From street level, PSN headquarters looked like any other office building, with modular cubicles and the proverbial water cooler. It was only as visitors ventured beyond the benign fašade that the paranormal nature of the organization was revealed.
Colette Eldrik had been taken to sublevel three shortly after her arrival. Commander Max Brigham had been polite, gallant even. He'd assured her that metaphysical shields, as well as conventional devices, would conceal her location from the vampire who was hunting Dichotomy halflings. He'd shown her where she could sleep, shower, find food, and explained what limited entertainments were available without leaving the building. Then he'd left her to her own devices for the next four days. If he'd known her better, he would have realized the folly of that decision. Colette didn't deal well with boredom.
She'd learned at an early age that inactivity didn't necessarily translate into mind numbing tedium. All she had to do was shift into something or someone more interesting than herself and the problem was solved.
The strategy had served her well during her stay with the Sentinels. She was careful and subtle, doing nothing to draw attention to herself. She flowed from one shape to another, watching and listening, only interacting when absolutely necessary. Taking on another's outward appearance was far easier than mastering their mannerisms and personality.
She stood at the end of the main corridor on sublevel two, watching Victor Ratcliff gather his belongings and head home. Victor was the newest member of the Preternatural Sentinel Network. Max didn't know him well, which was one of the reasons Colette had chosen his likeness for her demonstration. If she didn't quite master the nuances of Victor's demeanor, Max wasn't likely to notice.
Suddenly, Victor slung his backpack over one shoulder and headed down an adjacent hall. He had to go topside to leave the building, so where the hell was he going? The elevator hummed, indicating another interruption.
Damn it! She hated loose ends. With Victor out of the building, there would have been no possibility of her running into him while she was with Max. Well, there was no help for it. She had to catch Max before he left this level or she might not get another chance.
Top secret meetings and death-defying missions, it all fascinated Colette. In fact everything about the Sentinels intrigued her. From their extraordinary abilities, to their seamless organization, and the stealth with which they operated, she was impressed by all she had learned.
And then there was Max. Warmth washed over her body as she thought of the Sentinels' commander.
The elevator door started its inevitable slide and she ducked around the corner, quickly forming Victor's image within her mind. She inhaled deeply and released her breath in a slow, steady stream. The shift rolled down her body, undulating and reshaping, forming her into the image stamped upon her brain. Searing pain drove the last of her breath from her lungs. Lights danced before her eyes and she shuddered. It didn't matter how often she changed, or how skillful she had become; shapeshifting hurt like hell!
She rolled her shoulders and arched her back, acclimating herself to her new body. The lingering burn gradually receded and she focused on her goals. She would demonstrate her abilities, reveal a potentially dangerous lack in Sentinel security, and then ask Max for a job.
Rounding the corner with new confidence, she found the corridor empty and smiled. Whoever had exited the elevator must have entered one of the offices. This was sublevel two, moderate security. Agents pretty much came and went as they pleased. She knew there were at least three additional sublevels, but she hadn't actually been lower than sublevel four.
"Ratcliff?" The deep, commanding sound of Max's voice was unmistakable. "I thought you were taking off."
Showtime. She schooled her expression and turned to face him. "I have an idea I wanted to run past you before I left for the night."
His gaze narrowed slightly as he assessed her features and she quickly looked away. Victor was new. Max was cautious not suspicious. She needed to relax. Besides, the penetrating beauty of Max's eyes never failed to captivate her. It wouldn't do for him to sense sexual awareness in his new recruit.
"Walk with me. I've got to check on our reluctant guests."
Her heart leapt at the unexpected offer. To her knowledge, Victor hadn't been allowed beyond sublevel four. "Yes, sir." She tried for a combination of excitement and nervousness, but her tone sounded far too breathless.
Max chuckled. "Don't worry. I won't let either of them bite you." They stepped into the elevator and Max moved in front of the scanner. "Sublevel six." Facial structure and retinal scans verified his identity and the computer set the car in motion.
She stole another look at Max. He topped Victor by at least six inches, which meant her head would tuck neatly under his chin. Max was sculpted from head to toe with chiseled muscles. Jeans and a tee shirt couldn't hide his broad shoulders or thick biceps.
"So talk," he prompted. "I thought you had an idea for me."
Her mind was filled with all sorts of ideas, but none of them were appropriate to the situation. Gods, the man was delectable, but this wasn't about sex. She cleared her throat and ... the elevator door slid open.
She followed Max into the corridor and a shiver skittered down her spine. Before she could begin her explanation, he spun her toward the wall and bent her arm up behind her back.
"Who the fuck do you work for and what's your objective!"
Confusion kept her silent for a moment. Was he suspicious of Victor or had he sensed she was a shifter?
Within seconds she was flanked by armed Sentinels, stoically watching the drama unfold.
"I ... don't know what you mean, sir." She forced her dry throat to swallow, but her tongue wasn't any more agile for the effort. "Why are you angry with me?"
Max pressed in close. His body heat surrounded her, insidious and soothing. "I can almost picture your eyelashes fluttering, Colette. Return to your natural shape and put your hands on the wall in front of you."
Seeing no advantage to resisting, she released the shift and flattened her palms against the cold cement wall. He blocked out the rest of the scene with his big body, making her feel isolated and vulnerable. She'd toyed with various ways to draw Max's attention. This was definitely not what she'd had in mind.
She was supposed to wow him with her skill and prove herself indispensable, not make him think she was a spy!
"At ease, men. I've got this."
"If she needs to be strip-searched, please let me know," one of the guards said and the other laughed.
"Dismissed." Max didn't raise his voice or change position, but his men instantly obeyed. That tone. That deep, imperious snap made her toes curl and her body ache in places she didn't dare think about. "You've been very naughty, Ms. Eldrik."
"I was only--"
"You don't have permission to speak." His hands pressed over hers, the heat of his palms shocking in contrast to the coolness of the wall. "Procedure mandates that I search you." He slid his hands along her forearms, splaying his fingers to maximize contact.
She shivered, tense and anxious.
"There are only two reasons I can think of for this game." His hands paused and his scent filled her nose, faintly spicy, utterly masculine. "Either you're a spy or you're after something--personal."
"May I ask a question?"
His hands resumed their leisurely descent, squeezing her elbows and pushing up the fluttery sleeves of her blouse. "All right."
"If my interest was 'personal,' why would I shift into someone else?"
He teased the underside of her arms, making her shiver. "Then you're admitting you're a spy?"
"No. I wanted to..." Slipping beneath her blouse, he brushed her collarbone, his fingertips grazing the upper curve of her breast.
"I'll only ask this question once." His breath stirred her hair and he whispered, "Do you want me, Colette?"
Here in the hallway, with his men watching on surveillance cameras? She'd wanted him to touch her since she first saw him, but not like this. Desire rolled through her, hot and heavy, driving back her uncertainty. "I want ... You can touch me with your hands."
He pressed his face against her hair, his chuckle deep and muffled. "I don't negotiate, doll. Yes or no."
His arrogance annoyed and thrilled her. He was overbearing and way too sure of himself. She should duck under his arm and ... "Yes." The word was out before the rational part of her brain could complete the objection.