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An undercover agent on a deadly mission, the last thing Jake needs is a troublesome beauty distracting him from his investigation. But something about Allison makes it impossible for him to leave her to her fate, surrounded by danger in a war-torn country.
They couldn't be more different, but soon they must rely on each other to stay alive, uncovering a diabolical plot that shakes even Jake's battle-hardened heart. Attraction grows between them as they form a tight team against their enemies. But to act on that attraction, first they have to stay alive.
The full heat of summer poured in through the iron bars of the glassless window. Two pesky flies buzzed around the police chief’s head, trying to get to the sweat beading on his forehead. Another settled on the man’s coffee cup that teetered on top of a crooked stack of files on his desk. He dabbed his forehead with a rag and swatted at the flies. “People think you are an American spy.”
Not for the first time, Allison Myers considered whether it had been a huge mistake to come to Afghanistan.
“I’m looking for my fiancé. He disappeared around here six months ago.”
“Is your fiancé a spy?” The man whacked at the flies again, knocked over his empty coffee cup, but didn’t bother to pick it up.
The guard standing outside the open door ran in and put the cup back on the table then returned to his post.
She couldn’t breathe in this heat. Allison reached up to undo her top button, but caught herself in time. Folded her hands on her lap. “My fiancé, Kenneth Hatch, is a businessman. His company designs irrigation systems.”
“We don’t have any irrigation systems here. Just the old cisterns.” The man paused, his beady eyes never moving from her for a second, as if he was watching some loathsome snake he would have liked to cut in half.
Her gaze slid to the ceremonial dagger displayed on the wall behind him, probably some tribal relic, and she swallowed hard.
He braced his hands on the desk. “You’ve been bothering people with your questions. Why do you want to know so much?”
“I just want to find Kenneth.”
“Where are your brothers and your father?”
“I don’t have any brothers. My father is gone. Dead,” she clarified.
He glared at her as if blaming her for having no protector. “Are you spying for an American company that wants to steal our water?”
Not the first time he’d brought that up. People seemed fairly paranoid about their water around here. Probably because they didn’t have enough. If they thought anyone threatened their water supply…
Despite the oppressive heat, a chill ran down her spine. “I’m only here to take my fiancé home. I swear. The second I find him, we’ll be both out of here. I can promise you that.”
A moment of tense silence passed as the man measured her up, then leaned back in his chair when he seemed to have come to some sort of conclusion.
Allison’s muscles tightened.
“The police commissioner is coming tomorrow. He comes once a year. We are an important town.” He rubbed his chin. “The commissioner might want to talk to you.” He glanced toward the guard outside his door.
Probably getting ready to order the man to lead her away and lock her up until the commissioner got here.
“I’ll be happy to come in.” She sprung to her feet and looked at her watch. “I better get back to the hotel. I have some health issues. I should take my medication, now,” she lied. “And they’ll be calling me from the American embassy,” she added for extra measure. “They’ll be worried if I’m not there when they ring.”
The man gave her another long, speculative look. He didn’t give her permission to leave, but he didn’t block her way either.
She took advantage of his momentary hesitation and hurried out past the guard, down a long, dingy hallway with suspicious-looking stains on the cement floor, expecting to be called back any second. Steel doors banged in the distance. Now and then, she could hear muffled cries.
On the way in, she’d been escorted. Nobody bothered with her now. She took one turn after the other, hoping she got it right.
Sweat ran down the middle of her back by the time she reached the outer door that led to the sun-drenched street. Another guard manned that post. He shot her a hostile glare as he stepped aside.
She steeled her spine. She would stay until she found Kenneth. These people were not going to run her out of town with intimidation.
She wished the U.S. embassy was calling. Or would consider helping her a little more enthusiastically than they’d been doing. But for some idiotic reason their records were all messed up, saying Kenneth had entered the country as part of some commando team. Kenneth William Hatch, millionaire businessman with serious political aspirations. Ha! He wore Hugo Boss suits and Armani loafers. She couldn’t even picture him in army fatigues and combat boots.
But the embassy washed its hands, referring her to the army who brought in these private security commando teams on contract. The army wouldn’t give her the time of day, of course. Classified information and all that. The locals were even less helpful.
She hurried down the street. Not a taxi cab in sight. Caught a number of angry glares. Because she was coming from the police station?
In front of her, a group of men congregated in long traditional robes, wearing uniform billowing beards. The street narrowed at the exact place where they stood, barely leaving her room to pass. She kept her eyes down.
“Whore,” one called out as she reached them.
She walked faster.
“American whore spy.” A hand reached out and yanked her hair, hard.
She scrambled to pull her scarf tighter around her head, but her fingers touched nothing but hair. No scarf. She spun around, but couldn’t see the flimsy material behind her. It must have slipped off as she’d been fleeing the police station, in those winding hallways inside.
The men shouted at her in Arabic. Some shook their fists. She’d seen them before as she’d taken taxi rides around town—some sort of religious elders, spending most of their day at coffeehouses, drinking the spiced Middle Eastern coffee and smoking water pipes while giving advice to those who sought them out.
For about half a second she pretended she could handle them, that she wasn’t intimidated and everything was fine. Then she ran. To hell with pride. Sometimes you just needed to survive.
Would have been nice if her hotel wasn’t on the other side of town.
Her heart beat so hard in her throat she could barely swallow past it. She didn’t dare glance back until she reached the end of the block. Drew a shaky breath to fill her lungs. The men had fallen behind. Relief filled her to her toes as she pushed forward.
The streets grew narrower and narrower, houses butting up against each other, tall adobe walls looming above her. Nothing looked familiar. She stopped after a while. Should have reached the main street by now.
She must have taken a wrong turn and entered a residential area somehow. And none of the residents appreciated a foreign intruder, which they made clear by shooting her hostile looks as she passed by. Tension seeped back into her muscles as she kept on walking. The town’s main street that sliced it in half and gave place to all its most important buildings couldn’t be far.
But the maze seemed endless, following no logic, the heat trapped in the narrow passageways, the temperature brutal. As endless minutes ticked by, she could no longer pretend she wasn’t hopelessly lost.
Maybe she should turn around. She looked back. A group of men were following her, not the older, religious group who’d taken exception to her uncovered head outside the police station.
Her latest pursuers were young thugs, their looks menacing, their intent clear.
* * *
Jake Tekla watched the disturbing procession from the top of a mud brick wall.
She was the prettiest thing he’d ever seen, with her near waist-length golden hair blowing behind her as she ran. Surreal, really, a princess from a fairytale who should obviously have not left her palace.
What in hell was she thinking running around like that in a backwoods little town like this, all alone? Might as well wave a red cloth at a bullfight.
Rapunzel, Rapunzel, put your hair up, he wanted to shout at her, but she needed so much more than his advice.
He looked ahead where the street took a sharp turn. He rushed forward, keeping low on top of the wall, and waited until she progressed out of sight of the men.
“Hands up,” he called down to her when she reached him.
She shrieked as she looked up at him wide-eyed.
“No time for that.” The men would come around the corner any second. “Give me your hands.”
The fact that he spoke English and looked American must have tipped the scales in his favor because she did reach up. He grabbed her hands and yanked her up, dropping her on the other side of the wall in the same move. Then, just as the men came around the corner, he thumped down next to her into the abandoned courtyard.
They stood still, staring at each other.
She gasped for air, pink-cheeked and wide-eyed, looking as if she might run from him, too, yet.
“Jake Tekla. We’re staying at the same hotel,” he said once the young thugs had passed outside. He extended his hand.
She watched him with a wary look on her face. “I don’t remember you.”
She wasn’t supposed to. He’d been keeping a low profile. “Travel writer,” he gave her his cover story. “When I’m not out discovering the sights, I’m in my room on my laptop.” He couldn’t exactly tell her that he was an undercover agent on a special mission for the FBI.
“Ancient temple ruins. Best hiking I’ve ever seen, right here in these hills. Great caves, too.”
She flashed him a dubious look. She had eyes of the bluest blue, perfect ruby pouty lips, the most alluring combination of great curves and long, graceful limbs. She looked somewhere halfway between a lost angel and a pinup model. She’d arrived two days ago. If she made it another two days in this town, it would be a miracle.
“Look, I don’t know what you’re doing in Lahedeh, but I don’t think you should stay here. Free advice: go home.”
He didn’t have time to look out for her. He had to figure out what shady business XO-ST, a private security firm who had a commando station here was into. He had to find out their connection to U.S. Congressman Richard Wharton, a powerful man who seemed to be protecting them. Wharton held the fate of Jake’s family in his hands. He had to bring Wharton down or they’d be always in danger.
The woman lifted her chin as she stepped back, her voice all business as she said, “Thank you for your help. I’ll be returning to the hotel now.”
She headed for the door to the street just as it began to open. He grabbed her from behind and dragged her in the opposite direction, toward the house, into an empty kitchen. He signaled to her to stay put and stay quiet, then inched to the window. Half a dozen men were filing into the courtyard.
Not the ones who’d been chasing her before.
These men were heavily armed.
“What is it?” she asked in an urgent whisper.
He inched back to her. “Not your lucky day.” He shook his head. “Of all the houses in town, looks like we’re stuck in one being used by the local resistance.”