Caught in the crosshair

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A determined sister. A jaded ex-special forces operative. The mission binding them together that threatens to destroy them both …

Caught in the Crosshair

by

Barb Han

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and the resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Caught in the Crosshair

COPYRIGHT © 2013 by Barb Han

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

Cover Art by: Diana Carlile

Publishing History

First Edition, 2013

Published in the United States of America

Dedication

First and foremost, I’d like to thank my agent,Jill Marsal, who is brilliant in her guidance and unfailing in her judgment. Many thanks to my editor, Vickie Taylor, whose dedication to detail and excellence has shaped this story into greatness, and toiProofreadAndMorefor a final polish. Cover artist, Diana Carlile, designed an amazing cover. I’m blessed to have had the chance to work with her. I’d like to send a special thank you to my friend and critique partner,Jerrie Alexander, who is willing to read whatever, whenever and always manages to make me laugh in the process. I’d like to thank my budsDiana Layne, Lisa Watson and Caroline York, whose camaraderie, support, and friendship are a few of the great blessings in my life.

On the technical side, I’d like to thank NAUI IT dive instructor, Raymon Bacchus, who was gracious enough to send materials on scuba diving and personally answer all my questions. Any mistakes or latitude I’ve taken in the dive scenes are mine. I’d also like to mention Colby P. at Frisco Physical Therapy for clarifying my many questions about dislocated shoulders.

My deepest gratitude goes to Brandon, Jacob, and Tori, who are the true sunshine in my life. And to my husband, John, who is the bravest person I know in every meaningful way.

PRAISE FOR BARB HAN:

“Her writing style and voice kept me riveted from beginning to end.”

-Romancing The Books

“Barb Han is an author to watch and will soon be on many auto-buy lists I’m sure. From edgy suspense to flirty, sexy novels, she’s got a way with a story, writing with vivid words to make you feel right there among the characters.”

-Reader Review

“Han’s writing is gripping, and beautifully executed. There were a few times when I just had to re-read a sentence because it was so perfect, or poignant.”

-The Printed Fox

Contents

Copyright

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

A note to readers …

A word about the author …

Book List

Prologue

The Texas sun beating down on the white canopy over the fresh grave created a greenhouse effect, intensifying the triple-digit temperature. Jaden Dean loosened his tie. At five o’clock the heat had peaked. A half hour into the inferno, his shirt threatened to melt into his skin. He’d barely noticed.

His focus was Helena. Long after the attendees had gone home, she sat there, broken, looking lost and alone. A stark contrast to the deadly field operative she was.

Jaden couldn’t walk away, so he moved to the chair next to her. “There anyone I can call?”

She didn’t look at him. Only shook her head.

Jaden sighed sharply. “Talk to someone, then. A priest?”

Her gaze focused forward. She didn’t respond.

“Then take some time off. Hell, take as much time as you need. Your job will be waiting for you. ManTech can survive for a while without you.”

She glanced at him.

Damn, it was hard to look her in the eyes, see the pain there. Pain that was his fault.

She shook her head again. “I need to keep busy. Work is all I have now.”

Right. She’d been orphaned as a child. A wrench tightened inside Jaden’s gut at remembering the details of her abusive past. There was no family to surround her. Tim had been everything to her. He was her love. Her redemption. Her life.

And now he was dead.

Freakin’ South American cartels.

Her chin came up. “And those bastards have to pay.”

The hollow look in her eyes was a knife to his chest. Something inside her was broken. Would she ever be the same?

Would he ever be the same after sending her fiancé on the mission he should’ve taken himself?

Jaden knew all about losing someone close. The unspeakable pain. The darkness and anger that settled in the soul. The hopelessness. Everyone that had been close to him was dead. His operatives were all the family he had. And they were being killed. He was beginning to think he was cursed.

If she insisted on working, he’d keep a close eye on her.

Chapter One

Lauren James had learned the hard way that sometimes the best childhood was a brief one, that there was a direct link between determination and success, and it only took one phone call to unleash hurt and memories she’d spent the past decade trying to suppress.

“H-h-elp me,” a man’s voice choked out. It was strained and cracked, and he gasped for air when he spoke. Even so, his identity was unmistakable.

She drew a breath, forcing air into her lungs.

“Max —”

“L-l-isten.” He made a strangled noise before his mouth must’ve moved away from the receiver. She heard a train and more voices. One … two … three … she counted, identifying at least three men with terse South American accents.

A crack followed by a pained grunt dropped her stomach to the floor, scrambling her nerves.

“Max. Max? Are you there? Are you hurt? Who’s doing this to you?” The words fired off like buckshot.

More muffled noises, and then a tortured scream seared her eardrums.

“Max?”

“Senorita, if you wanttu hermanoalive, you pay.”

“Pay? Pay what? Pay whom?” Should she call the police? Maybe she could reach her cell phone and dial 911 now while she still had them on the line?

“Pay or we cut him into pieces.”

Icy regret stabbed her chest. Why hadn’t she taken any of his calls in the past six months? Because the last time he called four years ago, he wanted to use her for money.

“No. Don’t hurt him. Tell me what to do,” she said, trying to keep panic out of her voice.Think.Think.Her cell was in her purse in the kitchen. Could she get to it?

“You bring in the cops, lady, we cut him up and mail you the pieces.”

No police. Of course they would have anticipated that. She’d have to go alone.Alone. Panic brought bile to the back of Lauren’s throat. It burned.

Scuffling noises came through the line before another loud crack sounded.

“Then we come looking for you.”

“No. No police. I’ll be there.”

Max screamed in agony, then shouted, “Don’t do it, sis. Don’t listen to them. Go far away and don’t come back. They’ll kill you too. I’m already dead.”

She’d sworn she would never allow herself to be pulled back into Max’s world again, but she couldn’t turn her back on him. Not like this.

“Please. Stop. Don’t hurt him. I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll go wherever you say. Just tell me what to do!”

“You better pay,perra. If you don’t want to glue his body parts back together. One hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”

“Wait! I can’t —”

Another crack sounded, followed by more moaning.

“Please. Stop. I’ll. Do. Anything.” Where she would get that kind of money, she had no clue. It didn’t matter. She had to find a way. A throb ricocheted between her temples.

“Antigua Bay Resort. In two days. On the beach at noon.”

Click.

“Oh. God. No.”

Lauren didn’t hang up. Not even when the dial tone sounded.

Think.Think. She had a little money in savings. Her business was doing well. Maybe she could secure a loan for the rest? But how? There was no time. Where on earth would she get that kind of cash?

Knees weak, she sank to the kitchen floor. Her body quaked. A slow ripple that arose deep in her belly moved through her chest, her arms, her hands, her fingers.

Tremors vibrated down her legs, all the way through her feet.

She didn’t move. Or cry. The fight drained from her.

But she shook so hard it felt as though her bones might fracture, splinter through her skin, and explode into a thousand tiny flecks of dust.

***

An untraceable call. A hundred-fifty thousand dollar loan. An express ticket to a money launderer’s favorite drop spot. And an innocent woman caught in the middle.

And the dog really ate your homework, didn’t it, sweetheart?

Jaden Dean raked his fingers through jet-black hair, ignoring the icy chill running down his spine. This was supposed to be nothing like his last assignment, and yet the early warning signs screamed otherwise: a so-called innocent woman trapped in a sting by a family member. Experience had taught him there was no such thing as straightforward when it came to family ties and criminals.

A month ago, one of his best operatives had been killed in South America. A week later, Smith took a bullet. Jaden should be dead too. He ran his hand over the stubble on his chin. What the hell was happening? He’d spent the past couple of weeks recovering while trying to connect the dots. Something big was going down.

He picked up Lauren James’s picture from the file of intel and studied it intently. Jogging shorts and a tightly-fitted tank revealed flawless ivory skin. Her curly mane of red hair was pulled back into a ponytail exposing her bare neck.

Her body? One look at her perfect, long runner’s legs said she’d picked the right sport. Her lean taut body was built for the track. To say she was attractive was a lot like saying a motorcycle had two wheels.

Under normal circumstances, she looked exactly like the kind of woman Jaden would want to get to know better. Except he felt another niggle of déjà vu along with a very real surge of attraction.

The flight attendant was working her way toward him on her third round to see if he needed anything, emphasis on the wordanything, while flashing him another seductive little smile.

His athletic height and rugged good looks elicited more than a few second glances from women. His legendary charm proved immeasurable in getting information he needed from the opposite sex. He was ManTech’s best operative as well as its owner. In part, because he didn’t leave any loose threads. His best trait? Not being noticed when it served his purpose. It didn’t matter on this flight.

He fired off a wink and thanked her, leaving no question about her dismissal in his tone.

The rush of color to her face outlined her embarrassment at her failed attempt to strike up a conversation, as the captain’s voice sounded over the PA. Local time was ten after eleven. VC Bird International Airport was their final destination. They had an expected arrival time of eleven fifteen.

The attendant sauntered off with a calculated look back. It scarcely registered with Jaden. His thoughts were locked on the contents of the manila file folder sitting on his lap.

If Lauren James wasn’t mixed up with her brother, why had she just secured a sizable loan and dropped everything at a moment’s notice to run off to the Caribbean after receiving an untraceable phone call?

Jaden sighed sharply.

“Like hell, you’re not involved,” he said under his breath, tucking the folder beneath his arm and stretching long, lean legs after the four-and-a-half-hour flight from Dallas. The memory of his recent encounter with his buddy’s wife when he’d had to deliver the news that her husband had died on assignment rolled around in his thoughts. The anguish, the crying, the whole scene had nearly done him in. He did emotion about as well as he did family. In his line of work, there was room for neither. Smith mistakenly thought he could have it both ways. He left behind a heartbroken wife and two kids in diapers. Jaden’s shoulders tensed and his heart squeezed. It had been his responsibility to deliver the news. He tucked the picture back in the file and closed the folder of intel marked with Lauren’s name.

The plane bustled with activity as soon as clearance came for passengers to move around the cabin.

Jaden’s hand instinctively went to his sore shoulder as he reached for his bag in the overhead compartment.

He cursed again as he tightened his grip on the handle and deplaned. His brain looped another thought he wished he could bury — watching Lauren James had been meant to give him a chance to catch his breath, to regroup and relocate his senses after the last one, the one that nearly left him dead in the street bleeding out.

And he’d be damned if he tripped that wire twice.

He knew his asset would have landed a few minutes before him. He didn’t mind losing visual with her. Bryce, his spotter, was already on the ground waiting.

Immediate radio contact informed Jaden she’d taken Burma Road to the north until she reached Dickenson Bay on the northwest corner of the island.

Jaden also learned that Lauren had spent fourteen minutes inside the hotel before setting foot on the sand, which he figured was about how long it would take him to reach the beach and locate Bryce.

His timing was spot on.

“Love the hat. Nice shirt too,” Jaden said sarcastically as he edged behind Bryce, who wore a straw hat and one of those obnoxiously loud Hawaiian shirts with the requisite beer gut to match. Being loud was sometimes the best way to blend in. It was working, because not one person on the teaming beach gave him a second glance. His get-up screamed “tourist.”

“Damn.” Bryce clutched his chest. “Why’re you always sneakin’ up on me like that?”

Jaden quirked a smile. “I didn’t.”

Instinct had him surveying the area before getting too comfortable. The hotel was shaped in a horseshoe, wrapping around a private piece of white sand beach the size of a football field. He glimpsed metal twinkling in the sunlight from the top window of the building to his left. Another on the right. There were two shooters in the building and three on the ground.

Wasn’t exactly afternoon tea with the Queen, but he didn’t figure he’d break much of a sweat if anything went down.

Jaden was used to working alone in worse situations. His odds doubled having Bryce as backup.

And yet, a little voice in the back of his head fired off a warning bell.

“Besides, what do you have against birds?”

“Nothing. I just didn’t want to see every species crammed on one sleeve.” Jaden was more of a white V-neck Hanes T-shirt and faded blue jeans guy. His compromise? Flip-flops.

“I’m like the woodwork. Besides, this one here,” Bryce said, pointing in the center of his chest, “is an African gray parrot. Pretty ain’t she?”

“She’s friggen Miss America. Too bad there’s no sunshine to go with a shirt like that,” Jaden said with a wry smile. What was it about sunny places that made grown men want to wear shirts they wouldn’t be caught dead using to wash their cars with back home?

Bryce glanced up at the skies. “Hurricane’s moving in. Supposed to be a bad one. Wouldn’t want to have to stick around here longer than I had to.”

“Maybe we’ll be outta here by lunch. We figure out what she’s doing in the mix, and maybe she’ll lead us to who’s in charge.”

“I hope. I’m hungry,” Bryce said, patting his stomach and planting himself on a beach towel.

The small folder with intel about Lauren James’s life pointed toward her innocence. Business owner. Successful entrepreneur. Tough childhood, yes, but she’d distanced herself and made good. On the surface, she was someone Jaden could even respect.

Was she a simple small business owner who just happened to be related to an international money launderer? Was she the unfortunate recipient of bad shared genes? Or was she involved and justthatgood,thatsmart?

A small business made for a perfect front. And nothing involving South American cartels was straightforward.

“So it’s two against five?” Jaden said aloud, not minding those odds.

“Looks so. For now. More’s on the way. I can’t hang around for long.” Bryce looked glum as he checked his watch. “Our guys should’ve been here already.”

“What? You got a problem with the numbers?”

“Like it better when they’re flipped,” Bryce said truthfully.

“You would.”

“Think this situation’s about to blow?”

Jaden rolled his shoulders. “Hard to say.” He paused, thinking how it would be nice to have at least one friend to watch a game with sometime. “You know, when this is over, we should grab a beer.”

“Sure thing.”

Jaden leaned forward until he located the asset, Lauren. Not like he could miss that shock of long red hair against white sand anyway. In the sun, her hair shimmered like crystals.

She sat on the edge of a bright blue lounge chair in the middle of a hundred yards of oceanfront property. There was beach out in front of her, hotel around her, and a row of palm trees on either side. Her small overnight bag was tucked under the lounger. Based on the size of her bag, she didn’t expect to be here long. Or it was filled with money.

She was beautiful. He didn’t need to be any closer than five feet from her to tell that. Her pale green tank pressed against full breasts, a white cotton skirt fell to her calves. Looking through binoculars, he could see her face clearly for the first time. The picture in her file didn’t do her justice. Her fiery hair framed an almond-shaped face and brown eyes with gold flecks in them. Her lips were full, pink and kissable … he stopped himself right there. Her lips were none of his damn business. He dismissed the thought as a side effect of going too long without female companionship. Another job casualty.

Besides, all the color had drained from her face, and she was blinking rapidly. Meant she was anxious. Nervous. If she was involved, she didn’t normally take meetings.

Her folded arms and squared shoulders told him she was ready to jump out of her skin if someone yelled, “Boo.” And yet, he had to give it to her, she was being brave enough to sit there anyway. Of course, he couldn’t tell if she feared the men watching her or just the possibility of getting caught in general.

Jaden glimpsed someone moving from around the side of the hotel and heading toward a cluster of palm trees. The man moved stealthily along the row of palms, crouched low enough not to draw attention to himself.

Tension permeated the beach, powering the heat and humidity times ten. Jaden’s blood was finally pumping again. Adrenaline. He wouldn’t feel this alive sitting behind a desk nursing his injuries.

The ominous storm clouds that had been threatening thickened as a light sprinkle began. The heavy clouds blocked the sun, making it dark as night. The rain shooed tourists back into the hotel, their fists full of rainbow-colored drinks with chunks of pineapple stabbed by toothpicks and set on the rims of the glasses.

Bryce took a step toward Jaden. His eyes bulged, and he made a sharp gasp to force air into his lungs.

Another rush of adrenaline hit Jaden, popping him to his feet long before his brain had time to register what had happened.

Bryce’s large frame stumbled forward, wobbled, and then abruptly sat down. He slumped forward, the look of shock still on his face, as the African gray parrot on his chest turned blood red, and the dark liquid infected every other bird like a strain of H1N1.

Shit.

Bryce was dead.

A flash of anger had Jaden ready to unleash his rage on the asshole who did this. Did they shoot Lauren too?

He caught sight of his asset struggling against a man slightly larger, but very much stronger than she, while clutching her suitcase.

Where the hell was his backup?

Cursing beneath his breath, knowing he was running out of time, Jaden had to act fast. The beach was too exposed. He couldn’t go barreling across it no matter how much his instinct told him he could take the kidnapper with ease. There were too many others covering this stretch of real estate.

At least Jaden had his mark in sight, his own weapon, and the benefit of knowing what he was up against. Knowing your enemy and how many there were created a distinct advantage.

He no longer had the element of surprise on his side. Not since Bryce.

With Lauren thrashing around, Jaden couldn’t get a clean shot. One wrong thrash and there’d be a bullet between her eyes.

He needed her alive.

The guy was hauling her toward the parking lot. Good. Jaden would be covered there. He could move undetected through the cars. He couldn’t allow them to take her to a more secure location. They’d be even better prepared there.

He had to make a move now.

Jaden moved quickly around the front side of the hotel. In the lot, there’d be a driver, at least, and probably another gunman. He already knew about the men in the towers. They’d be making their way down to the parking lot by now.

The escape vehicle should be easy enough to find. Scum like this had a weakness for large SUVs with dark windows. A vehicle that size would stick out against a sea of rusting Celicas.

Ignoring the blinding pain in his shoulder, Jaden slipped into the parking lot. He prayed they wouldn’t have more shooters upstairs, in the windows, or overlooking the lot.

A quick scan didn’t reveal any, but he didn’t exactly have time to stick around long enough to get a good read.

He had no idea what Lauren’s reaction to him saving her would be. If she fought him, that might draw unwanted attention. She could end up compromising her own rescue. He could handle the abductor. He could handle her. He didn’t doubt his abilities. He’d become the best by considering every possible angle. She was already in fight or flight mode. He needed to make a mental adjustment for that.

Jaden located the black SUV immediately. Why were bad guys so predictable? He felt better about his odds now too.

Patience.

The break Jaden was looking for came when he got close enough to see the driver was alone. He had a few minutes at best before the rest of the gang would descend on the lot.

The other guy on the beach would have stayed back to sweep the area. He was already to Bryce by now.

Damn. Bryce. Jaden hated leaving him back there on the sand. Everything in his heart made him want to stay with Bryce, in his final moments, not let some asshole criminal drag him off the beach.

Rage heated the blood in his veins to boiling. He tamped down his frustration.

Speaking of men. Where in God’s name were Gunner and the others?

Jaden moved silently through the parking lot, still seething.

Anger always made him think more clearly. The rush of adrenaline that came with it made him near invincible.

He could see Lauren fighting, being dragged toward the vehicle. She wasn’t going down easy. Good. She’d slow them down. He’d have to pick his moment to strike carefully. He needed to find the path of least resistance.

If he took out the driver, he risked drawing attention.

He needed to make a move on the kidnapper before they got to the SUV.Patience.

A group of Dumpsters would give him enough clearance to take out the guy unnoticed. Might even buy Jaden the time he needed to snatch Lauren and get them both to safety.

Crouched low, he made it to the Dumpsters quickly, quietly, and unseen.

He stayed low as they approached.Patience.

She kicked and screamed, despite the kidnapper’s hand over her mouth. She had fight in her.

Jaden needed the right moment to strike. Let them come a little closer.

Now.

In one sweeping motion, Jaden snatched them both.

Fists were coming at him hard, as were kicks, but he easily wrestled the South American to the ground. Lauren was over top of him, slamming her fists into him as he held onto her leg.

“Don’t fight me,” he growled at her, their gazes holding briefly, while pulling his Glock from the waistband of his jeans. He pressed the cold metal severely against the kidnapper’s forehead, the bullet meant for him already loaded in the chamber. “Or I’ll shoot you too.”

Fear had her golden eyes opened wide, but her jaw was set.

“Help me tie him up,” he demanded, pulling his own belt from his jeans and wrapping it around the kidnapper, strapping his arms to his sides.

Lauren hesitated for a split second before she kneeled down and ground her knee into the kidnapper’s back.

He winced, and then smiled up at her through the pain.

“You won’t get away with this,perra,” he said through a sneer. A tattoo of an angel covered the left side of his neck.

Lauren’s fist balled, reared back, and then slammed into his face. “That’s for Max.”

He spit blood.

“Hold on there,” Jaden said, surprised. A spray of bullets rained on them from every angle. He’d be amused were it not for the shrapnel flying near his head.

“Get up.” Jaden forced the South American to his feet and pushed him in front of them, figuring she wouldn’t mind using this piece of scum as a human shield.

He took Lauren’s hand, feeling a sudden spark run between them, and he tucked her behind him.

Pressing the barrel of his gun to the back of the South American’s head, Jaden used the man as cover as he moved them toward the beach. If they could get on the other side of the horseshoe, they could use the building as cover.

The spray of bullets continued from the parking lot. AR-15s? Tactical weapons? Jaden made a mental note and moved on.

It looked as though the gang had regrouped.

A crack of thunder fired overhead. The sky was becoming darker by the second, and there was only one choice — keep moving to the beach.

Jaden kept Lauren tucked safely behind him and the South American in front as he stepped backward toward the surf. The beachgoers were long gone. At least Jaden didn’t have to worry about innocent people getting hurt.

Out toward the coastline, he glimpsed a worker bringing in a small dive boat with a handful of tourists who looked to be returning from a scuba excursion.

He could make a play for the hotel or get them out to sea.

He scanned the area. Five jet skis to the left. No keys. They would be at the check-in station a hundred yards away at the palm hut. Half dozen kayaks. No good.

The boat offered the best chance to get Lauren and himself away from the heavy artillery moving in their direction.

“On three, run like hell,” he demanded. The weight of the man in front of him said he’d been dead for the last few steps. His thin jacket, a Kevlar vest no doubt, was the only reason they were alive.

“One. Two. Three.”

Jaden pushed the body forward and cut around the building, which momentarily blocked the spray of bullets.

“They won’t stop for long. Move.”

Lauren did. She ran right behind him until they reached the boat where the worker was out helping folks still half-dressed in Scuba gear. A quick glance onboard revealed more equipment. Good, that might come in handy later.

Jaden pointed the gun directly at the worker’s heart. “We’re taking this.”

The man put up his hands and half-smiled nervously. “No worries,mon.”

Lauren scrambled onto the watercraft.

“Get down.” Jaden commanded, keeping an eye on her as he turned the boat around. She curled up on the floor, hugging her overnight bag and shivering. Fierce as she’d been moments before, now she looked small and out of place. Her white cotton skirt hiked up around her thighs revealing far too much leg for Jaden to completely focus.

What was happening here? Jaden had never allowed himself a moment of distraction on a mission before.

Besides, he’d learned the hard way that looks could be deceiving.

His gut told him she was innocent. Could he trust his instincts with everything going on? His brain refused to be fooled.

Bryce was dead because of her.

Jaden checked the gas gauge, gripped the throttle, and sped them out of sight into the choppy waters of the sea with one question …

Where in the hell were his men?

Other questions quickly followed.

What was her real involvement and why did she have her overnight bag in a death grip?

Chapter Two

Ominous gray clouds hung in the sky. The air became thick and heavy. The wind picked up. Jaden had bigger problems brewing than a storm.

It wouldn’t take long for the men chasing them to find a boat or the key to one of those jet skis.

He pulled binoculars from the hook and scanned the coastline.

Damn.

Three jet skis had split direction. One to the north. One to the west. And one heading right toward him.

Jaden pressed further out to sea, full throttle, heading south. “Stay down.”

A sharp crack sounded.Shit. Bullet.

He pulled his Glock from the waistband of his jeans. “Change of plans. Drive.”

Lauren pushed herself upright and fought against heavy winds. As soon as she took the wheel, Jaden aimed and fired.

His shot was a little wide. The jet ski was gaining on them. He made an adjustment for velocity and wind and then fired again. The man on the jet ski flew forward as the watercraft abruptly halted.

He surveyed the water. The other assholes were out of sight. Taking back the wheel, he reached into his pocket for his cell. If he’d kept the boat inside of fifteen miles of shore, give or take, he might be able to grab a signal even through the clouds and rain. It was a stretch. He knew. Yet with fewer obstructions on the water, the signal could bend over the horizon a bit. Besides, it was the safest way to let his agency know he needed a pick up.

Nothing.

“Get back down. Just in case,” he said to Lauren.

She immediately dropped to the floor and curled up in a ball.

The radio on board worked. He sighed sharply. Everyone and their cousin would be monitoring communications. The Coast Guard and his agency would be good things. The men with guns chasing them, not so much.

Filing the thought, he turned up the radio volume and switched to channel sixteen. He listened before transmitting.

“Aunt Betty heard you come in late for curfew last night,” came through a few beats later. “You wanna explain where you were?”

He recognized Helena’s voice immediately. What was she doing at headquarters? He’d ask later. She was asking if he could give his coordinates. No. He couldn’t. He didn’t like using VHF. Not even in code. He felt too exposed. Plus, he didn’t want her involved.

“Party got crashed. Nothing is ever as it seems when South Americans show up.”

“So true,” she acknowledged.

“Have to make sure my date makes it home.” All he had to do was stay on long enough for Helena to locate him and not a second longer. The cartel spent almost as much money on monitoring equipment as the Department of Defense. Luckily, research and development at the DOD kept them one step ahead. Barely.

Then again, looked like the cartel scored tactical weapons. What was next?

“I’m coming to get you,” she said, no sign of her South American accent present in her voice now. Anger.

“No. I lost another man today. I won’t lose you too. Stay put. I’ll keep you informed.”

“Can’t.” The determination in her voice spoke volumes about her intent. She could wind up compromising the mission in order to find the man who killed Tim. There was no way he could convince her to back off. He’d have to make a mental adjustment for that. Yet, including her was too risky. She was too emotionally attached. Loose threads.

Time was running out on the call. The cartel had sure as hell gone to a lot of trouble to pick up his party date. Why? She looked harmless enough, curled up in a ball in the hull. Her lip quivered even when she put on a brave face. Then he reminded himself of the expressionif looks could kill. In his profession, they usually did.

“Keep your date heading south,” came over the frequency. “The weather isn’t cooperating.”

Away from shore? Okay. “Affirmative.”

“Gage just handed me a note. Sunnyside vacation reps are waiting at the open house. What does it mean?”

Hell if he knew. He had to think. It was code to keep Helena from figuring out where he should go. Gage knew her mental state. Good. But, what was he trying to say? Sunnyside? What did that mean? Vacations were taken by the sea. Reps? How did they play into it? Reps with an open house. He got it. Real estate. Condos. Seaside Condos. A safe house. Jaden kept his eye trained to his watch. Home base should have him. He hoped like hell no one else did. He couldn’t risk waiting longer. He turned off the radio, and smashed it using the fire extinguisher on board.

Lauren recoiled and gasped. “Why’d you do that?”

“To protect us from your friends. Why’d you come here?” he asked intently, turning his attention to her. Experience had taught him she wouldn’t tell the truth, but he could tell a lot about her by the lies she told.

Shaking off the confusion and shock, she sat up. “Who are you? And I don’t know those people.”

“I’m Jaden Dean. I own a private security firm called Manpower and Technical Solutions, and I’m looking for you,” he said, thumping the fuel dial as it floated, keeping his compass pointed south.

“Why?”

“It’s my job.”

She clucked her tongue disapprovingly. “To do what? Find me, or protect me?”

“There a difference?”

“Yes. A big one at that, seeing as how you nearly got us killed back there.” She sat upright and crossed those long runner’s legs, tugging her skirt below her knees.

“I just saved your life. Or maybe you hadn’t noticed you were being dragged to your death?”

She stared out at the seas for a long moment saying nothing. “They might have been taking me to my brother. Are you going to use me to get back at them?” The disdain in her voice was palpable.

“No. I’m the good guy.”

A disgruntled grunt escaped her. “I can decide that for myself. Is someone paying you to find me?”

“I get paid to do my job.”

“Who hired you?”

“I don’t know,” he said honestly. Even so, he didn’t like the mistrust in her eyes. He couldn’t say he blamed her. The simple truth was he didn’t know. His contacts were clean. This assignment had come from a big shot in D.C. Not that he would’ve shared the information if he’d had it. Several of his men were dead, and this cartel was the link. Still, for some unknown reason, it mattered to him that she trusted him. He told himself this would go a lot smoother if he won her confidence and that was all. “What’s in the overnight bag?”

“Money.”

“If you don’t know those guys, why’d you bring a bag full of cash to the beach?”

“I had no choice.” She looked at him deadpan, her pupils still dilated from adrenaline and fear. “If you’re so good at your job, why don’t you know already?”

His lips compressed.

“It’s because of my brother, isn’t it? The reason you’re here,” she asked. A mix of emotion played across her features. Anguish? Was there a soft heart underneath her brave exterior? He already knew she was beautiful, intelligent.

Her lip curled when she shivered again, and he noticed a small freckle above it. It was sexy.

“Yes.”

“How much trouble is he in?”

He’d swear he just saw her tense expression become laced with anger and bitterness. If she knew, she sure covered it well. Either she truly didn’t know or was one hell of an actress.

“Money laundering. He’s been one of the top men in North America for the last couple of years.” He wouldn’t share the intel he had about Max having dropped out of sight six months ago, suspected of trying to get his act together and leave the trade behind. Which made even less sense why anyone would kidnap him unless his “dropping out” was a scam.

“I didn’t know.” Hurt darkened her eyes as she took a moment for that news to really sink in. The catch in her voice had him doubting his initial judgment. Had the news taken her by surprise?

Then again, there was another possibility.

Maybe she told the truth. Maybe she was as devastated as she looked. Maybe she did love her brother and she was justthatdemolished by him. A little piece of him believed in her integrity. The whole rest of him, and especially the part which had just been shot, railed against the idea of trusting anyone.

Not that it mattered. Sticking with her would lead him to the men who’d killed Bryce. Lauren James had just found herself a new best friend. And this would all go a lot smoother if she trusted him.

“Sometimes you want to believe in people,” he said, shaking his head wearily. “They can be damn disappointing, can’t they?”

Her expression solemn, she nodded without speaking. Then came, “You radioed your agency before. They coming to pick us up?”

He nodded.

“Back there I saw a man get shot. Did you know him?”

Perceptive. Street smart. She seemed the type to read straight through any situation, or man. He needed that about as much as he needed another bullet hole through his shoulder.

“This job doesn’t allow for many friends if that’s what you’re asking.” He paused, not wanting to reveal just how much it hurt to say that. “What about your buddies back there? Why were you bringing them a briefcase full of money?”

“To exchange for my brother’s life. And they’re notmyfriends.” Her voice rose and shook in anger. “Where are you taking me?”

“To find your brother.” They could re-engage on the south side of the island, and then he could set up a meeting with Gunner for more men and supplies. There were only a few spots on the island where they could be holding her brother. “Unless you have a better idea.”

“You think I like this? You think I want any of this?” Angry, frustration had her blinking back tears and her voice quivering as a look of repulsion crossed her face. If pressed, Jaden would have to admit he didn’t like being the one who put it there.

“They’re going to kill him now, and it’s because of you,” she said.

“Just how do you figure that?”

“They told me to bring money to buy him back. That’s what I was doing. Until you came along and messed it up.”

“Unless being kidnapped and probably killed was part of your plan, then you should be glad I ruined it, sweetheart,” he said. “Besides, we’ll find them.”

***

A shudder ran down Lauren’s spine at the wordkilled.

“How? How on earth will we do that out here?” she asked, eyes focused on the man who’d just saved her life. His face, sturdy and angular, brought a sense of maturity and dignity to the near-boyish pucker of his full lips. His body could’ve been ripped off a Calvin Klein underwear billboard, for all she knew. Perfectly muscled, tanned skin highlighted by his white V-neck. He was physically intimidating and had a certain predatory magnetism radiating from him. His cool blue eyes put her at ease.

They shouldn’t have.

He glanced at the bag. “They get the money?” His voice was dark, edgy and commanding, charging the air around him. No question he was used to being the man in control.

“No.”

“Then they’ll find us. Besides, your brother’s still alive.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

A slow smile spread across lips far too full for a face of sharp planes and hard angles.

“This is not my first rodeo.”

“Why would you help him? Me? Is that why you were hired?”

“I catch bad guys for governments and private agencies. It’s what I do,” he said.

This was his job. He was a professional. That she knew. What she couldn’t figure out was if he would help her or hurt her? She wasn’t sure if she should fight him or thank him.

Best she could figure was he’d just saved her life. It was the first time in years someone had come to her rescue and taken care ofher.And it felt nice to know someone had her back — a dark knight with sex appeal in buckets. Plus, he was the one with the gun.

“Thank you.”

“We’re safe,” he said. “For now.”

“What’s going to happen to my brother?” she asked, hating the quiver in her voice.

A thump threw her forward. Panic gripped her as the engine ku-clunked before dying.

“What was that?” she asked.

His hands went to work on the controls. “A bad sign.”

The engine whirred but didn’t catch. He picked up binoculars from the hook next to the steering wheel and scanned the area. “We can’t stay here. You know how to swim?”

Her heart beat in her throat. “Um, yeah. Why? I thought your people were planning to pick us up.”

“We’re going to ditch this dead weight and swim ashore.”

Lauren glanced around and didn’t see any sign of land. A loud crack of thunder unhitched her nerves. She let out a yelp. “In this? Wouldn’t it be safer to stay right here and wait?”

“No choice. There’s a boat heading this way and it’s not mine.”

“Could be Coast Guard. It’s probably someone coming to help.” She folded her arms.

“It’s not. The US Coast Guard doesn’t wander around the Caribbean. If it was my agency, they’d be signaling by now.”

“Are you sure?”

Impatience shot from his glare. “Every other boat is heading to shore to get away from the storm, which leads me to believe the men who tried to kidnap you probably found one of their own by now and picked up our distress signal. Unless kidnapping you was part ofyourplan.”

Lauren couldn’t stop herself from staring at the gun tucked in the waistband of his jeans as he rumbled around picking through equipment. She had no choice but to do what he said.

He gathered up a pile of equipment and set it in the middle of the deck.

“Find a wet suit and some gear.”

Fear seized her. She shook her head furiously. “I can’t.”

“Do it anyway,” he ground out. “Now.”

The edge to his voice sounded more like a warning than a threat. He’d barked, but he wouldn’t bite.

She scanned his face for a moment, for some emotion that would give her a clue as to what he was really thinking, something that might reveal his agenda. His stone-cold features gave away nothing.

“Why did you save me back there?” she asked, moving toward the pile of supplies.

“It was part of my mission.”

“Are you going to use me to get to them?”

“No. But you just found a new best friend.”

“How’s that?”

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