. "I expect them to run, so I want you there to meet them."

Cassandra only shrugged. "If you're sure."

She nodded and left it at that.

"Okay," Alexis said. "Short and sweet, ladies. Melissa swings the pinata stick from the tree line. Cass and Penny lay spike nets and take position with shotguns. I expect me, Ebony and Chloe will be right behind them, herding them your way. Cassandra, you're Lore. Do you have anything to add?"

Cassandra shrugged again. "Nothing we don't already know. Silver rounds if you really want to hurt them, which we do. And if we do have more than four or five in there, we might have an alpha. I think that's doubtful or Oracle would have picked up on that. But still…if we do, just keep shooting him until someone can get an up close shot at the heart. Then we can burn him."

Alexis nodded. "Ebony, intelligence?"

"They're guard dogs, so they're guarding something." Ebony said, beside her. "And it's very likely they have civilians in there, at least one or two. The moment we have all targets down, we get the civilians out. I'll deal with them."

"While she does that, Chloe and I search the house." Alexis said. "Then we burn it. Cass, Penny and Chloe should already have burn-bagged the wolfen out back by then. If we've got whatever it is in hand, the feds come in to deal with it from there. Ebony and I will handle that and the rest of you disappear. Debrief at House Dellas six hours post op."

She looked over them, giving them time to say something if they were going to. To see herself if there was something that should be said. But they were ready. So that was that.

She nodded. "Okay, get in position. Squawk when you're ready."

It went well enough. They went in with MP5 submachine guns, silver rounds. The wolfen didn't even put up a fight, heading right out the back door the second they breached. One even jumping from the upstairs window to follow the rest.

But there were five of them, as Cassandra had predicted. No alpha, though. Which was good.

Ebony dropped one on the stairs where he stood snarling, trying to figure out which way to run. Alexis got the second one going through the back door. Melissa dropped the last three, all headshots on the run, before they could even reach the spike nets. Taking all the fun as Cassandra had also predicted.

None of them even had time to turn wild and shape shift.

But there was nothing in the house.

Beyond the young girls the wolfen had held captive and at least three weeks worth of filth scattered all over the place…there was nothing there. They didn't seem to have been guarding anything.

They were just…squatting. Hanging around.

When the feds rolled in Ebony already had the civilians secured in the yard; beaten, torn and bleeding most of them. Alexis rendered what first aid she could but the real damage the girls had suffered would require more than band-aids and antiseptic.

The house was burning merrily and her gear was safely stored in the SUV. Back in her blazer now, with shoulder strapped Glock at her side beneath it. The rest of the team had already burn-bagged the wolfen and disappeared.

Ebony met the feds at the road. Which was good, since Alexis was in no mood for testosterone and pissing contests. She let her take the brunt of that while she patched a few more cuts and bites on the civilians.

The agent was barking before he'd even shown his badge.

"Special Agent Harrison." He said, glaring at Ebony. "You want to tell me what the hell is going on here?"

Ebony made him wait while she tossed her badge up at him as well. Taking her time getting it out and opening it up casually.

"Ebony Korres." She said, coldly. "DHS. And lower your volume there, agent. We missed the party ourselves."

"What the hell happened?" Harrison demanded, stalking toward the house to get a better look. But it was burning fairly well. So there wasn't much to look at.

"Anonymous tip." Ebony shrugged. "Didn't even think much of it, nothing to go on. The house was already on fire when we got here, so we got these people out before it got too hot. You might want to call EMS, some of them are pretty badly hurt."

His partner, a short blonde woman who he hadn't bothered to introduce, was already on the phone doing just that.

"So we're cleaning up your mess, is that it?" Harrison barked.

So Ebony looked over at Alexis, sharing a look for a moment. Before turning back to him.

"I think we're done here, agent Harrison." She said, "Have a nice evening. We'll submit our report to your field office within the hour."

And they left, with Harrison still barking.

"Where the hell do you think you're going! We don't even know what's going on here!"

Ebony didn't turn around, speaking over her shoulder. "So I expect you'll submit your report to my office when you have it then."

They drove on in silence for a while. Dead silence. Until Alexis couldn't take it anymore.

"Okay, say it." She said. "I can feel you thinking it over there."

Ebony shook her head a little.

"It's…something's off."

Alexis nodded. "I know. No alpha. Five wolfen and no alpha."

"He should have been there." Ebony sighed. "We should have captured one. We went in blind here."

"So where is he? He should have been there, so why wasn't he?" Alexis wondered. "Five wolfen. Five. You need an alpha or they'll tear each other apart. And there's no way those girls back there would have survived…

Ebony was reaching for the map, she saw. Eyes a little wider…

"What?" Alexis asked, quickly. "What is it?"

"He wasn't there." She said.

It took her a second to catch up.

"Oh…oh, crap." Alexis said. "Right…there was that other house back there…"

"Got it. Two miles back. Less than a mile from the target."

Alexis was already turning the SUV around.

"So why didn't Oracle pick up on that?" Alexis asked, angrily. "If there's an alpha here, she should have picked up on him."

"She's not perfect, Lexi. And if you drive a little faster we can beat the feds to him."

She drove a little faster.

Alexis took the front, Ebony the back, in case he ran. Alexis gave her a minute to get around the corner of the house before she rang the door bell.

The house was a two-story, kept if fairly good shape from the looks of things. Even the yard had been tended recently. And the truck sitting in the driveway had been washed some time in the last month or so.

None of that suggested wolfen. Even an alpha would have been a bit too messy to bother mowing the yard or washing the truck. And there wasn't even any junk mail in the mailbox.

And he wouldn't have looked anything like the guy that answered the door, either.

Wolfen were just plain ugly. Always.

He had short black hair and hadn't shaved today. But a wolfen wouldn't have shaved in several days, at best. He had intelligent eyes, too. Sad eyes, actually. With a strong jaw and brow. In his early thirties. Tall, dark complexion, full lips…

Well, damn. The guy was just fucking gorgeous.

Enough that even Alexis had to remember that thing about breathing after a short second. And she didn't care for men very much. Or at all, to be honest.

"Can I help you?" He asked. And he had a pretty damned nice voice, too.

Alexis was suddenly glad she'd chosen to go through the front. And not so much because she'd have the pleasure of meeting the guy or anything. If Ebony had rung the doorbell here, she'd probably have been standing around at the back of the house for fifteen minutes waiting for the signal. And forced to come in there to find out what the hell was the hold up.

Because Ebony'd be all over this guy.

"Special Agent Venizelos, DHS." She said, showing her badge. "Do you have a moment? I'd like to ask you some questions."

He didn't hesitate very long. Flickering his eyes over her, to be sure he'd understood what she'd just said. Government agents probably didn't come knocking on your door in the middle of the night very often around here.

"Uh…yeah, come on it." He said, stepping aside.

He held the door as she entered. Which was gentlemanly and all, but she'd have preferred to leave it open for Ebony. And she couldn't turn her back on him, which made for a split second's awkwardness when he was forced to step around to get to the living room.

"I heard small arms fire from the Jenson's old place." He said, turning to stand near the fireplace. "That was you folks, I take it?"

Small arms fire, he'd said. And he hadn't asked what DHS stood for, as most people did. Which was interesting.

"Not exactly." Alexis said, smiling politely. "I'm afraid that's part of what we're looking into. You referred to it as the Jenson's old place? It was unoccupied?"

"I guess not, if there was some kind of shootout over there." He smiled. "But, yeah, the Jensons passed away a few years back. Some nephew upstate owns it, I think. No one lives there, anyway."

Alexis nodded…but Ebony walked through the front door before she could say anything else.

And kind of froze in place there for a moment, when she caught sight of him.

So, yeah. Here we go with this.

"Hello." Ebony smiled. And stepped forward, hand extended. Eyes bright. "Ebony Korres, DHS."

He shook her hand politely. And Alexis could almost see the little thrill run through her partner. So she guessed that must have been a very nice, firm handshake there.

"My partner." Alexis offered.

"Mhmm." Ebony agreed, intelligently.

So Alexis moved quickly, before things got ridiculous here. At the very least, this guy was no wolfen. Probably didn't have anything to do with anything. But since they were already here, they'd get what they could before the feds came knocking.

"You haven't seen anything unusual at the Jenson place then?" Alexis asked. "No one hanging around? Cars coming and going?"

The guy shrugged. "No. Nothing at all. Never had a clue anyone was even out there."

He suddenly remembered himself, then. Remembered his manners, she supposed.

"I'm Roman Bennett, by the way." He said, placing a hand to his chest. "So you're homeland security? You're not going to tell me we had terrorists living next door, are you?"

Ebony jumped on that.

"Well, we're still looking into things." She said. "So…'we'? Is your wife home?"

Interestingly, he looked a little stricken for a moment. But recovered quickly enough.

"Uh…no. I live here alone." He said, a touch more reserved now. "I meant 'us'…the folks who live down this road."

"Oh." Ebony said, politely.

And smiled.

Well, for fuck's sake.

Ebony should have excused herself to go to the bathroom by now. But she clearly wasn't interested in doing that. Didn't seem to remember she was supposed to. So Alexis did instead.

"Mr. Bennett, would you mind if I use your restroom?" She asked, pointing vaguely off to…where's the bathroom around here, exactly?

"Oh! Sure. Second door on the right, all the way down the hall." He nodded.

So she made herself scarce. Forced to hope Ebony got something useful out of the guy besides a phone number.

The first door on the right was the kitchen. First on the left was opened a crack and that led to a small dining room, connecting back to the living room. Second door was the bathroom, which she opened and closed without going through.

The third door on the right was a study or office of some sort. Lots of pictures on the wall, books on the shelf, papers on the desk. Lots of information. So she poked around in there, looking for whatever was waiting to jump out at her.

The wife, first of all. An easy dozen framed photos of her on the wall. Very attractive. Blond, blue eyes, athletic. Long face, extremely kissable. Those two would have made one hell of a couple, she supposed.

Which begged the question why Mr. Gorgeous was here, way out in the sticks. And not there, wherever she was.

And the kids. Two of them. Boy and girl, maybe nine or ten years old. Both very beautiful. Honor roll students from the collection of cheap public school awards proudly on display.

So maybe Ebony was about to wrestle with some serious disappointment in a minute. Unless we're looking at divorce or separation. And maybe even then, considering all these photos were on the wall and how they seemed to have been dusted recently. As opposed to being consigned to a cardboard box in a closet somewhere…

A framed photo on the wall nearer the desk. Four men, one of them Mr. Bennett. Army fatigues and tan berets. Which would place him and the other three as Army Rangers, some time after 2001. And, yes, the top-bottom patches there on the shoulder. Mountain ranger.

Bottle on the desk, open. And a glass there beside it, still dry. A photo album open on the desk and the chair pushed back.

Alexis placed a palm on the seat. And, yes, still warm.

So Mr. Bennett had been just about to sit down to a bottle of bourbon and some old memories when the DHS knocked on his door. How unfortunate for him to have his evening of reliving the glory days so rudely interrupted.

She could already put the pieces together. Wife screws around while he's deployed to wherever. Things fall apart when he comes home after two, three, four years. Ugly divorce and his military career, which he gave up hoping that'd fix everything, lost to him as well. So he drinks himself to bed every night and blubbers about how unfair it all is.

Yeah, you've got yourself a winner there, Ebony. Go get him, girl.

The printout on the one page of the album caught her attention, though. People used to clip and paste from newspapers for that sort of thing. But this guy seemed to have printed this one off the internet…

'Community Shocked by Brutal Home Invasion.'

Alexis was struck immediately. And the pieces shifted a bit…

So she leaned over to read.

"A woman and her two children were brutally murdered during a home invasion in a West Columbia this weekend. The husband and father is currently in critical condition at Lexington County Hospital.

Neighbors reported gunfire and cries for help just prior to midnight. It all unfolded shortly before 11:45 Tuesday in the West Lexington neighborhood.

Police say they have no information regarding the suspects. They say the whole thing appears to be a robbery gone wrong. The husband apparently summoned home from a poker game with frantic text messages from his wife.

Neighbor Emily Westborough says 26-year old Roman Bennett recently left the Army, following three tours in Afghanistan.

"They were the nicest couple. Everyone loved them. They were just starting out, trying to make a new life," Westborough said.

Tuesday, Bennett was viciously beaten and stabbed inside his new apartment, when police say he came home just before midnight to find his wife and children already dead. Having retrieved a firearm from his car, police say he fired several shots as he was attacked, though no suspects appear to have been injured.

No arrests have been made and sources say no leads…"

Alexis stopped reading then. Because she was busy trying not to visualize those children. The beautiful ones depicted so proudly on the wall.

Well. Fuck.

There were times when Alexis felt as if she were suddenly and surprisingly confronted with what a complete and total bitch she was.

This would be one of those times.