Wolf Untamed by Paige Tyler

 

Prologue

Dallas, Texas, October 2012

Officer Diego Miguel Martinez strapped the breaching ram into place along the inside wall of the Dallas PD SWAT operations truck, then stepped out into the torrential downpour, cursing as what felt like a frigging bucketful of freezing-cold rain found its way down the back of his coat. As much as he despised the long raincoat that was part of his uniform, he really should have worn it tonight. Behind him, someone chuckled, and he turned to see Officer Hale Delaney regarding him with a grin, blue eyes twinkling with amusement.

“I’m not complaining about the help, but if you’re out in this monsoon much longer, you’re going to start sprouting gills.” Tall and heavily muscled with dark blond hair, the SWAT cop unloaded the M4 carbine he held, dropping the magazine and taking out the round in the chamber. “They had you securing the perimeter for what, four hours?”

Diego laughed. “Actually, it was closer to five, but who’s counting?”

Perimeter duty was what patrol cops with barely three years on the force like him did while officers like Hale—one of his best friends in the department—and the other members of the SWAT team got to kick in doors and save lives. Tonight, Diego had stood and watched from the outside as four members of the Dallas Police Department’s most elite unit had gone up against a deadbeat husband who’d gotten high as a kite and barricaded himself in his house with his three children. The man had threatened to kill the kids if the police didn’t bring him more drugs. Because, according to him, everyone knew the cops had a lot of drugs locked up in their evidence room.

After hours of unsuccessful negotiations with a suspect who was quickly coming unglued, Hale and his three teammates had entered the house. While Hale and his SWAT buddies were all huge, they’d moved so quickly and quietly in the total darkness surrounding the property that Diego had never even seen them. One second, the father had been shouting he was going to end them all, and the next, SWAT was bringing the children out of the house, along with their handcuffed druggie dad.

It had been awe-inspiring to see and enough to finally convince Diego that he wanted to get into SWAT. He’d been thinking about it ever since running into Hale months ago during another hostage situation at a bank. He knew getting past the physical assessment exam at the SWAT compound would be tough as hell, but when had he ever let a challenge hold him back?

“Though if we’re being honest,” Diego added as he shook Hale’s hand, “I was soaked to the bone after the first thirty minutes. The rest was just for fun.”

Hale winced as he stepped in the vehicle and locked his weapon into the rack mounted on the wall. “Sorry it took us so long. We wanted to give our negotiator a chance to talk the guy down and get him to come out without a fight. Didn’t go that way in the end, though. But at least those kids are safe. That’s the important thing.”

Diego didn’t know the SWAT team’s negotiator very well. All he knew was the guy was as big and jacked as Hale, and he must have the patience of a saint to do that job. While Diego appreciated the man’s conflict-resolution skills, there was no way in hell he could ever be a negotiator. Talking a person on a three-day meth bender off a metaphorical ledge wasn’t his thing. Kicking in doors and saving a bunch of kids, on the other hand? Let’s just say that deal had his name written all over it.

“Don’t worry about it,” Diego said as Hale came back out of the truck. “I knew tonight was going to be miserable the moment I saw the weather report this morning. I’d rather get soaked standing out here helping you and your team rescue those kids than handing out tickets to a bunch of doofuses for urinating in public.”

Hale laughed, falling into step beside Diego as he walked along the street toward his patrol car. “Ah, the trials and tribulations of a beat cop in North Division on a Friday night. Can’t honestly say I miss that stuff. The clubs along Harry Hines Boulevard still generating lots of calls?”

Diego snorted at the mention of the seemingly endless nightclubs around the intersection of Northwest Highway and Harry Hines, and how much time he spent in them when he was on duty. “A dozen fights every weekend, along with almost that many stabbings and at least one shooting a month, just like clockwork.”

“Sounds like nothing’s changed since I worked that beat.” Hale stopped beside Diego’s patrol cruiser and turned to look at him, thumbs hooked in his tactical vest as he regarded him from beneath his ballistic helmet. “I know you like being on the streets, but when are you going to take my advice and apply for one of the department’s special units? Any of them would take you in a heartbeat.”

Hale had been on his case for months to advance his career, and the best way to do that was to get out of patrol. Diego had already decided to try out for one of the specialized units, although maybe not the one Hale thought.

“Actually, I’m thinking about showing up for the next SWAT assessment test.” He shrugged. “I figure, why not take a chance. What’s the worst that can happen?”

Hale snorted. “You mean other than embarrassing yourself? Nothing at all.”

Diego couldn’t help laughing at the good-natured ribbing. “Ha-ha.”

“Seriously, though,” Hale added. “You have as much chance as anyone in the department of making it onto the team. I mean, it’s a small chance, but it’s still a chance.”

Diego opened his mouth to make a crack about it obviously not being that difficult to get on the SWAT team if Hale had been able to do it, but the dispatcher’s voice coming over the radio on his belt interrupted him. “Charlie 204, we have a possible disturbance in the ten thousand block of Harry Hines.”

Diego threw Hale a long-suffering look, then keyed his mic, letting dispatch know he was on his way as he opened his car door. “I’ll see you around,” he said to Hale. “Be safe out there, huh?”

“You, too. I’ll make sure you’re on the list for the SWAT assessment coming up in two weeks. Don’t do anything to screw it up.”

Diego gave him a wave, turned on his wipers, and then pulled away from the curb, flipping on his lights and hitting the gas. The ten thousand block of Harry Hines Blvd. was dead center in the area he and Hale had been talking about. You’d think on a rainy-ass night like this, people would stay home where it was warm and dry, but no such luck. If anything, crappy weather seemed to bring the morons in droves.

Diego turned the heat up, hoping to dry out a little before he got there, but it didn’t help. His wet clothes clung to him like a second skin. Damn, he really needed to start keeping a backup uniform in the car. Especially if he wasn’t going to wear that stupid raincoat.

Wipers moving back and forth rhythmically across the windshield, he sped along the highway, grateful when other drivers moved out of the way for him. Even without sirens, he made it to Harry Hines in less than eight minutes. Slowing, he thumbed his mic as he scanned the sidewalk.

“This is Charlie 204. I’m in the area of that disturbance. Do you have the location of the reporting party or description of the suspects?”

“Negative, Charlie 204,” the dispatcher said. “The reporting party called from Cue Two saying there was a fight of some kind in the parking lot. Nothing further.”

“10–4.”

Diego wished he could say that wasn’t the norm, but in reality, he rarely knew what the hell was going on when he showed up at a scene. More often than not, that was the way it worked. He showed up, asked questions, trusted his instincts, and figured things out as best he could.

He pulled up into the parking lot of Cue Two and parked alongside the curb near the entrance, watching as a few people ran for their cars through the pouring rain. The lot was nearly full, even on a night like this. That said a ton about the place, part pool hall and part dance club. People obviously liked coming here. But with good food and half-price drink specials, who could blame them, right?

Diego cut the engine, then stepped out of his patrol car into a puddle that could have been mistaken for a small pond. He cursed under his breath as cold water found its way into his patrol shoes, making his feet wetter than they already were. More than a few people eyed him warily when he walked into the club, no doubt assuming he was there to put a crimp on their fun. Ignoring them, he stood there, rain dripping off his uniform to splash on the floor as he swept the crowded room, trying to figure out why he was there. Between the deafening music, clacking of billiard balls, and people shouting to be heard as they tried to have conversations with one another, it was frigging loud as hell, but nothing seemed out of place.

That was when he saw the bartender waving him over. Despite the uniform and badge, it still took him nearly a minute to shove his way through the crowd to reach her. Tall and reed thin, she had wild, curly red hair and tons of freckles.

“You the one who called Dallas PD?” he asked, shouting to be heard over the noise. “Some kind of fight?”

She nodded, continuing to mix some concoction involving five different kinds of alcohol that didn’t look like they’d taste great combined together. But to each their own, he guessed.

“It wasn’t really a fight. It was something I saw that made me uncomfortable,” the bartender yelled back. “Three women were at the bar drinking for a while and got a little tipsy, so I helped them order an Uber. When they went over to the door to wait, two rough-looking dudes started hitting on them.” She paused mid-story to deliver her collection of drinks to the waitress standing impatiently at the bar. “It was obvious they were trying to convince the girls to leave with them, and just as obvious the girls wanted nothing to do with them.”

“So, what happened?” he nudged.

She sighed. “I’m not sure, and that’s the part that worried me. I turned my head for a minute, and when I looked back again, the women were leaving. A few seconds later, the two men walked out.”

Diego could think of half a dozen different ways the scenario the bartender had described might have played out. And most of them didn’t end well.

“I’m telling you, a shiver ran down my spine as those men walked out.” The bartender shook her head. “Anyway, I finished up what I was doing and ran outside to make sure the girls were okay. I didn’t see them, but I saw those two guys running down Harry Hines away from the club area. I couldn’t tell for sure if they were chasing anyone, but it felt like they were up to no good, you know?”

Diego frowned. Of all the scenarios he’d envisioned, the guys chasing the three women down the street wasn’t one of them. If something like that happened on any other night, there would have been twenty calls into 911. But tonight? It was extremely possible no one saw anything because they were too busy trying to get out of the rain.

“Can you describe the two men?” he asked.

Normally, he would have written down what the bartender told him, but his notebook was probably as drenched as the rest of him, so he didn’t bother. He could remember two guys with dark hair between five-ten and six feet wearing jeans and T-shirts.

Giving the bartender a nod, he headed outside to his patrol car, glancing in the direction she said the men ran. The only thing that way were strip malls and industrial buildings. If the women had gotten so spooked they’d decided to abandon the club before their Uber got there, why head someplace where there wouldn’t be anyone to help if they needed it? Going to another club—or staying here—would have been much safer. Then again, people did strange things when they were scared.

Diego climbed in his vehicle and radioed dispatch, telling them what he had and that he was going to drive around and check out the area north of the club.

“Roger, Charlie 204. Sending additional units to your location.”

“Copy that,” he said.

The strip mall was filled with stores that had been empty of tenants for months. Everything looked fine from the front, but when he drove around to the back, he caught sight of an open door in the beam of his spotlight. Diego’s gut tightened and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He was out of his car the moment it rolled to a stop, updating dispatch even as he grabbed his flashlight and Glock.

He’d barely stepped foot outside when a woman’s scream came from the building, piercing the night.

Shit.

He couldn’t wait for backup. Not when someone’s life was in danger.

Grip tight on his weapon, Diego slipped through the doorway, immediately taking cover behind a concrete support column. He moved the beam of his flashlight back and forth around the space ahead of him, but other than a lot of bare shelves and crushed cardboard boxes, there wasn’t much to see. Then he caught sight of a doorway on the far side of the wide-open area and realized this store was connected to the one next to it. He cursed his luck. He’d hoped this strip mall was composed of individual units.

He cautiously made his way across the room, trying to see behind every support column, shelf, box, and dark corner all at the same time. That was damn near impossible to do on his own. Dammit, he should have waited for backup. Other units called out their location over the radio, but they were all a good distance away. He prayed one of them was a K9 team. What he wouldn’t give to be able to see in the dark like one of his four-legged coworkers. And being able to smell like a K9? Crap, that would be awesome.

He couldn’t see in the dark—or sniff out bad guys—and he never would. But he was going to risk his life to find those girls anyway…if they were in here.

Diego stepped through the second doorway into the next store to find it even darker and more cluttered than the first. He was slowly weaving his way through the mess when he heard a gunshot immediately followed by a woman’s scream.

Shit.

He thumbed the mic on his radio. “Shots fired. I repeat, shots fired.”

Then he was moving, less concerned about checking every dark space and more concerned about getting to the woman. Running through one store after the other without thought to the fact that there might be a bad guy waiting to shoot him was reckless and stupid. But when someone was in trouble, helping them was the only thing his head would let him do. It was the way he was wired.

Diego let his instincts guide him as he worked his way through the confusing twists and turns of the shops, running all the way to the far end of the interconnected strip mall without seeing anyone.

Where the hell is she?

He turned to retrace his steps when he heard a soft whimper, so quiet he barely made it out over the thud of his own heart. Sure it came from somewhere to his left, he headed in that direction, keeping his flashlight and weapon pointed forward as he slipped around a metal storage rack.

Three dark-haired women huddled on the floor behind it, holding on to one another as tears ran down their faces. None of them could have been more than twenty-five years old, but the one in the middle looked a hell of a lot younger than that as she lay between them, blood soaking through the white blouse she wore and the yellow rain slicker she had on over that. In the glow of his flashlight, he could see she was in pain and pale as death. Crap, she was almost certainly bleeding out. Even as he watched, her eyes fluttered open and closed as she fought off her body’s attempt to pass out.

He hurried over, dropping to a knee beside them. Still holding onto the flashlight, he reached out and gently pulled back the edge of the injured girl’s raincoat to check the bullet wound in her stomach. Oh, shit, it looked bad. If she didn’t get help soon, she was done for. Thumbing his radio, he requested EMS with air evac.

“Officer Martinez,” he said, quickly introducing himself to the trio of women. “Where are the people who did this?”

The woman on the left shook her head, gray eyes darting left and right like a terrified rabbit. “We ran in here to get away from them, but they found us. They’ve been messing with us for the last ten minutes, saying all kinds of psycho stuff they were going to do to us.”

“We tried to hide, but one of the guys found us,” the other woman added. She had pink streaks in her straight hair and a diamond stud in her nose. “He didn’t even say anything. He just walked up and shot Tina, then took off. Maybe they left when they heard you come in.”

Diego hoped she was right, but his gut told him there was no chance the men had left. More likely, they were hiding somewhere, waiting to make their move. Hell, they might be close enough to hear him and the women talking. The smart thing to do would be to stay here and protect the women until backup arrived, but he knew if he did that, Tina would be dead.

Holstering his weapon, he handed the flashlight to the girl with the pink streaks in her hair, then leaned forward to scoop up Tina in his arms.

“Shh,” he whispered when she groaned in pain. “I know this hurts like hell, but I have to get you out of here. You just have to hold on. Can you do that for me, Tina?”

She murmured something that might have been agreement, but he wasn’t sure. Regardless, he headed back the way he’d come, the other two women close behind. He stopped at each doorway, poking his head out to make sure the coast was clear. After more than a few times of doing that, he started thinking maybe the girls were right about those guys bailing.

He was halfway across a store that must have once carried ladies’ fashions—at least judging by all the female mannequins eerily watching them—when he heard a crunching sound. He snapped his head around to see a man standing in the shadows.

Diego had a fraction of a second to shove the two women with him aside and twist his body around in an attempt to protect the girl in his arms before the sound of a large caliber handgun going off shattered the darkness. A bullet hit him in the back, and his vision went dark as pain engulfed him.

“Run!” he shouted even as another gunshot rang out and a red-hot lance of agony sliced across the top of his right shoulder inches from his spine. “Go…go…go!”

He was forced to stay behind the two women running and losing their collective minds in front of him. Tina screamed in his arms, the jostling too much for her, but there was nothing he could do to avoid it. They had to run, or they’d all die.

When the shadow of a man emerged out of the darkness ahead of him, Diego didn’t pause to think. He simply tucked Tina closer to his body and lowered his shoulder, slamming into the guy at full speed. There was a grunt followed by a weapon going off, then all three girls were screaming.

Diego felt something stab through his stomach above his left hip, right below his tactical vest. When the pain showed up this time, there was no doubt in his mind that he was screwed.

He went down hard, Tina slipping from his arms to tumble across the floor. The fact that she didn’t make a sound as she skidded across the linoleum and thudded into a pile of boxes worried him, but then the man he’d crashed into—a big, burly guy matching the bartender’s description—pointed his gun in Diego’s direction, and that situation sort of required all his attention. He had to stay alive long enough to get the women out of here.

Diego lunged forward, landing on the man and shoving the pistol in his hand aside as it went off again. Out the corner of his eye, he saw the two women whose names he still didn’t know scramble to their feet and run. He only prayed they didn’t run straight into the second guy.

A punch came his way and he ducked, letting the blow graze the side of his head instead of taking it straight in the face. The move was purely instinctive on his part. Just like it was instinct that had him throwing a punch of his own. Something crunched under his fist and the man let out a grunt of pain. Hoping that meant the guy was at least temporarily stunned, Diego reached for his own gun.

The flash of a blade glinted in the dim light coming from the street, and he twisted to the side, his weapon forgotten. The knife plunged deep into his right shoulder, bringing with it a whole hell of a lot of agony. Diego had never been shot before tonight—or stabbed—but he’d take a bullet over a blade any day. His shoulder was on frigging fire.

Diego rolled one way and then the other, managing to get the weapon dislodged from his shoulder and punching the man in the face again. He was able to keep the man’s pistol away from him, but the knife came close to his throat more than once before he was able to get in a punch to the man’s temple that took the fight right out of him.

As Diego pulled out his handcuffs, he realized he couldn’t feel the rough metal under his fingers. In fact, he couldn’t feel his legs either. Breathing seemed to suddenly be a lot more trouble than it was worth, too. And the pain spreading through his body was way worse than before.

That was probably really bad.

The guy he’d knocked unconscious was slowly coming to, but Diego somehow managed to get the gun and knife shoved away before cuffing him.

Diego started to clamber to his feet, intending to pick up Tina and get the hell out of there. Unfortunately, it was hard finding the energy to move, much less stand, so he knelt there on the floor, telling himself he would just take a second to catch his breath. But the seconds began to drag out, and even though Diego knew he had to get moving, if it wasn’t for the sound of footsteps nearby, he probably would have stayed right where he was until help arrived.

He lifted his head, frowning when he saw it was darker inside the building than it had been before. Even so, he could still make out the shape of a man standing ten feet away, an automatic pointed in Diego’s direction.

Diego reached for the Glock still holstered at his waist, but knew he’d never get it out in time, not with his reflexes slowed from the blood loss. Even when he got his right hand on the polymer grip of the weapon, he couldn’t seem to pull it out. The slow smile spreading across the other man’s face in the dim light told Diego he’d run out of time.

Then out of nowhere, a cardboard box flew through the darkness, slamming the asshole in the side of the head.

From the corner of his eye, Diego saw Tina slumped to the floor, all her energy exhausted in her effort to throw the box. It wasn’t enough to rip the man’s head off or anything close to that, but it distracted him enough for Diego to finally get his weapon out.

The man shoved the box aside with a curse and fired at Diego just as he pulled the trigger on the Glock. The guy fell to the floor even as a bullet slammed into Diego. Pain bloomed in the center of his chest and breathing became impossible, making Diego doubt his vest had been able to stop the round. But it must have, or he’d be dead.

Rolling painfully to his knees, Diego crawled toward Tina, terrified all of this was going to be for nothing. But when he slipped a hand under her shoulder and rolled her over, she let out a little groan and he released the breath he hadn’t known he was holding.

“Let’s get you out of here, okay?” he murmured.

Diego slowly picked Tina up and stumbled to his feet, only to promptly drop to a knee, his head spinning so fast, he thought he was going to pass out for sure. Gritting his teeth, he struggled to stand again, and this time, he stayed upright. He staggered toward the exit, ignoring the guy he’d left cuffed on the floor, murmuring the whole time to the girl in his arms, promising she’d be okay.

The trip through the shops, which had seemed rather short on the way in, had lengthened considerably. He was convinced he’d stumbled at least a hundred miles and still didn’t seem close to getting out of there.

Diego didn’t realize he’d fallen to his knees until he felt the grit of sharp rubble digging into his skin. He immediately tried to regain his feet, but instead, slid to the floor in a boneless heap. He twisted sideways at the last second, so his shoulder slammed into hard linoleum instead of Tina. She lay a few inches away, her hazel eyes fighting to stay open as his started to close.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, the words little more than breath moving across his lips. “I know I promised, and I’m sorry.”

Tina’s eyes opened for a moment, and he thought he saw understanding and forgiveness there. Or maybe that was simply wishful thinking.

Diego fought the blackness, trying to reach for his radio mic so he could beg them to hurry and get to the girl before it was too late. But his arms were beyond numb and movement impossible. All he could do was lay there and watch Tina fade away.

It was so damn wrong.

Then, all at once, cops and paramedics were surrounding them. He closed his eyes, relieved. Tina would be okay.

“You still with me, Diego?” a deep voice asked.

Diego opened his eyes once again to see Hale leaning over him, concern written all over his face. For a moment, he wondered how the hell his friend was there. Then he stopped worrying about the meaningless shit and asked the only question that really mattered.

“The girl?”

Hale nodded, gripping Diego’s hand and giving it a reassuring squeeze. “The paramedics just took her out. They’re loading her on the helicopter right now. It will leave the second you’re on it. You just have to hold on.”

Then he was on a gurney and paramedics were shoving him full speed through the abandoned stores and out into the freezing rain. But no matter how fast they moved, Hale kept up with them, stuck right there at his side, holding Diego’s hand in his.

“Just a little bit farther,” Hale told him. “The bird is in the empty lot across the street. We’re going to wheel you straight there. Just hold on.”

Black spots swirled above Diego, blurring out the glare of the streetlamps and flashlights around them. He swore he could hear his heart thudding in his chest and the sound it was making did nothing to convince him that it wanted to continue the effort.

“I don’t think I can,” he mumbled, his words slurring as something metallic and nasty filled his mouth and throat, making it difficult to breathe, much less talk. “Tell my family that it didn’t hurt. That…it was quick.”

That was a lie, of course. In reality, the pain in his chest felt like there was a living creature inside him, slowly digging its way out. But he didn’t want his mom and dad or brother and sisters to know that. It would make what happened to him even harder on them.

Hale cursed, his eyes misty even as his lip curled in anger. “None of that shit,” he growled. He frigging growled. And even though Diego knew it was nothing but a pain-driven delusion, he thought for a second his best friend’s eyes were glowing vivid yellow-gold. “Don’t even think you’re getting out of that SWAT assessment this easy. You said you were going to do it, and you can guarantee I’m going to hold you to that promise. Now, suck it up and keep breathing until you get to the hospital. Or I’m telling your mom you gave up because you were afraid to face humiliation in front of me and the rest of the SWAT team.”

Diego wasn’t so sure his friend’s speech was having the desired effect, but he supposed he couldn’t blame the guy for trying. He would have done the same thing.

“Don’t give up on me, Diego,” Hale urged, his voice barely audible over the thump of the helicopter blades that signaled they were getting close to the bird. “Don’t give up on yourself. There are hundreds of people out there waiting for someone like you to help them out of whatever shit they’ve found themselves in. Thousands, maybe. You’ve spent years helping other people, but if you ever want to help another living soul, you’re going to have to fight to stay alive. Fight like you’ve never fought before.”

Diego let those thoughts roll around in his head as the paramedics lifted the gurney into the helicopter and the damn rain finally stopped hitting him. Outside, Hale was shouting at him to fight—for himself and all the people who’d depend on him in the future.

The doors of the helicopter slammed closed, shutting out whatever else Hale might have said. Then a paramedic was leaning over him with an IV bag and the bird was taking off. As he drifted off into the darkness of unconsciousness, Hale’s words echoed in his head. His friend was right. Helping other people was his purpose for living. If he wanted to keep doing it, he was going to have to make it through this.

There was just one problem with that.

He wasn’t sure he could.