Originally published: 01/29/13
Always ready, always deadly. That’s the motto of the Atrati mercenary organization of black operatives who specialize in doing what no one else can.
A former sergeant in the Marine special forces, Kaden Marks dreams of one day having a family. But he’s haunted by the deeds of his past and won’t let anyone get close. Then a new mission comes his way. A fellow operative has had her cover blownand it’s up to Kaden’s team to bring her out safely. What he doesn’t realize is that the beautiful but stubborn Rachel Gannon has no intention of letting herself be rescued. . .
Rachel will come out only when she can promise adequate protection for her unwitting informant. As a former DEA agent, Rachel still blames herself for her sister’s deathand is unwilling to let someone else get hurt because of her. But she hadn’t counted on falling for Kaden Marks, and falling hard. Now she must convince him to help her bring down the enemy’s entire organizationwithout risking the life of the man she’s come to love. . .
“A fast-paced, entertaining book.” ~ All About Romance
“This is a great story about two people who get a second chance at love.” ~ Score: 4.50 / 5 — Reviewer Top Pick Robin, Night Owl Reviews
“This book was such a deep story of painful pasts and perceptions.” ~ Moonlight, Lace & Mayhem
“The opening chapter is one of the most compelling first chapters I have ever read! It pulled me right in and the rest of the book carried me through!” ~ Hollie (Amazon reader review)
“Hot, hot hot! Exactly what I expect from a Lucy Monroe book!” ~ Lori Ann (goodreads reader review)
“This being my first Lucy Monroe book I went in open minded and prepared for a great novel. Not only was this a great book, some of its aspects blew me away.” ~ Alicia Jespersen (goodreads reader review)
“Two happily-ever-afters makes Heat Seeker twice as good.” ~ Nannette, Joyfully Reviewed
Somewhere in the Atlas Mountains
It was coming again.
She’d counted out the intervals between the agonizing jolts of electricity and they were always the same. One-hundred and eighty seconds. Three short minutes.
Not enough time to completely stop the involuntary muscle spasms from the last one, but enough time to hope it wouldn’t come again.
It always did.
Still, a more experienced interrogator would vary the duration of both the torturous jolts and time between them, but these were the underlings. Men who were obviously not used to interrogating women. Though they didn’t seem to mind hurting Rachel. Nor did they get overt pleasure out of it like the man she’d been investigating would.
Abasi Chuma. Egyptian financier and trader with ties to the nomadic people who still carried goods (and Rachel suspected information secrets and illegal weapons) across the desert and country borders on the backs of camels.
He was also a sick, sadistic asshole whose sexual proclivities ran to inflicting pain to get his rocks off and who thought nothing of leaving bruises on his young and still innocent fiancée. The woman had been Rachel’s “friend” and unwitting informant for the past nine weeks. An information asset that Rachel could not give up.
Would not give up.
So, she continued to play the nosy tourist caught snooping where she shouldn’t have been role. And they kept asking the same darn questions over and over again. That in itself was as torturous as the pain wracking her body.
Chuma was coming here tomorrow and she had to hope he didn’t recognize Rachel as the woman who frequently had coffee with his fiancée at a café near Jamila’s home on weekday mornings. To Rachel’s knowledge, Chuma had never seen her with Jamila, but she wouldn’t trust the other woman’s safety to that belief. If she was ever again in a position to do something about Jamila’s welfare.
That required getting out of here first. Wherever here was. And it had to be soon.
Her captors had let slip that two of the top dogs would be arriving after morning prayers the next day to continue her interrogation. If things went on as they were, she just might be alive to meet them.
She was certain one of the men would be Chuma, but three months of undercover work in Egypt had not revealed his partners. Rachel had her suspicions, but so far no way to confirm them.
Well, she’d know one tomorrow. For all the good it might do her, or her agency, The Goddard Project.
She had to escape alive to pass the information on.
And inexperienced in the art of torture did not equate to sloppy holding techniques for prisoners with her captors.
An agony of stabbing needles shot through her entire lower half. Against her will, Rachel’s legs strained against the restraints holding her to the chair in the middle of the room. The minor pain of having already raw wounds rubbed added to the agony of the electric shock.
She screamed the one word that would make no sense to them, but gave her the only comfort she expected to get.
The acrid scent of her own urine mixed with the bile from a vomiting fit brought about by her last encounter with the car battery.
The smells and bitter taste of acid in her mouth only registered faintly as her mind took her to the one place in time when pain wasn’t a daily part of her life.
To the time before Linny’s death…before Kadin decided he didn’t love Rachel any longer.
To the sweetness of summer when she was eighteen.
“Abort. Abort.” The one word Kadin had not expected to hear in the humidity of Morocco’s moonless night came over his ear piece.
“Hold that order,” he barked in a whisper. “Why?” he demanded of his second in command, Neil Kennedy, otherwise known as Spazz and a fricken whiz with computers and all things electronic.
“She’s screaming your name, Trigger. They have to know we’re here.”
If Kadin hadn’t been belly down on the ground, commando crawling toward their target, his legs would have given out on him.
“Yes. The first time, I thought she was just screaming something like your first name, but she just shouted, ‘Kadin Marks, don’t you leave me behind.’ She doesn’t sound good, boss, but we can’t risk going in if they’re expecting us.”
“She’s remembering the past, not begging us to rescue her in the present.” Rachel Gannon had no reason to believe that Kadin would there for her these days.
He’d given up on being her hero a long time ago.
“Belay the order to abort. The mission is still on,” Kadin said through the communication ear buds.
His five man team affirmed they’d heard the order and Kadin began moving forward again. The urge to hurry burned inside him, but he couldn’t risk this mission going FUBAR.
Not when it was Rachel’s life on the line.
He’d let her down enough already for any one lifetime. Kadin had walked away when they were old enough to be considered adults, but had still been kids really. At least she had. By the time he was twenty, he’d earned his nickname Trigger as a trained and highly effective MARSOC assassin.
A sniper with more kills than he ever wanted her to know about, he’d walked away so the violence of his life didn’t touch hers. But she’d taken her own path into service of their country and lost more than anyone should have to while doing it.
Her only sister had committed suicide while Rachel was undercover for the DEA. The ten years since their last meeting wouldn’t have changed Rachel enough for that not to have had a devastating effect on her.
There was no surprise in the fact she had taken the dangerous assignment in Egypt following up on the intel his team and another Goddard Project agent had garnered in Zimbabwe six months before.
The only shock was that Rachel still cried Kadin’s name when she was in need. She had to have learned he was no knight in shining armor ten years ago, and still she called for him.
This time he would not let her down.
Rachel’s “interrogators” conferred in the corner of the starkly lit room, apparently unaware that one of the four languages she spoke fluently was the Farsi they were using. She understood another five well enough to eavesdrop with effect, but not to converse.
Not that her special affinity for languages was going to do her any good here. Even though she could understand every word they spoke, she couldn’t do anything about it.
The tallest, and coincidentally youngest of the three men, was shocked she had not yet broken. After all, she was only a woman. He was convinced she was what she claimed to be: a simple tourist who had been foolish enough to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
An older man with clear military bearing, and who the other two deferred to, said she had to have training in anti-interrogation techniques. Which meant: he did not believe her overly curious tourist story.
The third man evinced no opinion, simply glancing over at Rachel with unreadable eyes. He was the one who had attached her to the car battery and tightened her restraints by tiny increments every once in a while. They weren’t cutting off circulation yet, but they were close.
And it hurt. A lot.
Not enough to make her tell them the truth though. She was a highly trained operative, but her best preparation had come from life. She knew what kind of pain could break a person like her, but they didn’t have access to the means to do it. After all, she’d already lost everyone that mattered.
Her parents and Linny were dead. Grandma was in a home with Alzheimer’s and hadn’t recognized Rachel in two years. Kadin had left before she ever lost Linny.
There wasn’t anyone left to lose.
And they couldn’t break her with her body. Oh, she’d welcome death when and if it came. The torture was destroying her mind and her perspective, but Rachel would protect her unwitting source of information no matter what they did to her body. Jamila Massri reminded Rachel too much of Linny. An innocent young woman desperate for love caught up with a sadistic man.
It would take more than physical agony to force that name from behind the barriers Rachel had constructed in her mind.
She’d planned her escape route if those barriers started to fail and the idiots in the corner had no clue.
All she had to do was tip her chair sideways when the battery leads were connected to her body. She’d fall into the puddle of urine and water they’d tossed on it to keep down the smell. The electricity would pass through her heart, but more importantly through her brain.
Instant fried cerebral matter.
And if she was lucky, the cement floor connecting with her head would kill her before the electricity even.
She hadn’t taken her only out yet because the part of her that wanted to do her job wouldn’t let go, the little part of her that still hoped, still believed in good winning over evil. She wanted to know who the top players in this information war were.
And maybe, just maybe…her agency would send someone to extract her in time for her to share that important news.
TGP didn’t leave their agents behind, but time was running out and she wasn’t counting on rescue. She never counted on anyone being there for her anymore.
Another bolt of electric agony jolted through her as she forced her mind to go over the escape plan again and again, even as she screamed the name of the one person she was absolutely sure she would never see again.
Kadin could hear the screams through the walls of the facility. His heart stopped in his chest as the agony in that voice paralyzed him.
He’d heard Rachel Gannon’s voice lifted in pleasure, he’d heard it broken with pain, but he’d never heard it scream like this. In that moment, he realized it was the one sound that might well break him.
“Hey, buddy, you okay?” Cowboy asked as he drew level with Kadin.
Kadin jerked his head in a nod and started moving again. He had to be all right, damn it. He couldn’t let himself get distracted. Rachel’s life depended on him keeping his head in the game and hearing the proof of what was happening to her could not get in the way of that.
Not even when it came special delivery with his name on it.
One damn thing he had never expected was for her to call out to him in her time of need. It had to be a mind game she played with herself to keep her real secrets locked inside, but hell if it wasn’t wreaking havoc on his brain too.
Rachel was on count seven-hundred and twenty when she realized it had been longer than three minutes since the last shock. She opened her eyes slowly, but even so, it took a moment to focus. Her vision was so blurry at first, the room appeared dark. But it wasn’t. The single light in the ceiling was still on and the stark light cast by it revealed that the men tormenting her were no longer in her cell.
She hadn’t heard them leave.
That was not good. Maybe she was farther gone than she’d thought.
Had the time come to take her escape route?
She took several deep breaths, trying to assess her condition and how close she might be to revealing something she did not want to without realizing it.
As Rachel contemplated her options, limited though they were, the door opened and an old woman shuffled in. She muttered a prayer in Farsi under her breath as she offered a cup of water to Rachel to drink.
Rachel didn’t bother asking for help. This woman was as trapped as she was. The first couple of sips of water were as bitter as the acid in Rachel’s mouth, but then the clear cold flavor of well water took over and Rachel’s eyes stung with gratitude.
The woman helped her drink the whole cup before stepping back.
“Thank you,” Rachel croaked out in Farsi.
With a nod of the cloth covered head, the older woman turned to leave.
“Wait.” The word cost Rachel, coming out of a throat raw from screaming.
The woman turned, her eyes filled with resigned sadness. “I can do nothing else for you.”
“You can tell me where we are.”
Though Rachel could make a good guess based on the way the woman was dressed.
“We are in the mountains, far from any city.”
“In what country?”
Okay, that was a lot further from Helwan, the small city outside Cairo she’d been conducting her investigation in than she’d expected. She must have been out a lot longer before arrival than she’d thought, or they flown her here.
Either way, she now understood why she’d been left alone for almost a day after being dumped in this less than hospitable room. The fact the big dogs hadn’t arrived yet made more sense too.
Moving her to Morocco was smart, but hopefully not as clever as the locator chip in Rachel’s hip that Vannie at TGP headquarters had installed.
“Thank you. What is your name?”
The woman shook her head and left without answering.
“Mine is Rachel,” she croaked out as the door closed. Her head dropped, the tiny reserve of energy draining from her.
She had no doubts her people would find her, but she was fairly sure at this point that it wouldn’t be alive.
Moments later, the door opened again – this time silently. Only the shift of air in the room giving the movement away. So, not her captor’s return.
But who? Had her agency sent a rescue team? Hope seared through her as worry rose up to meet it.
A man stepped inside, closing the door behind him with an economy of movement and absolutely no sound. She would not know he was there if she could not see him with her own eyes. Big, both tall and broadly muscled, he wore the newer black digital camouflage. His face was covered by a cotton ski mask, but his eyes were eerily familiar.
She blinked her own, unable to process what her brain was telling her. But her rescuer had Kadin’s eyes.
She knew with every particle of her remaining sanity it couldn’t be Kadin. Not here. Not now. Just her fantasies playing tricks with her mind. This was much worse than losing track of time during her torture. Reality was colliding with imagination and that terrified her.
She had to keep her mental faculties together. It was the only weapon she had left. And apparently, she needed to stop using old memories to fight the horror of the present.
“Kadin,” she whispered almost silently, the fear she’d refused to give into up to this point nearly overwhelming her.
The man heard her. His head jerked, but he didn’t say anything. He moved forward on quick, silent feet, dropping to one knee beside her. He flicked open a lethal looking blade and put it against the zip tie holding her wrists together.
“Wait!” she gasped.
He stopped. “Don’t worry, Rachel. I’m not here to hurt you.”
It was Kadin’s voice. Her mind had snapped.
Even knowing that, she asked, “Kadin?”
Impossible, but he’d just said he was Kadin. Maybe her rescuer would have agreed to anything; maybe men like him were trained to deal with delusional torture victims like her that way. One thing she was certain of. The man, whoever he was, was here.
“I’m not dreaming.” She said it aloud because she needed to convince herself.
She was fairly confident that she was in too much pain to be dreaming though. Besides, in all her dreams Kadin had never shown up in commando gear.
The Marines had taken him from her; she wasn’t about to have fantasies of him dressed like a soldier.
“No.” He brushed her cheek with a black gloved hand. “You’re not dreaming.”
That voice again. It could not be and yet somehow, her nearly broken mind kept insisting that it was. “It’s you. Really.”
“Yes.” Never one for long speeches, her Kadin.
No, wait. Not hers anymore. Not for a very long time.
“It doesn’t matter. We have to get you out of here.”
He made a sound a cross between shocked gasp and growl. “Yes.”
“No. Two of the top guys in the organization are coming tomorrow. One of them is an expert on interrogation.” And she was sure she knew which one held that dark claim to fame in his underlings’ eyes. “I know one, but not the other. We need that information.”
So, okay…her brain was still functioning. Which meant this man really was Kadin because she wasn’t so far gone she was turning fantasies into reality in her mind. She hadn’t done that for almost as long as Kadin hadn’t been hers.
“Then get it another way,” he growled in an almost sub vocal whisper directly against her ear. “You are not staying here to be tortured some more.”
“They’re finished for the night.” At least she hoped they were.
“Bullshit. They’re giving you a chance to think it’s over before coming back and trying to break you.”
A more experienced interrogator might do that, but these guys? She was hopeful not. “They haven’t broken me yet.”
The sound of plastic snapping came from behind and then Kadin’s big hands were on her arms, massaging them as he slowly allowed them to relax downward. “This is going to hurt like a sonsabitch, but you can handle it, angel.”
The pain started then and she didn’t bother wasting breath on trying to argue or demanding he never, ever use that endearment again. She had to handle this and a lot more quietly than she had her torture. Yelling out Kadin’s name right now could get them both killed.
Once her arms hung at her sides, he made quick work of the ties hold her legs to the chair and then he swept her up into his arms. “They aren’t getting the chance.”
“Chance for what?”
“To break you.”
“And I won’t get the chance to identify the other major player either.”
“I’ll leave a team to do surveillance.”
“There’s no guarantee the bosses will show once it’s discovered I’m gone.”
“Is she for real, boss?” someone asked and Rachel realized Kadin was wearing an earbud communicator.
She wouldn’t have heard the voice except her head was right next to his. He should be carrying her in a fireman’s lift, so he had one hand available.
The fact he wasn’t messed with her head in a way the torturers hadn’t been able to.
“Boss?” the voice asked again.
“Yes.” Kadin didn’t sound happy when he said it either.
“Tell her we’ll take care of it,” another voice, this one with a distinct Texas twang, said.
Another day, another time…Rachel would have demanded to know how, but right now? It was taking every single one of her stay-with-it molecules to keep from passing out, puking or ignominiously doing both.