Officer Gabriella Maria Flores desperately needs a big win to save her career. A case that proves that she has her act together, something non-controversial to make people forget the recent scandal she's been involved in. Instead, the murder she catches couldn't be more high-profile, the number one suspect her boss's brother. Means, motive, opportunity--check. And open-and-shut case, if she's ever seen one. But then, instead of arresting the suspect, why is she falling in love with him?
Hunter Bing crept forward in the shadows of the narrow street, moving carefully so the frozen mud wouldn’t crunch under his combat boots. Other than a lone dog barking in the night, the small village clinging to the Afghan hillside slept in wintry silence. Hunter and the three American soldiers following him kept low and moved softly, avoiding the Taliban lookouts on the rooftops.
The village resembled the adobe dwellings of the pueblo Indians, efficiently tucked against the hill that protected the backside—the windows and rooftops great lookout spots. The structures had been built with defense in mind, the result of centuries of tribal warfare. Moonlight glinted off the square mud-brick homes that butted up against each other, the flat roofs painted with cold light.
Under different circumstances, Hunter would have put off the rescue op until the moon waned or at least until his team had some decent cloud cover. But their latest intel had to be acted on immediately. If they waited even a day, J.T. might be moved or killed.
Bitter winds swept around the hill and plowed between the rows of houses, but Hunter ignored the chill. The Afghan winters no longer fazed him. And, in any case, he only had to put up with the elements for a few more days. He was going home in a week, and this time he wasn’t reenlisting. He was going home and getting married.
As long as he made it out of the village alive tonight.
He ducked, avoiding a low-placed window in the wall he’d been skirting, and from the corner of his eye caught a small, flickering light ahead and above, a guard on a distant rooftop lighting a cigarette. More Taliban soldiers were holed up in the village than the dozen he’d expected—there had to be close to a hundred men.
When the hell did they get here?
Hunter’s team had been up this way six months ago, training local police to care for the wounded, aka Combat Lifesaver Training. His platoon participated in a number of International Security Assistance Force missions, going on foot patrols through villages to meet the locals and build trust, create connections.
Connections worked. The shepherd who’d brought the intel about J.T. had originally met Hunter’s unit during a foot patrol six months earlier. Making friends instead of enemies was one of the most important missions of the international forces in the country, to ensure the safety of NATO forces and turn the locals into partners instead of the opposition.
Sadly, as it often happened, after the US soldiers had moved out, the Taliban had pushed in. They were getting more numerous again in isolated pockets like this, and getting better at targeting some of the peacekeeping missions. They were definitely in the village. And that meant trouble tonight.
Hunter’s four-man team had prepped for a difficult extraction, but with each yard they gained, the mission inched closer and closer to impossible. Yet none of them would so much as think about turning around. They’d spring J.T. free or die trying. They’d all understood that, without having to say it, when they’d left the forward operating base.
Hunter stole forward, saw another lookout on another roof about a hundred feet ahead, and gripped his M4 rifle tighter. Fuck dying. Last deployment. All he had to do was survive tonight—then he was going home to Pennsylvania, to his girlfriend Cindy and a Christmas proposal.
He passed a rickety gate cobbled together from branches. A donkey brayed in the courtyard inside, the sound impossibly loud in the night. Hunter froze midstep. He gritted his teeth.
Keep sleeping, people. No reason to come outside. He didn’t want to have to start tonight by shooting at civilians. One tension-filled second passed, then two. But, thank God, even after a full minute, nobody stirred in the house.
To be on the safe side, in case the rooftop lookouts were checking the shadows more carefully, he dropped to his stomach and crawled to the corner of the street. Then he finally spotted the building he’d come to find.
The single-story dwelling had a flat roof like the others, two chimneys. A guard sat cross-legged between the two chimneys, propped up by his rifle. Moonlight illuminated his wind-chafed face as he slept.
Hunter inched toward the blue-green wooden gate with the broken handle. Just as described by the shepherd who’d brought news of the missing American soldier. So far the intel had checked out. If all went well, the rest of the shepherd’s story would be true too, and they’d find J.T. inside.
Black cloth covered the building’s small windows; no way to tell if anyone was awake in there.
Hunter held his position until his team caught up with him, then signaled to the three other soldiers to move forward. In a patch of dark shadows, Freddie—a gangly kid from Montana—climbed the wall that surrounded the courtyard attached to the house.
He slithered up like a giant lizard, stayed flat on top while he inspected the territory inside. Then he gave the safe signal before silently dropping down into the courtyard. Ron—a wide-shouldered Texan—went next, then Malik—a rapper who could talk for hours in rhyme. Hunter brought up the rear, making sure no enemy snuck up on them.
When his feet touched down inside the courtyard, he froze, but no Taliban lookout raised the alarm. Good to go.
Freddie stayed in the courtyard to secure their safe exit, ducking behind an ancient KAMAZ truck that’d probably been left behind by the Soviet occupation. Hunter, along with Ron and Malik, hurried forward in a crouch, silently moving from shadow to shadow. They were at the main building in under five seconds. Ron climbed to the roof to eliminate the guard. Malik and Hunter entered the house after a brief, quiet struggle with the lock.
They had no intel on the inside of the house, didn’t know which room was J.T.’s prison, how many Taliban guarded him, or how well they were armed.
Malik disappeared left; Hunter silently inched to the right. No matter what waited ahead, nothing could stop him now. He’d been J.T.’s patrol buddy that night three months ago when they’d been ambushed. Hunter’s rifle had jammed. He’d grabbed for his backup weapon. Too late. A shot had grazed his forehead, knocked him out, and spilled enough blood that the enemy thought he was dead.
They’d left him to rot but taken J.T. prisoner. And Hunter felt responsible.
When he’d come to, he was so weak from blood loss, he couldn’t stand. He’d tried to go after J.T., follow the car tracks. He’d collapsed. In the end, he’d crawled back to base to report the incident so men more able than he could be sent. But those men hadn’t found J.T.
And Hunter had sworn that if he ever found him, he’d never leave the kid behind again. J.T. was twenty-one, the youngest member of their unit. Hunter, close to thirty, felt like an older brother.
A silent shadow, he floated toward the room at the end of the hallway, faint voices drawing him forward. He halted in front of the door, caught J.T.’s muffled voice through the scarred wood. He couldn’t make out the words, but the voice was J.T.’s. Definitely.
Relief eased some of the tension in Hunter’s chest, sheer gratitude filling him. He wasn’t too late.
One deep breath. He grinned with sudden optimism. Party time.
He kept his finger on the trigger as he kicked in the door and burst into the sparsely furnished space with a loud crash. A series of images registered in a split second: bed, desk, shelf, a map on the wall, some photos tacked up with bare nails. Four men, all wearing the same drab local garb: J.T. and three enemy combatants.
Hunter registered the details, firing at the same time. The Taliban men had their rifles leaning against the wall while they’d been interrogating J.T.—a momentary advantage.
Hunter used that advantage to the fullest. J.T. jumped from his chair. Since he’d been surrounded by armed men, they hadn’t seen the need to tie him down, another stroke of good luck. He tripped as he pivoted toward Hunter with shock on his face. But shock or no shock, when Hunter tossed him his backup weapon, J.T. caught it. Even with what injuries he’d sustained in captivity, the kid had reflexes like a circus juggler.
Hunter kept firing the whole time, the men shooting back as they ducked for cover. Bullets buzzed across the room, kicking up dust as metal shredded mud brick. The men were good shots, several bullets coming within an inch of their target, but Hunter was better.
One enemy down, one injured.
While Hunter finished the injured guy, J.T. mentally caught up with the unexpected rescue and took care of the last one of his captors. But he didn’t have time to celebrate his sudden freedom. Gunfire sounded outside.
“Go! Go! Go!” Hunter darted from the room.
The sound of gunshots came from the back of the house now. Malik. Hunter rushed forward to help, but Malik didn’t need backup. He came running the next second.
The three American soldiers were less than a dozen feet from the front door in a narrow, dark hallway when a shadowy figure burst from a room right in front of Hunter. He caught the glint of a gun and fired on instinct. His target folded with a soft gasp. He caught the curve of a breast as she fell.
He could barely see in the dark, just a hint of her face. Too damn young. And very dead—he’d hit her center mass, a fatal shot. The silver cell phone he’d mistaken for a weapon slipped from her lifeless fingers, clattering to the floor tile.
Regret marred his insides like acid, instant guilt, then anger as he paused. Why in hell hadn’t she stayed in her room, stayed down, kept out of the fray? He’d had no quarrel with her. She didn’t need to die tonight, dammit.
Shouts came from outside. The village was waking up. The gunfire was drawing more armed men this way, the odds against the Americans stacking higher with every passing second. He needed to get his team the hell out of here.
Malik cast a glance at the still body, then darted through the front door, gun first, ready to fire. Hunter leaped forward, burst outside right behind him, checking back for J.T., who wasn’t keeping up.
Is he injured? A miracle that he was still walking after three months of captivity that had probably included endless hours of torture. But they couldn’t stop for an assessment of his injuries. As long as J.T. could move, they had to keep running. And he did come at last, walking stiffly, but moving forward.
Freddie was back on top of the wall, laying down cover. The rest of them kicked their way through the blue-green front gate that splintered into a hundred pieces under their boots. Ron rushed through first, provided cover as they were shot at by a dozen or so Taliban fighters who came running from a narrow alley.
Next to Hunter, Malik was on the radio, calling for extraction as Freddie dropped down next to them and the five US soldiers knocked back the enemy, then melted into the side streets, into the darkest shadows, pushing forward steadily, firing back to keep the Taliban fighters at a distance. Hunter made sure he kept J.T. with him.
He had to wait for the kid a couple of times, but they made it to the hillside goat path without trouble, then hauled ass, up and up to the prearranged rendezvous point.
They could hear the CH-47 Chinook’s rotors by the time they reached the small plateau up ahead, then they could see the helicopter at last, outlined against the sky.
On the way here earlier, they’d trucked in from the forward operating base to a safe distance from the village, then they’d snuck in on foot to keep their arrival as quiet as possible. Now, with their cover broken, stealth no longer mattered. And their departure had to be speedier than their entry. Suddenly, the entire Taliban contingency that had been holed up in the village was behind them.
As the gunner began shooting from the chopper, the enemy fighters halfway up the path fell back, ducking every which way, looking for larger rocks to flatten behind.
Hunter pulled J.T. to the safety of a boulder as they waited for the Chinook to touch down. He punched his buddy in the shoulder. “Hey. We made it.” He had to shout to be heard over the gunfire and the chopper. “We’re going home.”
Back to base, then, next week, back all the way to the good old USA. Cindy. Family. A normal life. “Ready to go?”
J.T. didn’t say a word. He was a tough kid, but at the moment, a tear rolled down his gaunt face as he began shaking.
He was going to need help, Hunter thought, pushing J.T. toward the Chinook, then turning back to lay down more cover fire. He was going to see to it that his friend got that help. He was never going to leave J.T. behind again.
* * *
Three weeks later. Broslin, PA, USA
The welcome home party at his brother’s new, fancy log home surrounded Hunter in an exuberant embrace: good friends, good food, good beer. He’d barely stopped by his apartment on his way from the airport before coming here.
Christmas decorations mixed with American flags; welcome home signs covered every available surface. The scent of spruce sprigs and pastries filled the air—more normalcy in one place than he’d seen in the past decade put together.
He couldn’t take two steps without someone hugging him or clapping him on the back, or shoving something into his hand to eat or drink.
“Hey, Hunter.” Dakota Riley strolled up, her blue eyes sparkling with cheerful determination as she checked him out without bothering to be subtle. Her short dress’s neckline dipped dangerously low, her small breasts on full display under the stretchy red fabric. “Want to go out on the deck? It’s freaking crowded in here.” She smiled with friendly invitation.
He kept his gaze up and away from the dress’s low-cut neckline. Last time he’d seen Dakota, she’d been a sweet kid, all legs and teeth.
“How’s high school treating you?” He glanced around. Maybe her mother was here, ready to rein her in. But he didn’t see Michelle Riley.
He didn’t see his girlfriend either. Hadn’t seen Cindy in close to a year other than Skype, but tonight was the night. He tried to shake off his restlessness. He enjoyed the party, but he was impatient to get to the part he’d been planning for the past week. He wasn’t going to wait until Christmas to propose. He was going to ask Cindy as soon as he saw her.
Dakota stuck out her chest. “I’m a freshman at West Chester University. I’m almost nineteen.” The look on her face turned uncomfortably suggestive.
Oh hell. Hunter shifted away from her. And here he was almost thirty. Not going to happen. And not just because of the age difference. He’d already found the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.
He checked his phone, but Cindy hadn’t called, so he set the phone next to him on the kitchen island, then grabbed a soda. As he turned, he caught his big brother’s gaze on him. Ethan—Captain Ethan Bing of the Broslin PD—flashed a grin, then moved on to grab a bag of ice.
Sophie, his wife, a petite fairy woman with red Shirley Temple curls, was carrying a tray of bacon rolls, smiling and chatting with every guest she came across. She must have been cooking and baking all week. Hunter’s chest swelled with gratitude and warmth. He loved his sister-in-law. Ethan was a lucky bastard.
Hunter nodded thanks for all this to his brother, and Ethan nodded back. He put out more plastic forks. Smiled at his guests. But his shoulders were stiff.
Hunter narrowed his eyes. His brother’s shoulders wouldn’t relax, not even when he moved on through his crowd of friends.
“Come on.” Dakota headed for the sliding glass doors that led to the deck, shooting an enticing smile over her shoulder.
Hunter stayed where he was. “Too cold outside.”
She smiled wider. “Barely snowed an inch.”
“If you spent as much time on snowy mountainsides as I have in the past couple of years, you’d want to stay next to the fire too,” he said easily and looked toward the floor-to-ceiling fieldstone fireplace on the far wall.
The combined living room, eating area, and kitchen hosted half the town. Hunter’s gaze found his brother again. Ethan was acting the gracious host, but he couldn’t settle into any of the dozen conversations. Something was making him antsy, unusual for a guy who was known for being as steady as a professional sniper’s trigger finger.
Hunter watched him for another few seconds. Maybe his own restlessness was just his brother’s restlessness rubbing off on him. And he could have used some relaxing. Big night. He’d come home with a surprise up his sleeve and couldn’t wait to spring it.
He’d served his country for the past twelve years, but the wars in the Middle East were winding down. He didn’t see himself sitting at Fort-This-or-That, or in Germany, stashed away at some base, patrolling the streets for strudels instead of insurgents.
He was ready for something new—house, wife, and kids at the top of his list. He was hitting thirty in a month. He had high hopes that by that time he’d be, at the very least, engaged. Except, he couldn’t enjoy that sweet fantasy at the moment, because the shadows in his brother’s eyes kept needling him.
Dakota pushed her chest out, then wiggled her body in a way she must have thought seductive but made Hunter think she was struggling with a wedgie. She was more than enthusiastic—one wrong move and nipples would start popping out. Dollars against demibras her mother had no idea that the girl had left the house dressed like this.
Hunter shifted away, ready to move on.
“Do you want to hang out sometime?” Dakota rushed to ask. “I’m on Christmas break. I’ll come over tomorrow.”
Hunter didn’t want to hurt her feelings. “I have to take care of a couple of things in town. I’ll be in and out all day. But thanks for offering.”
He glanced toward the front door, willing it to open. Cindy had better hurry up and get here. Then again, the house was getting crowded. Maybe she’d come already and he’d just missed her.
“Excuse me. I have to find somebody.” He stepped away from Dakota at last. “Thanks for coming to the party. You look great.” He winked at her, not wanting to make her feel like she’d just been brushed off, but then her face lit up, and he thought, oh shit. He had not meant to encourage her in any way.
As he turned from her, his gaze caught his brother again, who was watching him with a frown, a troubled look on his face.
Something was definitely off. Hunter’s soldier instincts were suddenly bristling.