Strength of the Mate

an excerpt

Chapter One

Marine Corps Base Camp Fallujah
Fallujah, Iraq

Adam paged through the summary of the supply run scheduled for the following day. It included three proposed routes. The final decision would be made tomorrow morning, based on the most current security information provided by the Marines. It only took one IED blast to shut down an entire road.

He had the rest of the day to himself, after he dropped off the mission plan in his hooch. Adam considered his options. He had books he could read and movies he could watch on his laptop. His roommate, Mario, was hardly ever around, so he'd probably have peace and quiet.

Adam sighed heavily. He should swing by the make-shift gym the Marines had set up, and see who was there. So far, he'd kept his promise to himself to make some friends on this trip to Iraq.

There was no sign of Mario in their hooch. Adam placed the mission plan in his bedside table, and headed for the gym. It would be too easy to find an excuse to stay in, so he'd better get his ass moving.

Stepping back out into the blazing sun and scorching heat, Adam put on his shades. The smell hit him hard, like always. The fetid combination of stale water, rotting vegetation, and animal shit never went away, no matter how clean the Marines kept the base. They just couldn't control the wind.

By the time Adam reached the gym, sweat rolled down his face and neck. He'd sweated through his damn shirt again. It was going to be caked with salt by the time the temperature dropped tonight.

Adam knew the four Marines lifting weights. Three of them were werewolves, which had been a surprise at first, but ultimately hadn't mattered. Sometimes Adam didn't understand something being discussed, or he didn't get a joke or a reference. He usually faked it until the subject got changed, but lately Adam wished he hadn't worked so hard to stay ignorant of werewolf culture, and Tim's work.

"Hey, Madison," called Corporal Jason Rodriguez. He was the spotter for Private First Class Roger Allen. "Ready to break a sweat?"

Adam chuckled. Since it regularly hit 112 degrees during the day, it wasn't difficult to break a sweat.

"Might as well, I've got the time," he replied, sitting down on a nearby bench.

"Our company is providing security for your convoy tomorrow," Jason said as he guided the weight bar back into place with one hand.

"Yeah? That's cool."

Jason and the other werewolves in Kilo company didn't unnerve him as much as the ones in India and Lima companies.

Across the room, Lance Corporal Will Borovec dropped the weight bar he was using for squats. It landed with a deafening clank. "I hope we get into the shit tomorrow," he said enthusiastically. "I ain't fired my weapon at anyone for the last two missions."

"Fuck yeah," Sergeant Paul Mercer said. He gave Borovec a fist bump.

Adam's eyes were always drawn to Mercer. He was average height, but he'd packed a lot of hard muscle onto his frame. He kept his dark hair clipped close to his scalp. His best feature, besides his awesome body, was his smile. He had the kind of personality that drew people to him, including Adam.

"You guys are fucking insane," Adam said with a chuckle, shaking his head in disbelief. "You want us to get shot at. Normal people would hope for a quiet mission so they'd survive."

Rodriguez and Allen changed the weights on the bar they were using. "We're not crazy. We're just good," Jason said with a wide grin. His fellow Marines agreed with him.

"Don't worry, brah," Paul said, wiping his forehead with the hem of his T-shirt. "I'll make sure a Humvee travels in the convoy behind your rig."

Adam forced himself to look away from Mercer's display of skin. He knew Paul meant to be reassuring. But if a bullet made it through the door of Adam's cab before the Marines stopped the threat, Adam could be too dead for the Humvee to help. He didn't want to experience that kind of pain again. "Thanks, man."

"And either me or Mercer will ride with you," said Jason. "Most of the shifters in our company know their shit, anyway. It could be worse…Lima could be providing your security." He exchanged a knowing look with Mercer.

"Oh, is that what Lima company calls what they do?" Adam asked, opening his eyes wide to fake an innocent expression.

Will snorted a laugh.

"I've seen Marines passed out drunk that had better situational awareness than Lima," Jason said dryly. "And nobody does a damn thing about it."

"Oh, fuck, dude, guess who I heard was getting deployed with the three/three?" Paul asked, eyes wide and expression serious.

Even Adam was curious now, and he usually couldn't care less about the werewolves.

Jason's expression darkened. "With our luck, it's some submissive wolf who won't even try to Challenge for pack leader. I still don't get how Granger can keep winning fights as a wolf, and be such a worthless human."

"You're gonna fucking love this." Mercer paused dramatically. "Scuttlebutt says Gunnery Sergeant Dawson Rivers is taking over as Operations Chief."

Adam's stomach did a sickening roll. Struggling to keep his feelings from his expression, Adam focused on the conversation.

"Get the fuck out!" Jason stared at Paul, slack jawed. "The same Dawson Rivers serving as Omega to the True Alpha and Dominant?"

"That's the one." Paul was obviously enjoying himself. "They're saying the Alpha is deploying certain dominant werewolves who have some new training they've worked out. I guess they understand his vision for how the camp sippes should function."

Fuck. Adam wouldn't be able to hide his relationship with Tim with Dawson Rivers in the camp. He was pretty sure if he asked Rivers to pretend they'd never met, he'd refuse. Why the hell couldn't Noah send a shifter that didn't know Adam? Ice rolled down his spine. Maybe Noah wasn't the one sending Rivers here.

"Who the fuck is Dawson Rivers?" PFC Allen asked. "What's an Omega? And do the humans have a reason to worry about this guy?"

"You don't know shit, do you, Allen?" Jason asked, punching Roger's shoulder, hard. "Remind me why we let the human follow us around?" he asked Paul and Will.

Everyone laughed, including Roger. He looked unfazed by Jason's punch to his arm.

"Omegas are the peace makers and social directors of a pack," Paul explained. "They mediate squabbles, they encourage everyone to socialize, they mentor young pack members, and they're sometimes the link between the pack leaders and the very submissive members."

That was all news to Adam. It did make sense though. The Dawson Rivers he'd met was friendly, affable, approachable, and always making sure the people around him were comfortable interacting with each other.

"Does this mean he's not the Omega anymore?" Jason asked, frowning.

"Shit, I dunno," Paul answered, sounding genuinely baffled. He ran a palm over the top of his head, staring into the middle distance. "Hammond never had an Omega before, but the Dominant changed everything. I don't think Rivers has to vacate one position, unless he takes on another."

"So, he's Omega until he becomes our pack leader?" asked Jason.

Paul shrugged. "I don't know for sure, dude. We're all making this up as we go along these days. Hammond's picky about who he keeps around him. I'm surprised he's okay with Rivers being half a world away."

"Does that mean someone's lucky enough to get deployed with Terrell Hubbard?" Borovec asked.

"Noah won't deploy Terrell. He doesn't trust anyone else to look out for Lucas." The words were out of Adam's big mouth before he'd finished the thought. He swallowed hard as the four Marines looked at him in shock.

"How the fuck do you know who the True Alpha trusts, Madison?" Paul asked in a low voice. Adam saw suspicion drift over his face. "You're related to the major, aren't you?"

"Shit, brah, why didn't you say something?" Jason demanded. He looked like he didn't know if he felt betrayed or impressed.

Christ. Adam's worst fucking nightmare. The few friends he'd managed to make were going to treat him different now. "How do I mention that my brother is Major Tim Madison, without coming off like an asshole?" he said with resignation, standing up, ready to flee back to his hooch.

"Dude. So you've met Dawson, then?" asked Paul.

The Marines arranged themselves around Adam. Their curiosity was obvious. Adam took a step toward the door. The room was too warm. He needed fresh air.

"Yeah, I-I-I-I met him a couple times." And each time, Adam's dick had wanted to say hello, while Dawson had been polite but distant.

"He's huge, isn't he?" Jason asked. His eyes shone, his expression eager. "He's a big, badass motherfucker who can kick all our asses. We're gonna be able to run with the moon without a bunch of problems. The humans will be too scared of him to push him around, huh?"

Adam crossed his arms over his chest. "He's not that big. Noah's a hell of a lot taller. Noah's fucking huge. D-d-d-dawson is a few inches taller than you, Mercer. You can tell he works out, though, so he's big in that way." He buried his hands in the front pockets of his jeans, shifting his weight from foot to foot several times. "He seemed like a nice guy." Adam better shut up before it became obvious how closely he'd admired Dawson.

Jason looked confused. Adam moved his hands to his hips.

Mercer slapped Rodriguez's shoulder. "Hey, man, he's been the Omega for the last couple years. The True Alpha needed him to be friendly and funny. Don't forget, part of his job has been to break up fights and shit."

"What the fuck are you guys talking about?" Allen demanded in frustration. "Is this guy all right? Or are we all fucked? Us humans are gonna be even more fucked, aren't we?"

Mercer glanced at Jason. "You know how much strength it takes to suppress our aggression. Rivers has got to be pretty fucking powerful. If the True Alpha is sending him here, then he thinks it's what's best for us."

Adam started to relax. The Marines were wrapped up in discussing Dawson himself. Maybe they didn't care who Adam's brother was. Even better, they hadn't caught on to how much he enjoyed staring at Dawson Rivers' ass. He took a deep breath. Adam was not gonna be spied on or babysat by one of Tim's pet werewolves.

Jason nodded his agreement. Glancing over his shoulder, he told Roger, "This is good, brah. It's good for all of us."

"If it's really true," said Will.

"I'll ask my brother what's going on," Adam said cautiously. "I gotta call him anyway." And tell him to stop treating Adam like a fuck-up who needed a caretaker.

"Oh, dude, if you get the full sit-rep, I'll suck your dick!" Jason said worshipfully.

Adam huffed an embarrassed laugh, shuffling his feet and crossing his arms again. His face warmed and he gave a brief shake of his head. He still wasn't used to the Marines including him in their jokes, especially when it turned homoerotic. And it turned homoerotic a lot. "I-I-I-I'll pass, but thanks for the offer."

The Marines drifted back to their workouts. Adam found it easier to breathe.

"He doesn't want your filthy, ass-kissing mouth on his dick," Paul said, punching Rodriguez in the stomach. It didn't look or sound like Mercer pulled it. "No telling what diseases you've picked up. Just offer to let him fuck you in the ass."

Adam pushed the door open and stepped out into the blazing sun. His temper started to rise, along with the heat.

"Madison would have to double wrap his dick if he don't wanna catch the nasty shit Rodriguez is carrying," Will said.

The door swung closed on the raucous laughter. Adam wished he was in the mood to stay, to keep joking and laughing. Tim had pissed him off too much, though.

Striding quickly toward his hooch, Adam clenched his jaw. If the guys wanted Dawson Rivers to be their Operations Chief, he wouldn't object, but Tim sure as hell wasn't gonna send the guy here with orders to crawl up Adam's ass.

He'd forgotten his hat in his trailer. The sun beat down on the top of his head, scorching the back of his neck. In minutes, Adam was sweating through his T-shirt again. It clung to him uncomfortably. He didn't need this bullshit. Why wouldn't Tim just stay the hell out of his life?

Reaching the seemingly endless rows of trailers that housed the Marines of 2nd MEF-Marine Expeditionary Force-and the civilian employees of Ares International, Adam headed for the third row. He and Mario occupied trailer F7.

Quickly unlocking the door, Adam stormed inside. As he passed by their stash of large water bottles, he grabbed one, twisting off the lid. He'd learned the first time around not to mind warm water. Nothing here was ever truly cold, and warm water was a fuck-ton better than dehydration.

Kneeling beside his narrow cot, Adam reached beneath for his two canvas bags. The large one was his bug-out bag, in case of an emergency during a convoy. He slid the smaller bag from under the cot and unzipped it.

Adam retrieved the sat-phone. He closed the bag and slid it back under his cot.

He drank nearly a third of the bottle of water. His hand shook as he dialed Tim's cell phone number. Adam paced the length of his hooch as he listened to the phone ring. Why the fuck wasn't his brother answering? He usually picked up within the first two rings. Was he avoiding Adam? He couldn't know it was Adam, the sat-phone number showed up as unknown.

Adam kicked the leg of his cot, satisfied with the loud crash he made. Shit. He hadn't stopped to calculate the time in California. He realized it was midnight. Fuck.

It served Tim right, getting awakened in the middle of the night to be yelled at.

"Major Tim Madison," his brother finally answered. His voice was gravelly. He sounded groggy.

Adam was darkly satisfied. "It's Adam." He paced another lap around his hooch.

"Adam. Are you okay?" Tim immediately sounded alert and concerned. "Please tell me you're all right."

Tim's worry was palpable, carrying clearly across the connection. That surprised Adam, but he damn sure wasn't gonna stop being mad.

"I'm fine," he replied quickly. "I don't have a mission until tomorrow. Everything's okay here." Adam reminded himself that Tim's concern didn't justify this shit he was trying to pull.

"Oh, thank Christ," Tim said with relief. "I was scared for a second."

Adam heard rustling sounds in the background. Reaching the door of the hooch, he turned on his heel and paced back to his cot. Adam heard a muffled, masculine voice in the background, speaking to Tim.

"No, babe, it's Adam," Tim replied to his partner, Jeremy, just above a whisper. "Everything's fine. Go back to sleep."

The soft sound of a gentle kiss and Tim's easy use of an endearment tightened Adam's gut. Had he ever witnessed this side of his brother before? Christ. Would Adam ever stop feeling envious of Tim?

"I'm sorry I woke Jeremy up," he said tightly. Adam liked Jeremy, in spite of himself.

"Don't worry about that," Tim said, his tone friendly. "I'm happy you called. How's everything going over there? Is there something you need that I can send to you?"

Adam recognized the generosity of the offer. Tim knew firsthand what things were like in Iraq. He knew that small pleasures could have a huge impact on comfort and morale. Adam stopped pacing. He stood in the center of the room.

"I appreciate the offer, but I'm fine," he replied. "I called because I heard a rumor today. You're sending Dawson Rivers out here? You do not need to send one of your werewolves to keep an eye on me. I made it here an entire year, just fine. You have no business sending someone to spy on me, or to make sure I'm not stepping on my own dick." He was shouting by the time he finished.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!" Tim sounded surprised and confused. "Adam, I have no idea what the hell you're talking about. I know Dawson is being deployed to Iraq, but that's all I know."

Adam stood in the center of his hooch, sat-phone pressed tight to his ear. He gripped the phone so tight his fingers ached. His chest heaved with each breath as he stared blindly out the window.

Tim's genuine response stole some of Adam's anger. "You're telling me that you have nothing to do with your administrative assistant being assigned to the battalion that provides security for my convoys?" He didn't want to give up his anger.

"That's what I'm telling you," Tim said evenly. "First, I know you're in Iraq, but I have no idea where you are in Iraq. Second, Noah makes all decisions about where his werewolves are deployed, when he sends them on specific missions. Third, using shifters for my personal agenda would be an egregious misuse of a highly valued resource, and would violate the trust both Noah, and his pack, have in me. I might risk that trust to save your life, but never just to keep tabs on you."

Tim's calm logic stole the last of Adam's anger. "So, it's just a coincidence that a shifter from your office is being deployed to the base where your brother is working as a private contractor."

"Yes, it is a coincidence," Tim said with a quiet laugh. "I promise. I'll have Noah call you in the morning, if that would help."

Adam sighed heavily. "No. I believe you." Christ. Now he felt like an idiot. How did Tim manage to always do that to him? "I'm at Camp Fallujah. Third battalion, third Marines provides security for convoys. I work for Ares International, by the way. I don't remember if I ever told you."

"No, you didn't," said Tim. "I'm glad to know that." He paused. "I would have been able to find out where you are, if I'd wanted to. I didn't try, because if you'd wanted me to know, you would have told me."

Adam wasn't sure how to respond. "It never occurred to me you'd want to know," he said hastily. "So, the werewolves are pretty excited that Rivers is being deployed here. I don't know all the details, but I guess they don't like the guy who's their leader, right now."

"Huh. That fits with what's been discussed in the office. Noah's used the word bully. I guess the guy is big, and strong enough to win fights, but can't organize, and has no leadership skills. Some wolves have been injured during the full moon runs, which is a big deal."

Adam was suddenly tired. He sat down on his bunk, resting his elbows on his knees. "I don't know all the details, just what I've seen and heard, myself. I've only been here a few months, so I'm still getting to know the guys. They're only now starting to talk about this kind of stuff in front of me."

"They don't know I'm your brother, do they?" There was no censure in Tim's voice, only humor.

"They do now," Adam said dryly. "I let it slip that I'd met Noah and a few others. Including Rivers."

Tim laughed. "It's just as well. Your secret would have come out when Dawson came aboard anyway."

"That's what I figured," he confessed. "Rivers didn't strike me as someone willing to deceive his fellow Marines, even for your brother." No doubt that kind of integrity fueled Adam's ill-advised attraction to Dawson.

"You're absolutely right," Tim replied with a chuckle. "Dawson's diplomacy and negotiating skills are astounding, but they're cultivated. He's naturally a direct, opinionated, no-nonsense Marine."

"I thought so." Adam stood up. It galled him to ask Tim for favors. "You know when you asked earlier if there was something you could send me?"

Tim didn't hesitate. "Yeah, absolutely. What do you need?"

He sat back down on his bunk. "I don't need anything, actually. Ares takes really good care of us. I thought maybe you could send me whatever it is you could have used when you were deployed. They've got a PX here, but a lot of things are rationed. Anyway, the guys with the three/three…they say they're just doing their jobs, but none of them do their jobs halfway. You know what I mean?"

"I know exactly what you mean. And I know just what to send. I'll even ask Noah if the werewolves could use anything that I'm not aware of."

"I really appreciate that, Tim. I can pay for whatever you send-"

Tim didn't let him finish. "We can talk about that when I get everything together."

The mention of Noah's name jogged Adam's memory. "When you talk to Noah, could you find out when we should expect Rivers? Just a general idea."

"No problem," Tim answered easily. "I take it you have access to your email?"

"Yeah. That would be great."

"I'm really glad you called, Adam," Tim said quietly. "Even if it is midnight and only to rip me a new one."

The muscles in Adam's back tensed at Tim's words. He usually got pissed when his brother talked to him like this. Tim's teasing tone took the sting from his words, this time. Adam wondered how often he'd focused on the words and ignored the humor.

"Sorry about that," he said stiffly. "Apologize to Jeremy for me?"

"Don't worry about him. The brat went right back to sleep like nothing happened."

Adam smiled at Tim's pet name for his mate. It was so like his brother. "If you want to write it down, I'll give you this phone number. I only carry it when I'm driving, otherwise it's off. But you can leave a voicemail."

Tim eagerly took down the number. "Take care of yourself and call me if you need anything. I'll tell Mom and Dad I heard from you."

"Thanks. I'll look for your email." When Adam ended the call, he felt something bordering on pleasure. Usually, when he and Tim talked, it ended in a fight.

He liked this way better.