A brand new, gripping novel of romantic suspense from New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Dana Marton.
When an American teenager disappears abroad, Clara Roberts, a by-the-book investigator on a secret mission, joins forces with Light Walker, an ex-SEAL turned lawless mercenary, to save her. The sparks they generate—and the trouble they stir up—threaten to set the jungle ablaze.
Nothing is what it seems in this fast-paced romantic thriller. As attraction grows into love, looming danger turns into all-out war, and the whole region explodes around them. Clara and Walker must hold on to each other and race against time to survive.
Nothing woke up a man as quickly in the morning as a scorpion in his pants. The world—which at the moment for Light Walker consisted of the arachnid’s alarming proximity to his most sensitive parts—snapped into focus real fast.
Walker slowly unfolded from his crouching position at the foot of the balsa tree where he’d fallen asleep. Bomb squads moved with less care. He unfastened his belt, unzipped his fly, then—barely breathing—he gently eased his pants away from his body to make a way out for the intruder.
Most people thought scorpions lived in deserts, but his experience said otherwise. Some species liked the rainforest just fine.
He didn’t bother wondering how the damned thing had gotten in despite the fact that his cargo pants were fastened at the ankles. The leeches, scorpions, and other bugs had mystical ways of sneaking past even the best defenses—one of the laws of the jungle.
Instead of reaching in to where the scorpion’s legs tickled his skin, he waited. He knew too well the pain of a sting as it spread through his body, and the accompanying blurred vision he couldn’t afford right now. He’d been bitten not a week back on his elbow, an experience he didn’t care to repeat.
Two days before that, he’d been bitten by a snake. Probably a sign that his luck was running out and he should leave. Another man might have taken the hint. Walker rejected the thought as quickly as it came to him.
“Come on. Out,” he said under his breath. “Get moving.”
Three inches long, coffee brown, and carrying a world of hurt in its stinger, the scorpion inched up on his lower abdomen like it had all the time in the world.
Walker maneuvered his shirttail in front of the little sucker until it climbed onto the fabric. Once the scorpion was off his skin, he reached for the knife on his belt and used the blade to flick the damned thing into the bushes that stood a dozen feet to his right. “Adios, amigo.”
Then he drew his first full breath of the morning. “Hijo de puta.”
As the Mexican jungle sang its lively song around him, he shoved the knife back into its ballistic nylon sheath that hung to the side.
The knife was just the right size and, due to the light aluminum handle, just the right weight. The Mark II combat knife—a classic since Vietnam—and its six-and-a-half inch, double-serrated steel blade had saved his life more times than he could count. Guns had an unfortunate tendency to run out of bullets, or jam, but a good blade never let a man down, for a damn fact.
He fastened his pants, then stretched his stiff muscles. He swore under his breath one more time as he looked after the scorpion.
Could have turned out a lot worse.
He scanned the ground to make sure there’d be no further nasty surprises. The silver-embroidered black sombrero he’d stolen the day before leaned against the tree next to him. He even checked under that.
When he was sure his small area was clear, he folded his six-foot frame into a low crouch again and leaned his back against the balsa tree, the same position he’d spent most of the night in, waiting for the convoy, and—most importantly—the noseless man.
Walker rubbed the last remnants of sleep from his eyes. Hot, humid air filled his lungs as he inhaled the distinct smell of a rainforest—the smell of things growing, flowering, decomposing—the smell of life and death all mixed into one.
Controlled breath in. He checked his watch. Controlled breath out.
He rubbed his hand over his face. He’d fallen asleep. Shit.
He was damned lucky the convoy was late.
They couldn’t have come already. No way would he have slept through the trucks’ passing. He was a light sleeper. For the most part, he existed on quick combat naps, a habit he’d developed in the navy. If the trucks had come, he would have been awake and alert at the first sound that wasn’t part of the jungle’s usual music.
The first hint of human intrusion wouldn’t come from truck engines but from a slight change in the bird song, in the tone of the monkeys’ screeching. The rainforest had its own alarm system to warn of predators.
The local indigenous tribes—Tzeltal and Tojolabal—the proud descendants of the Maya, could read the jungle noises like a news report. Walker knew the basics, the different cries for snake, jaguar, man, different again for an approaching storm.
He listened for the slightest change of sound around him.
Monkeys called good morning to each other above, in high-pitched, manic shrieks. The bugs produced the background sound, their unending song rising and falling, almost like listening to waves crash against the beach. Moisture dripped from leaves above to leaves below, lending another layer to the symphony. Nothing unusual.
Walker let himself relax.
A million shades of green that existed nowhere else on earth but in rainforests surrounded him. Leaves glistened in the sun like jewels. Lianas cascaded from above like an emerald waterfall.
A toucan poked its head from a tree hollow—probably had a nest there—its large green-orange beak a new splash of color.
“What’s up, Sam?” Walker asked the bird. They knew each other from the day before when Walker had first come here to scout out the clearing.
The toucan flew off. Not into morning chit-chat. Walker could relate.
Parrots flashed between the branches—red, blue, yellow—like flowers dancing in the air.
Some people found the jungle beautiful and returned to it over and over as if to a lover. Walker wasn’t here to enjoy the scenery. Where another person might have seen paradise, he saw a killing field.
After two years of careful planning, today was the day: the beginning of the end. He was ready.
He checked his guns—first the SIG P226, twenty-round magazine loaded with 9mm Parabellums; then the semiautomatic rifle, an M14 with a twenty-round detachable box magazine and five-hundred-yard effective firing range.
He stuck with weapons he was already familiar with from his navy days. He needed the dependability, something tried and true. Between the two, they gave him forty shots before reloading. He carried extra magazines in the side pockets of his pants.
He checked his watch again. The convoy was over an hour late.
Eyes narrowed, he looked to the south, not that he could see far through the dense foliage. Maybe the information that the schedule had been brought forward by three weeks was just bait in a trap. Somebody could be setting him up.
Even as unease had him shifting his weight from one foot to the other, the jungle’s music changed to a different, harsher tone. He gripped the M14 and assumed a battle-ready stance. His surroundings came into a sharp focus. He breathed deeply, evenly. Here we go.
Another full minute passed before a low rumble from the distance finally reached his ears. The sound disappeared the next second, then returned, then amplified.
He kept low and held still in the cover of the achiote bushes that stood between him and the dirt road passing about ten feet ahead, winding through the small clearing chosen for the ambush.
The trucks were coming from the direction of the Guatemalan border, heading north, deeper into Mexico, a well-traveled drug-smuggling route.
One minute ticked by, then two, three, four before a beat-up Jeep appeared in the lead. Walker bided his time and waited for the two trucks he knew would be following.
The sound of rumbling motors grew as the vehicles neared, drowning out most of the jungle noises, except for the rush of wings directly above Walker as half a dozen birds took flight with sharp cries. He felt none of their panic, just the opposite. As he touched a hand to the dog tags hanging under his shirt—one his, the other his brother’s—a deadly calm descended over him.
The Jeep rumbled toward the far end of the clearing, lurching over tree roots and rocks. Then the two flatbed trucks came out into the open at last. In the back of each truck, about half a dozen men sat on top of the heavy tarps that covered the shipment they guarded. Each man held an AK-47—assault rifles not to be underestimated.
One out of nine of the nine hundred million firearms in existence was some kind of a Kalashnikov, and for a good reason. But a weapon was only as good as the man wielding it, and Walker was damned sure he’d had better weapons training than any of the jerkwads he’d be facing today.
They’d be sweaty and tired, having spent the last four days in the back of the trucks. Their legs would be stiff from all the sitting, their minds at their least alert during the journey. They were almost at their destination.
They had made it through the border. At this point, they’d expect to be in the clear. They’d expect that tonight each would be drinking cold beer at a cantina, then going to sleep in a real bed with a lively whore who’d work the kinks out of his muscles.
If they were thinking of anything, they were thinking of that, and not what dangers the jungle could still be hiding around them.
Walker scanned them carefully, one by one. According to what scant information he had, the noseless man usually covered his face with a bandana. Several of the men had sweat-soaked, twisted bandanas around their necks, but none had his face covered. And they all had their noses, as far as Walker could tell from his cover.
He swallowed his disappointment and anger as the Jeep in the lead rolled forward.
Three, two, one… Walker counted silently. Then the front bumper hit the trip line.
The ground shook as the vehicle blasted up into the air in a fiery explosion, crashing back down a second later and shaking the ground again.
The two trucks lurched to a stop, armed men jumping from the cabs, shouting, shooting randomly at nothing, keeping in the cover of the doors, while the rest bailed from the back, dropping to the ground, pulling behind and under the vehicles.
Walker sprayed them with bullets, dropped and rolled, then rolled some more, his path carefully planned and calculated, so as the men returned fire, they hit nothing but trees. Five down. He shot, rolled again. Nine down. He shot and rolled, over and over.
Two men—realizing that they were trapped in the clearing—jumped back inside the first truck and rammed the burning Jeep, desperate to get away. Metal screamed against metal.
Walker shot them through the truck’s windshield, shards of glass flying, blood spraying the cab. When the second truck tried to back down the jungle road, Walker drilled a bullet into the middle of the driver’s forehead.
The handful of remaining men scattered, scampering behind bushes, running away into the trees.
Walker dashed after them.
He didn’t enjoy killing, but he didn’t dread it either. He spent the next couple of hours tracking and hunting the cartel soldiers down one by one, until the last bastard was dead at his feet in a bleeding heap.
E. effing K. I. A. Enemy Killed In Action.
Walker headed back to the clearing, scratched to shit and covered in blood, but nothing life threatening. The worst damage was his busted cell phone—smashed into pieces in the side pocket of his cargo pants when he’d crashed into a rock. He shouldn’t have brought the damn thing. No reception in the jungle anyway.
He thought no more of the men. His focus was on where he stepped. The scorpion was enough for the morning; he didn’t want an encounter with a poisonous snake. He walked with an even stride, no emotion about the massacre, no guilt.
He didn’t replay the ambush in his mind, didn’t analyze it, didn’t celebrate the win, didn’t regret the loss of life. He simply gave no further thought to the attack he’d carried out. He moved on to the next task.
He dumped the bodies from the cab of the first truck and lined the vehicle up for the pulley system he had hidden high in the canopy. Once he had the truck in position, he pulled back the tarp, lowered the pulley from the tree, hooked it up to the pallet that held over two hundred pounds of raw heroin in plastic bags, then he ratcheted the entire pallet up and out of sight.
He moved to the second pallet and hoisted that, then the third, then the fourth. He did the same with the four pallets on the other truck, working until the entire shipment was hidden in the rainforest canopy high above.
Every muscle in his body burned, sweat dripping from his eyebrows, by the time he strode back to his hiding spot behind the achiote bushes where he’d spent the night. He grabbed the sombrero, shot a few rounds through the black felt with his SIG, then carried the hat back to the clearing, and wiped his bloody hands on the brim before he dropped it.
He went in search of the convoy leader next. The man had been in the Jeep, had been thrown clear in the explosion. Walker had noted earlier the spot where the guy had fallen, and now hurried straight to the mangled body.
He reached into the bulging breast pocket on the guy’s camo shirt and pulled out the roll of hundred-dollar bills held together with a rubber band. Around fifty banknotes, five thousand dollars of bribe money, just in case the convoy bumped into some kind of law enforcement that hadn’t been paid off in advance.
Walker shoved the roll into an empty side pocket of his cargo pants, then checked the rest of the men for their loose bills and pocket change. Leaving the money to rot would be a waste.
He checked the faces too, carefully, but every one of the fuckers had a nose. He swore under his breath.
Then he found something he hadn’t been looking for, in the footwell of the second truck: a woven palm leaf basket, about two feet wide and a foot tall, lid fastened on with black electrical tape.
Probably snakes—either headed for the exotic animal trade or some voodoo doctor somewhere. He hated snakes, dammit.
Slowly, carefully, he used his knife to cut the tape, then he wedged the blade under the top of the basket and raised it an inch, then another until he could peer in. He saw green, with dots of yellow here and there—feathers. He released the breath he’d been holding.
He dropped the lid back on, then lifted the basket out of the truck. One of the men had been smuggling parrots as a side business. At a couple of hundred dollars each, the nearly two dozen birds jammed into the basket meant a veritable fortune around here.
“Let’s liquidate some assets.” Walker tossed the lid aside.
The birds—yellow-naped Amazon parrots—were too stunned for a moment, blinking at the bright light and him. Then the bravest hopped up to the basket’s edge and took flight with a wild cry, his wings brushing Walker’s face. And the next second, the basket was empty.
Or nearly so. Among the bird droppings and lost feathers on the bottom, a baby parrot blinked curiously at him. The chick was flightless, would probably be flightless for another couple of weeks, judging by the length of its tail and wing feathers.
Walker thought of the small-animal sanctuary at the edge of the jungle, run by an elderly do-gooder British couple. What the hell. He scooped up the parrot and put it into his left breast pocket where the chick immediately snuggled in as if into a nest.
The tiny bird felt warm and alive there—almost as if Walker had a heart again.
“You shit in my pocket and our friendship is over,” he grumbled to the chick as he moved forward.
A deadly silence filled the air. The explosion and following gunfire had scared the wildlife away. Even the bugs kept quiet. The scene around him that had been the picture of paradise not long ago was now a snapshot straight from hell, corpses littering the clearing.
He’d annihilated the enemy, while all he had were scratches. He was the indisputable winner of the battle. Yet, if he felt anything, it was bitter disappointment underscored by the cold, dark anger that lived in his bones and never went away.
Where in hell was the noseless man?
The guy had been there when Walker’s brother had been killed. Which meant the bastard would know Ben’s killer. Walker wanted a name.
But he wasn’t going to get it here today.
He swore as he turned onto an animal track and walked away without looking back. He didn’t much care what would happen to the bodies he left in his wake.
Back when he’d been in the navy, he used to believe in valor and honor and all that bullshit. Now he just believed in being better armed and better prepared than the men he planned on killing.
The list was long. He’d barely gotten started. He had a lot to do—including finding the noseless man—and only a week to do it.