T.J.’s nose itched. It had, in fact, been itching like hell for over an hour, but he wouldn’t scratch it. His cover was too damn uncertain, and he couldn’t risk any movement until he got the intel he was waiting for. Instead, he deliberately relaxed each muscle in his body one by one, starting from the small muscles of his toes and going all the way up to his face and scalp, using incremental movements. After so long in one position, he needed to regularly ensure that his body remained limber, ready for action on a millisecond’s notice.
I’m getting too old for this shit, he thought dryly, feeling the ache of every single old injury to his thirty-eight-year-old body. Maybe I’ll put in that retirement paperwork after this mission. He tested out the idea in his mind and found that he didn’t hate it. Then again, what on God’s green Earth else would someone like him do? He figured he would probably be a lifer.
A couple of hours before dawn that morning, as his elite unit of Marines had been gearing up to jump off the side of their small ship to swim to their precarious positions, Bulldog had joked that they were getting to be dinosaurs in Force Recon years. T.J. had laughed it off—and Bulldog had always been easy to laugh with, lightening the mood of every mission since they’d gone through special forces training together with the rest of his unit—but now he wondered if his friend and teammate didn’t have a point.
T.J. lay prone under scant cover in a shallow depression he’d hastily dug into the hard, rocky ground, coated in dried mud. It had been the only spot close enough to surveille his assigned section of the back wall of the U.S. Embassy that had become ground zero for the current terrorist uprising in the impoverished Middle Eastern country that had heretofore been relatively peaceful. Usually, he reveled in the thrill of the mission, the ever-present danger. He loved the feeling that came over him, the confidence that he would prevail over whatever awaited, that made him feel twice as alive. Today, though, he just felt itchy.
Without conscious thought—and after so many missions, it had become second nature, just another part of him, like breathing or blinking—he constantly scanned the landscape around him as well as the walls that surrounded the embassy. The heat of the afternoon bled into the slow cool-down that signaled the start of the dusk. In spite of the occasional loud noises from within, everything remained quiet from his position until he saw it…then again. Yes, there was the slightest movement behind the faint outline of a door built into the light, stone walls, coated with the dust that blew everywhere. T.J. continued to hold still, but he felt an echo of that familiar zing of excitement in his stomach. This was what he’d been waiting for.
Two figures, dressed in black paramilitary uniforms and toting what looked like older-model AK-47s, crept stealthily from the door. Actually, they were pretty good at being unobtrusive. In the waning light, with the lengthening shadows, someone else might have missed them. Not T.J., of course, but someone who hadn’t had his training and mission experience. Not for the first time, he was struck by how painfully young the militants looked—like kids playing dress-up in uniforms. Armed kids, filled with rage, but with baby fat still in their cheeks. He didn’t make the mistake of underestimating them, though. He’d seen that kind of mistake cost lives.
Oblivious to their audience, the two young men walked closer to him, and he had a moment’s flare of unease that they might actually step on him, but they paused a few feet away. His ears practically twitched, and he couldn’t believe his good goddamn luck when they started to speak. Their voices were low, but he was so close it wasn’t even much of a strain to hear them. They spoke in the local dialect of Arabic, but he was passably fluent in several, including that one. It was one of the reasons he’d been chosen for this mission—why his whole team had.
“The Americans probably think we’re too stupid to guard this door.” The first young man’s voice dripped with disdain, and he switched his weapon from one shoulder to the other, puffing up his skinny chest.
“It’s not on any of the plans…and it is nearly impossible to see from the outside if you don’t know where it is already. We wouldn’t have found it if there weren’t a traitor loyal to our cause.”
T.J.’s mind raced. It was confirmation of what they’d suspected, and it wasn’t good…but it certainly explained why it had seemed like the insurgents anticipated every move before the guards inside the embassy could make them.
The second speaker, who looked slightly older, grew thoughtful before he spoke again. “In fact, I think we should use it. We can set a trap for whatever rescuers the Americans think to send. We’ll make it seem as though we never discovered the passageway out…leaving it look unguarded. But we’ll have four or five men inside waiting to pick them off as they enter—the hallway is too narrow for more. It’ll be a squeeze for five.”
“We don’t need five. Four good, strong soldiers and the will of Allah will make us victorious.” In spite of the lengthening shadows, T.J. could see the light of fanaticism burning bright and feverish in the younger man’s eyes.
“We may need only four, but five will guarantee that we bring death to all of them.” The second man’s smile was cold but then widened into something almost feral. “In fact, I love knowing that they will be so close to the survivors who barricaded themselves in the safe room, but we’ll slaughter them like goats before they can reach the doors.”
T.J. remained perfectly still as the two young terrorists stalked back toward the entrance, his thoughts chaotic. Fuck. They had hoped the passageway had remained secret so his team could use it to access the embassy. Still, it was better that he’d overheard their plans so they could anticipate and work around the ambush…and in fact, the info that there were survivors in the safe room was an added bonus. This situation was still royally FUBAR—fucked up beyond all recognition—but he and his team were elite operatives who only got sent in when everything was going to shit…or had already gone there.
As he was running potential scenarios in his mind, intending to remain perfectly still until full dark so he could make his way back to the rendezvous point and deliver his report, he heard the barest disturbance, nearly lost to the wind. It sounded almost like a heavy animal but…not. It took him a moment to figure out where it was coming from, and when he did, he swore under his breath.
What the ever-loving fuck is she doing?
The figure he saw emerging from the rocky outcroppings that led toward one of the poorer residential neighborhoods was unmistakably feminine, with soft curves and graceful movements. It was impossible to tell if she were American or some other nationality, but she didn’t look like a local. Some of her clothes had dark brown stains, although if it were blood, it likely wasn’t all hers if she’d been able to walk such a good distance, and she was clutching something to her chest. He silently willed her to stop, since her current path could possibly take her directly into the line of fire of the two bloodthirsty young terrorists he’d just eavesdropped on, but she persisted, and he had to admire her bravery…along with her beauty.
Holy hell, she looked sweet…like every dream he’d thought he’d long ago given up on, but what was a woman like her doing out here in the dry landscape of the back door to hell? And during a highly publicized terrorist uprising, no less? It was killing him to remain still. They were getting more cover by the second from the setting sun, so if she only paused for a minute or two, he’d be able to run to help her.
He couldn’t help but twitch in spite of all his training and practice when he realized that what she held was a distinctive blue passport with what appeared to be the familiar glinting golden eagle. Well, shit. She was American. When the orange-and-red glow of the dying sunset hit her face and showed traces of tears down her cheeks, he tensed, and something twisted in his chest at the idea of her being hurt. Fuck it. He wasn’t going to wait until full sunset when she needed him now.
Rose Abbott had had an extremely crappy past thirty-six hours. First, they’d gotten the news at the clinic where she’d worked as a nurse for the past six months that a terrorist cell—one that had been growing in strength and violence—had somehow managed to take over the American embassy. That had been terrifying, especially because of how worried it made her for Alec. On top of it, she’d been forced to face the fact that her three fellow American aid workers weren’t what she’d thought they were when a young patient of theirs, the sixteen-year-old wife of a much-older local businessman, had come in with clear signs of advanced labor and significant distress.
Rose tried to tell herself that she didn’t blame Terry, Cal or Anne…and part of her didn’t. It was some scary crap, suddenly not knowing if you could be a target anywhere you went, and she understood that they’d gone to flee the country as fast as they could. That had been her plan as well, before she’d seen Yemina…and the look of panic mixed with agony on the young girl’s face. Yemina, and probably the baby as well, very likely would have died if she hadn’t stayed there. The breech birth had been difficult, and she thanked God Yemina had arrived when she had, but then the hemorrhage afterward had been a full-on emergency. Thankfully, Rose had stopped the bleeding and administered a blood transfusion, but it had been touch-and-go for a bit. She’d thanked the stars for every second of her grueling ER, trauma and OB nursing training. She’d only been able to leave when the local nurse Yemina’s husband had managed to hire—probably mostly for the baby boy—had arrived to take over ongoing monitoring.
Rose took a deep breath, nearly choking on the dry dust that swirled around her. She, at least, had known about the back entrance to the embassy that Alec had sworn her to secrecy on. Her colleagues had had no such luxury. As she thought her brother’s name, a squeeze of dread clenched her gut. Was he all right? Had he been injured or killed during the attack on the embassy? Or was he even now waiting for her in the safe room, worried sick?
A movement from off to her right made her freeze, and she squinted her eyes to try to see better. Between the waning light and the haze created by the dust in the wind, she had trouble making anything out clearly. Shoot. She’d hoped to get to the back entrance before dark. In spite of the sometimes-scorching heat of the day, it got really cold very quickly out here at night. Her heart thudded nearly right out of her chest as an enormous figure emerged out of the dimness, and she would have screamed but he—and it was definitely a man—muffled any sound by putting one massive hand over her mouth. He wrapped his other arm around her waist and pulled her tightly against him, and her breath puffed out of her nose in short, panicked gasps.
She struggled against his hold, trying to bite his hand, to make herself heavy by going limp, then when that didn’t work, by flailing like a wildcat in a snare, but the sound of his low voice near her ear stopped her.
“I’m so sorry to scare you, ma’am, but I had to stop you before you walked into the trap. I know you’re American, and I’m a…friend.”
His voice was deep and sensual, and his distinctly Southern accent so beautiful she could have cried. Again. Her hand tightened around the American passport that she still held. She’d gotten it out before heading to the embassy, thinking to display it if she needed to, but she realized she must have continued clutching it to herself like some sort of talisman until she’d forgotten it was even there.
Her brain told her to be wary. There was no reason the stranger couldn’t be lying. He could be a mercenary, a human-trafficker, a traitor…any number of unsavory things. Even if her instincts told her that she could trust him, she needed to be cautious. She gave a minuscule nod of understanding that he seemed to feel against his hand or down his arm, and he grunted his acknowledgment.
“I’m goin’ to take us back down to the ground, now, behind those rocks. If I take away my hand, will you promise not to make a sound?”
It was oddly intimate, him pressed so tightly against her that she could smell his sweat, the dirt on his skin and clothing and faint traces of his deodorant. His voice was a mere thread of a whisper in her ear. She gave her muffled assent and he slowly took his hand away from her mouth, so that she could suck in a deep—but silent—breath.
As promised, he tandem-walked them over to a nearby group of rocks, his movements shockingly fluid and graceful for such a big man. He eased them down to the ground with deliberation, until she was pressed to the rocky dirt, and he lay spread on top of her. Covering me, she realized. He was covering her from any gunfire, and he had been positioning his body even as they’d moved so that if shots were fired from the embassy walls, he’d be the one hit. Her heart clenched in her chest.
She took another deep breath, intending to ask him who, exactly, he was, but he stopped her with a gentle finger on her lips.
“No explanations…not now, not safe. We can move to a small cave soon, talk there.”
She stiffened beneath his sizable bulk, her skin going icy with fear at the mention of a cave—a small, enclosed space for them to be alone…or maybe where accomplices waited. She’d been foolish to try him as far as she had. He was a stranger…more than that, he felt dangerous, menacing. If he were feline, and most men were housecats, he would be a tiger or jaguar. Her mind raced with plans to push him off her and escape.
His sigh was somehow nearly silent, but regretful.
“Hell…and now you’re scared. How about if I give you a knife? Can we cut through the bullshit explanations and jump to you trustin’ me? If they see us—catch us—we’re both dead.”
She turned her head and could only make out the profile of his face. His nose was very prominent, she thought absently, with a bit of a hook, and it looked like it had been broken before. Not a charmer, she mused, and it was oddly comforting.
“Give me the knife,” she whispered, a mere breath of sound. She swore she felt him shudder behind her but thought she must have imagined it. As he shifted on top of her, presumably to take out the promised weapon, she felt something big and hard—and growing—press against the mounds of her ass, and she gave a small squeak of surprise before she could stifle it.
“Sorry,” the soldier said, sounding chagrined. “You feel so fuckin’ good. Can’t help it. Just, uh, ignore it.”
As if she could ignore something that felt that large…but he sounded so apologetic and embarrassed that she vowed to try to do as he’d asked. With a slight huff, he settled back over her, and pushed the hilt of a good-sized knife that she guessed would be well-maintained and well-used, into her free hand. She closed her grip around it and instantly felt more secure. First her father, then her brother, had trained her well in how to use a knife to defend herself. While the stranger might outweigh her and be able to overpower her, armed with his knife, she was confident she stood a good chance of doing serious enough damage to get away from him.
“Thank you,” she whispered. She spoke so quietly that she worried he wouldn’t hear her, but he must have had ears like a bat and gave a soft rumble of acknowledgment that she felt more than heard along her back.
In spite of the dangerous circumstance—in fact, maybe partly because of it—she felt curiously cherished and protected…safe. Weirdly, she felt the stirrings of possible attraction and arousal, which would be the height of foolishness. She ruthlessly quashed them and focused on reviewing the moves she would make if the stranger attacked her…although really, he hadn’t had to give her his knife. He’d put himself at her mercy and, as he’d obviously hoped, it had helped her trust him.
“Feel better? Enough to let me take you to the cave?” His mouth was so close to her ear, she could feel his hot breath fan her hair and cheek. Goosebumps rose on her skin.
Am I willing to jump off the proverbial cliff with him and go to an unknown, secluded location? Rose squeezed her fingers around the hilt of the weapon, stroking her index finger up onto the side of the cool blade, and it grounded her. Still, she needed to remain logical. The knife could have been a calculated move to gain her trust and get her alone…but to what end? He already basically had her under his control. No…even thinking logically, he probably was what he seemed to be, some sort of dangerous, elite American security officer or special forces—yeah, special forces sounded right—and when she’d stumbled into his path, he’d done the honorable thing and saved her. In fact, he was probably risking his mission even now, and if she believed him about the trap, he was in much more danger with her than if he’d just let her walk into it.
“Your name?” she breathed.
He was silent and still for so long that she thought he wouldn’t answer.
“T.J.,” he finally responded, his voice terse for all that it was low.
“T.J.,” she echoed. “I’ll go with you, but if you try anything, you will bleed.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he whispered, and she thought maybe she detected admiration before he rose straight up like a silent wraith, displaying incredible strength, before pulling her to her feet and leading her into the inky black unknown of the night around them.