"The books in this series just get better and better.”
Two Years Ago – near Framlingham, England
Chelsea was late.
Twelve seconds late.
The kind of late that could cost a life.
Josh Robertson forced his grip to relax before he crushed the crystal glass of thirty-year-old scotch. It wasn’t as though she’d hit traffic making the fifteen-kilometer drive from Framlingham. Maybe dodge a sheep or two in the road, just part of the country ambience this far north of London.
He expected Chelsea to strut across the polished oak floor of this eighteenth century mansion any minute, chin cocked up as if she owned the place. She could do it, too. Pull off pretending she was one step from British royalty and not a bastard child who made her living as a liaison for touchy deals between dangerous people.
A bastard just like him. One of those little things they’d had in common from day one. Another was an obsessive penchant for being on time.
Always. And she demanded it as a nonnegotiable term for her liaison services.
The second hand on his watch marched on with no regard for his sanity. Something had gone wrong.
Service staff in crisp black tuxedos moved through the elegant party carrying silver platters. One of the staff paused next to Josh. “Would you care for something, sir?”
Yeah. I’d kill for a cellular signal for about ten seconds. Just long enough to check his phone for text messages.
“No, thanks.” Without a magic wand, even the best staff couldn’t make that happen.
He strolled past floral decorations a foot taller than he was. At six feet, two inches, Josh could see over most of the crowd. He visually swept the partygoers peppered around the enormous ballroom, looking for Chelsea and Mendelson, the German guy Josh was here to meet.
Still no vivacious beauty with a head of black hair and eyes green as spring leaves.
Frustration burrowed into the center of his skull. He hated stuffy parties, but Mendelson had dictated the location and arranged for the gilded invitation. If Josh closed his eyes, he could be back in the states at the charity ball his adoptive parents hosted for five hundred guests every spring. Same mind-numbing conversations. Same put-me-in-a-catatonic-state Baroque music played by a string ensemble like the ones his mother hired.
Mom claimed the peaceful music kept people calm.
Not doing a damn thing for him right now. His heart hammered like Charlie Watts cutting loose on a drum solo at a Rolling Stones concert.
Come on, Chelsea.
She’d never missed a meeting. She was always on time, even for the occasional casual rendezvous with Josh to scratch an itch.
Hell, there’d never been anything casual about the hot sex they shared. They’d burn hard and fast, like a flash fire. Then go their separate ways afterward. No drama.
The perfect arrangement to keep loneliness at bay.
Not a relationship. At least not in the true sense of the word, but he did care for her. Needed to know she was safe. He’d never had a more dependable informant or go-between. So where was she?
Had Mendelson changed the plans?
Had Chelsea backed out?
No. Not with a man’s life on the line.
She had just as much investment in extracting a captured CIA agent tonight as Josh did. The CIA asset had information on a terrorist cell planning to detonate bombs in Los Angeles and Dublin.
In two days.
Chelsea’s grandmother lived in Dublin in a nursing home, too ill to be moved without paramedics and a cardiac support ambulance.
Josh’s gut snarled at him to get out of this place, disappear before he ended up in the same fix as Chelsea, who might be imprisoned with the CIA agent right now.
That he couldn’t follow. His gut didn’t get a say this time.
Josh lifted his drink slowly, his eyes trained on the second hand of his watch.
She’d blister his ears for staying. He’d let her if she’d just walk through those beveled glass doors at the entrance.
If the muscles across his shoulders got any tighter, he’d split the seams on this tux the next time he stretched. Relax a little. Think. She could handle herself just as proficiently with a weapon—or in hand-to-hand combat—as he could.
Another commonality between them. She wasn’t trained as an operative, but she’d gained survival skills on the streets in Liverpool, where failure meant a short life.
His hard-times training had been back in New York as a street rat, but it was nothing like the professional training he’d received.
He and Chelsea had one major difference.
His team of hired mercs was loyal to the US.
Chelsea pledged her allegiance to the almighty dollar and the highest offer. Strictly business with her.
Or it had been until this op when she’d discovered her grandmother was at risk. Her grandmother’s nursing home was near the Dublin airport, high on the list of terrorist targets.
Had cool-as-ice Chelsea allowed emotions to rule her actions this once and made a mistake?
If she had and couldn’t contact him, there was no way for him to know what kind of trouble she was in, or for him to help her. He should follow SOP at this point and disappear.
Especially after the cryptic warning in her last text. She’d typed that damned XOXO at the end.
When they’d first slept together, she’d told him two things to never forget. She didn’t do late, so if she ever failed to show on time, he should not wait for her. And if she sent XOXO in a message it meant she might have to vanish.
A word that would haunt him forever if he left now.
The sound of a familiar footstep tapping across wood floors reached his ears. He homed in on it, listening as he turned to scan the crowd. There it was, moving toward him. A confident click, click, click that lifted just above polite conversation.
Black hair flashed into view. Halle-damn-lujah. Chelsea headed toward him with her signature smooth gait on a pair of five-inch black heels.
He caught himself before his face revealed the punch of relief slamming his solar plexus. Showtime. He shoved cold disregard into his eyes.
What had been the delay?
Shiny hair fell past her shoulders, a long strand dipping to touch the enticing hint of breasts he’d spent hours appreciating on their stolen encounters. She’d showcased them nicely tonight, in a strapless, black sequined dress that sparkled under the crystal chandeliers. Sexy-as-hell body, but that hadn’t been what he’d noticed about her when they’d first met. It was the note of Irish in her husky voice that had turned his head.
She wasn’t the love of his life.
He couldn’t have one.
Neither could she, with their career choices. But even though they sometimes went months without a word from each other, he’d realized tonight that she’d carved a spot in his world he didn’t want vacated.
She played her role, too, chilly expression in eyes he’d seen laughing only a day ago. She ignored the admiring gazes snapping in her direction as she moved toward him.
Ludwig Mendelson followed a half step behind Chelsea, shoulders back, body square and thick like wrestlers. His hair was short and too silver for a man only in his forties. Pale skin stretched across a pudgy face punctuated by two unforgiving, ice-chip blue eyes. An inch or so shy of six feet tall, he strode as if the world should drop at his feet and pay homage.
If that were true, he wouldn’t need the two bodyguards following close behind, both stuffed into tuxedos tailored for the Hulk.
Mendelson had a reputation for being unpredictable. He’d chosen this party but could’ve just as easily demanded a meeting at a location that required mountain climbing gear. Josh had the German’s file memorized and had come to England prepared to do pretty much anything required to finalize this exchange on Mendelson’s terms.
He knew more than he wanted to know about a man with a preference for over-the-top, perverted styles of interrogation.
Just seeing Mendelson walk so close to Chelsea twisted a fist inside Josh’s gut, but she’d built one hell of a reputation in the international crime community for arranging meetings like this one, and for swift retaliation against anyone who tried to harm her.
Still, something was amiss, or she’d have been on time.
When she reached Josh, she waited until Mendelson stepped up next to her before speaking first to Josh. “Mr. Taylor, meet my associate, Herr Mendelson.”
Offering neither his hand nor any verbal acknowledgment, Josh announced, “You’re late.”
Mendelson moved his chunky shoulders in a slight shrug then glanced over at Chelsea who didn’t bat an eyelash. His German accent matched his blunt face. “Beauty is not a rushed process. Men have always waited for women.”
Had she really been the reason for the delay?
If so, had she done it as a signal to alert Josh?
Cognizant of Mendelson’s continued scrutiny, Josh swirled his scotch and took a sip. He tinged his words with just enough irritation to hide the concern that brewed in his gut over Chelsea. “I came here to retrieve my client’s asset and deliver your payment.” He targeted Chelsea with his next verbal shot. “You were chosen as liaison because of your reliability and your reputation for being punctual.” Tell me what’s going on. Any sign.
“You could ha’ been on your way if waitin’ was a burden,” Chelsea warned with just enough venom in her Irish lilt to sell the deadly glint in her eyes.
What the hell was that supposed to mean?
Had she wanted him to leave?
She pressed on. “We’ve all an investment in tonight’s meetin’. The sooner we stop natterin’ on, the sooner we’ll each be enjoyin’ the spoils.”
Josh leveled Mendelson with a let’s-get-to-the-bottom-line look. “Satisfied that I’m here alone?”
“If I were not, you would no longer be standing here.”
Meaning Josh would be dead already. Mendelson believed Josh had a transport of weapons waiting nearby to exchange for the CIA agent, so he pointed out, “I can’t keep someone mobile in this area for long without drawing attention.”
Mendelson smiled with eager eyes. “Then I suggest we proceed with haste and complete our transaction.”
“Lead on.” Josh lifted his glass in a subtle gesture that said get on with it, you’re wasting my time. He knew the exchange wouldn’t go down here.
Mendelson didn’t disappoint. “My car is waiting.”
Sucked to be right sometimes.
Following the Mendelson entourage, Josh held his blank mask in place, but unease clawed at the back of his neck. Despite the XOXO message, Chelsea hadn’t vanished, but neither could they discuss anything now that the game was on.
He was just glad to know she’d be close enough for him to snatch along with the CIA captive tonight, because he wasn’t leaving this country unless he had both of them in hand.
If she needed to disappear, he could make that happen and keep her safe at the same time. His body might take a beating if she didn’t see it his way, but he didn’t think she’d purposely kill him.
He’d heal and she’d be alive.
All other details could be worked out after that.
Outside the lavish home, attendants rushed through the crisp fall air, opening car doors for late arrivals, and retrieving vehicles for early departures. Josh had driven here in a rented Mercedes, but Chelsea wouldn’t be riding with him. That meant no chance to talk before they reached the location where Mendelson held the CIA agent, Len Rikker.
It had taken five days of intense negotiations to convince Mendelson that Josh represented black market weapons dealer Puno de Hierro, known as Iron Fist, who operated out of Nicaragua.
And that Len Rikker was no international spook but one of Puno de Hierro’s assets.
Among Mendelson’s multi-faceted enterprises, he brokered resources for terrorist operations. Josh’s team had tracked the German for twelve days and finally gotten a break when the weapons shipment Mendelson needed as currency for another deal had gone missing.
Thanks to Josh’s team who’d stolen it.
That team now waited to move in.
No government would admit to employing mercenary soldiers like his team, but most countries tapped similar off-the-record elite operatives for missions that couldn’t be run through the usual channels or couldn’t be acknowledged under any circumstances. The CIA would normally turn to one of its own elite military units to extract a captured agent, but they wanted this sterile.
A hands-off operation with none of their assets involved.
Sabrina Slye, who headed up Josh’s team, had questioned the “why” behind the agency’s decision to send in her people, but the powers-that-be weren’t in the habit of answering to anyone.
Much less a merc. She’d turned down the mission until someone way up the CIA food chain had asked her personally to bring home their agent.
And to do it soon, before Mendelson disappeared again.
The German often moved his high-value assets daily.
Sabrina had freedom to execute her operations with full autonomy since her people were considered expendable resources that no government agency would admit hiring and sure as hell wouldn’t lift a finger to save.
A young man rushed up to Josh and pointed as a Mercedes rental rolled up to the curb. “Your car, sir.”
Right behind Mendelson’s sleek black limousine.
Josh continued toward the end of the walkway lit by landscape beacons. The bodyguards took position on each side of the limo’s open passenger door where Chelsea paused.
Mendelson’s lips tilted with amusement. A pit viper’s smile. “I have arranged a driver for you.”
A driver who matched Mendelson’s bodyguards in size—and grim expression—sat behind the wheel of Josh’s Mercedes.
If he refused the driver, the deal would fall apart. Everyone involved knew that. But this was all about managing power plays. Josh spun the tables with one of his own. He made a show of looking at his watch. “Your window of time to complete our meeting is running out.”
In other words, the weapons shipment Josh was supposed to be handing Mendelson in trade would not remain in the area indefinitely.
Mendelson’s gaze turned black as his soul. He ignored Josh and waved Chelsea into the car.
Chelsea glanced back with what Josh could only describe as regret in her gaze and gave a tiny shake of her head that no one could have seen but him.
She couldn’t be saying goodbye, could she?
Didn’t she know by now that he could help her with whatever was wrong? He had until he closed the deal with Mendelson to stop her from leaving. Josh would be paying half of her fee. She wouldn’t normally walk away without her money after coming this far.
That alone proved something was off tonight.
One of Mendelson’s men opened the back door of the Mercedes and Josh climbed in. Now that he’d been given an unwanted driver, calling his team on the satellite phone hidden in the driver’s door panel of his car was out.
Always have a backup plan.
He’d learned that as a child when he’d been given professional instruction in defensive maneuvers. His parents had lost their only birth child to a kidnapping that had ended badly. They took stronger measures to protect Josh, even though he’d been nothing more than someone else’s refuse at age seven when they’d adopted him.
With a subtle movement, he twisted the platinum cufflink at his right wrist, which functioned as a tracking device. His backup plan. That single twist sent a signal that he was mobile, but not alone. Activating his left cufflink in a similar way alerted the team to move in.
Their five-member team had been together for six years, but Josh, Sabrina and Dingo Paddock went back to Josh’s days as a kid in a New York City group home, another name for an orphanage.
Once the limo with Mendelson and Chelsea moved off, Josh’s Mercedes pulled out behind them.
His driver said not a word during the forty-five-minute ride, with his Mercedes boxed in between the limo and a silver Hummer. A moonless night wrapped the windows, blacking out the view he’d seen earlier of the rolling countryside covered in autumn’s golden wash. Colors just as vibrant as a year ago, when Josh and Chelsea had spent a weekend in a renovated crofter’s cottage an hour from here. They’d made love under a beech tree while leaves floated down around them.
Sabrina had warned him and Dingo to never get attached, and Josh hadn’t before now. Too many years spent alone, watching for death around every corner, had left him numb inside. Or so he’d believed until the first time Chelsea had laughed.
Then she’d made him laugh, a genuine, from-the-chest laugh he hadn’t experienced since he was a kid.
And now she intended to disappear.
Then he’d spend every day wondering if she’d survived. That was classic Chelsea. She’d never ask for help if it meant putting someone else at risk.
Too bad. Josh refused to let her face a threat, whatever it was, alone.
His driver slowed as the Mercedes passed guards at the entrance to a property. The stone entryway suggested a residence somewhere beyond the short reach of headlights piercing the night.
Mendelson’s limo, Josh’s Mercedes and the Hummer continued along a curved drive until a two-story stone structure took shape. Temporary lights had been set up, illuminating the yard. Ivy climbed the attractive farmhouse, probably built in the 1700s.
As soon as Josh exited the Mercedes, one of Mendelson’s bodyguards from the Hummer met him at his car door. “Lift your arms.”
Of course. The pat down.
Josh lifted his hands. When the guard finished, Josh emptied his pockets, showing he had no weapon or phone, nothing that could be used for communicating or killing.
The guard ordered, “Follow me.”
Josh’s neck twitched with more unease. Chelsea and Mendelson hadn’t gotten out of the limo yet.
Trailing behind the guard, Josh assessed what security personnel he could locate outside the lighted area. Smoke trickled from a fireplace at one end of the house, the smell of burning hardwood riding on a light breeze. Two men with rifles were posted on the roof. More were positioned around the perimeter, some barely visible in the shadows.
Ten, so far, counting the limo driver, who had to be armed.
But another five to ten could be hidden.
And not just hired muscle, but deadly operatives.
Josh recognized at least two from the Russian mafia. Mendelson had spared no expense, but was it to ensure the safety of his prisoner, or that this weapons shipment did not get waylaid?
Sabrina and her three-person team could handle inserting past fifteen, maybe twenty guards, depending on how the security was spread around the farmhouse.
At the entrance to the house, another guard—visible guard number eleven—opened a heavy wooden door that swung on black, wrought-iron hinges. The glass lamp on a hall table supplied enough light to see the quaint foyer and a stairway against one wall.
Dried flowers and other potpourri piled in a glass bowl might have freshened the air, but it couldn’t combat the stale odor of recently fried fish. Probably cooked by Mendelson’s men.
Were the owners away from the property?
The guard by the door nodded at the bodyguard who led Josh up the stairs and down a hall. They entered a narrow room with tall ceilings and old-world character. Dark bookcases were laden with rows of leather-bound books. Two mahogany chairs with tufted green upholstery sat sedately on a Turkish rug, and the scent of pipe tobacco lingered.
A homey picture, which did nothing to loosen the tight muscles in Josh’s neck. He ordered the bodyguard, “Tell Mendelson he has five minutes.”
Heavy footsteps approached and Mendelson entered the room. “I am here, Mr. Taylor.”
Without Chelsea. Shit.
Josh’s shoulders constricted further, but he’d stay on task until he had reason to change course. “I’m here. You’re here. But my client’s asset is not. Are we doing this tonight?” Tell me you’re waiting on Chelsea again.
“The asset is being brought up for validation.” With that partial answer to Josh’s question, Mendelson went to a small marble-top table. A flask of liquor and two short-stemmed glasses had been placed on a tray of inlaid wood as though in anticipation of a gentleman’s meeting.
There should be a reality show on the eccentric behaviors of insane international criminals.
Mendelson poured two glasses of the amber liquid. “I prefer a good cognac, but when in Rome...” He shrugged and offered the second glass to Josh. “Brandy?”
Josh would rather drink the devil’s piss than share anything with this bastard. “Sure.”
Moving to one of the chairs that faced the doorway, Mendelson took a seat. “Sit.”
“I’m not interested in playing chit-chat, Mendelson.”
Mendelson snapped his fingers and one of the bodyguards entered, sans tuxedo jacket and sporting an HK MP7 submachine gun held loosely on a sling over one shoulder, but ready to use.
Josh got the message. He rolled his eyes as though the whole thing merely annoyed him but sat in the other chair.
Where was Chelsea?
He clicked through possibilities. Maybe Mendelson had paid his fee and Josh’s, and sent Chelsea away? But why would he?
The sound of multiple footsteps pounding up the stairs reached the library, along with something being dragged. Two guards entered, turning sideways to carry the CIA agent, Len Rikker, between them, each gripping an arm. Gaunt from five weeks in Mendelson’s not-so-tender care, and bloody in too many places to count, Rikker’s head hung forward.
Josh stood and took a step toward the prisoner who had a distinctive scar at the hairline. One confirmation of the CIA agent’s ID. “Lift his head.”
A guard grabbed Rikker’s mop of scraggly brown hair and jerked his head back, raising Rikker’s swollen face into view. Josh studied the eyes and jaw line long enough to give the impression he would walk away if they tried to pawn off the wrong man on him.
Mendelson said, “Satisfied?”
While Mendelson ordered the prisoner returned to his locked room in the basement, Josh used the distraction to twist his left cufflink twice, sending a message to move in.
With the prisoner out of the room, Mendelson put his glass down. “You may have your man as soon as you deliver my missiles. You have thirty minutes, as agreed.”
Sabrina and the team required twelve minutes to insert into the secured area undetected and get in position to infiltrate the building to find Rikker. Josh pushed an impatient look at Mendelson. “Need GPS coordinates and a sat phone to call in my transport truck.” His nonexistent truck.
“Give the phone number to my man—” Mendelson angled his head at his guard. “He will call with coordinates.”
The guard unclipped a satellite phone from his belt and eyed Josh who rattled off the number. Sabrina had someone sitting at a predetermined location two hours away with a disposable phone, and ready to leave the minute the call terminated.
When the guard ended the call, he told his boss, “Done.”
A grin spread across Mendelson’s face, one that sent worry skidding along Josh’s spine. That extra sense operatives developed for survival told him that something had changed, even if everything seemed to be on schedule. He lifted his drink, killed the balance, and set the glass back down, determined to find Chelsea. “Let’s get this done. Where’s Chelsea?”
“She will be along soon.” Mendelson took a sip of his drink. “She is quite unusual. I could find a place in my organization for her. Maybe a personal assistant who could attend to more than negotiations for me.” There was the sinister smile again when Mendelson slid a taunting look at Josh.
What was Mendelson up to with this bullshit?
Did he suspect a relationship between Chelsea and Josh? Or was he just testing with age-old bait to provoke a jealous reaction? But that would mean Mendelson knew Josh and Chelsea had been acquainted for much longer than this negotiation had taken.
No way. Josh tested right back. “What are you waiting for?”
Mendelson’s gaze turned curious, as if he weighed Josh’s reaction. “Then you would not mind?”
That hit too close to be fishing. Josh could count on two fingers the number of people who knew about his non-business relationship with Chelsea. Him and her. Period. “Me? Why would I care?”
“Perhaps I was wrong to believe you placed a high value on her. Either way, I will miss her, perhaps almost as much as you will, but for different reasons.”
Noises in the hallway, like someone banging into the walls, turned Josh around.
The second bodyguard stepped into the room with Chelsea in his grasp. Blood ran down her arm and she struggled against a man who outweighed her by a hundred pounds.
She’d gotten in her fair share of licks, based on the guard’s broken nose, bleeding temple and torn clothes.
Josh didn’t know how it had happened, but they’d both been made.
Screw this. Nothing to lose now. Josh lunged for the bodyguard with a stranglehold around Chelsea’s neck.
Mendelson’s other guard standing by swung the butt of his weapon and cracked the side of Josh’s head with the sharp metal stock.
Stars scattered through his vision. Stumbling sideways, Josh spun around and kicked the guard’s chin, crushing jawbone with a satisfying crunch, and knocking him out cold. He snatched the MP7 away before the bodyguard hit the floor, whipping the sling off the man’s limp arm.
As Josh gained control of the weapon, Mendelson sighed loudly. “Put the weapon down, Mr. Taylor, or I’ll order her death.”
Chelsea shouted at Josh. “Kill them!”
The brute shoved the muzzle of his Ruger P90 semi-auto pistol against her throat. “Shut up.”
Chelsea’s gaze met Josh’s, holding long enough for him to see the doubt that they’d walk out of here alive. But she didn’t know he had a team coming. She only knew what he’d told her to make this exchange happen.
“Go ahead and shoot or put the weapon down,” Mendelson suggested. “Either way, we have a bit of a wait.”
Lunging against the guard’s tight hold, Chelsea shook her head at Josh to not give up the weapon, but he dropped it on the rug and turned to Mendelson. He warned in a cold voice, “You don’t want to double cross me.”
“Under different circumstances, I might agree, but I feel it necessary to inform you that a cellular jammer has now been activated for this area.”
The change in topic cut through the haze of fury threatening to steal the last of Josh’s control. “And why would that matter?”
“You will not be able to reach your team even if you could get your hands on a phone.”
Shock overrode every other emotion. Mendelson knew about Josh’s team.
Not possible. Only a select group of individuals were aware that Sabrina’s team even existed and those were the ones with whom she contracted missions. National security for the United States and similar departments in countries aligned with the US.
International alphabet spook groups.
Chelsea couldn’t have burned him and wouldn’t have, even if nothing personal existed between them. She had no motive and knew Josh would use his resources to protect her grandmother. He had a team on site right now, moving the elderly woman out of Dublin, to a quiet country house with round-the-clock care. He just hadn’t had a chance to tell Chelsea.
Had Sabrina and the team been burned, too?
How much did Mendelson know?
None of those answers will get us out of here right now.
His number one priority? Warn Sabrina that the mission was an ambush.
“Might as well make yourself comfortable, Mr. Taylor,” Mendelson said in a congenial tone.
A new guard ducked his head and stepped inside the already-crowded space.
Huge didn’t begin to describe this behemoth.
Nothing about his dark eyes, unkempt black beard and oily brown hair appeared German. Maybe South African, and the MP7 he carried looked like a toy in his hands. Clearly, Mendelson supplied his expensive help with equally pricey weaponry.
Josh shoved everything aside while he focused on first sending a message to his team before they inserted and, next, getting himself and Chelsea out of here. But his mind seemed determined to plague him with more questions. Why hadn’t Mendelson killed them yet? Why hadn’t Mendelson waited on the weapons before showing his hand? Josh needed more information. “You trade humans for commodities. How can I be of more value than by making a trade for your captive?”
“Oh, but I did trade for Mr. Rikker.”
He knows Rikker’s real name. Not good. How could Josh use that to his advantage? He feigned surprise. “Rikker? That’s not the name I was given. I think we’ve both been played. If that’s the case, I’ll make a deal for the weapons between the two of us, but the transport won’t arrive until I call a second time.”
Mendelson’s eyes creased with humor. “Let’s end this charade, Joshua Carrington. There is no transport and no weapons. You and your Slye team are what I received in trade for Rikker. He is being delivered to the higher bidder as we speak.” Mendelson smiled with genuine pleasure.
The last trace of Josh’s hope sucked away faster than water down a bottomless hole when he heard Mendelson use Carrington, Josh’s legal name. How had Mendelson gotten that? Even Chelsea knew him as Josh Robertson. Terror ripped through him at the level of betrayal it took for this to be happening. Something about Mendelson’s calm demeanor poked its way into his thoughts. “Why aren’t you upset about losing the weapons?”
“Because I don’t need them. I allowed my first shipment of weapons to be taken and they are being replaced. I made a more advantageous deal for the CIA agent.”
What the fuck? It took all of Josh’s ability to not react.
Mendelson continued, “As for a truly valuable trade, Sabrina Slye is wanted by many people.”
Who had screwed Sabrina? Josh forced himself to sound detached. “Well, hell, as long as I’m dead, at least tell me who sold me out.”
“You’re of no use to me dead. I will get much information from you and your team before I put each of you on the auction block. As to the person who set this up—I will only share that it was CIA.”
Mendelson was wrong on one point.
Josh would likely die, and very soon, because he would not stand by and let this unfold without a fight. He chuckled with dark humor, as if he’d always expected to be betrayed at some point, and muttered, “Should have expected that out of those bastards.”
That drew a gloating smile from Mendelson, so Josh asked, “Mind if I get comfortable while we wait?”
“By all means.”
Taking off his jacket, Josh kept an eye on Chelsea in his peripheral vision. She’d stopped struggling, her eyes tracking every move he made, listening intently to how they’d both been screwed by his people. Not my people anymore. He jerked his bowtie loose and unfastened the first two buttons of his shirt. When he removed the cufflinks that only his team knew about, he put both metal clips in one hand and rolled them around together as though he played with a pair of dice.
Doing that for longer than ten seconds caused the signal to screech in Dingo’s receiver and deactivated the tracking unit embedded in the cufflinks.
Breaking the connection was code for FUBAR, to get the hell out of here now.
He walked over to the tall bookshelf and leaned against it, ticking off seconds in his mind, hoping ten minutes would pass with no sound.
But eight minutes later the first explosion rocked the house, not surprising him in the least. His team was here.
Josh, Sabrina, and Dingo had never left each other as kids and wouldn’t now, but he’d tried his best to warn them off.
Mendelson shoved to his feet. Surprise burst across his face. Gunfire rattled outside the house. Windows shattered downstairs.
One of the guards snatched his radio and spoke in rapid German, but Josh easily translated the demand to know what was happening.
And the terse reply that they were under attack.
Mendelson roared, “How did four people get past twenty-seven of the best armed guards?”
Josh knew the answer to that, but not how Sabrina and company was going to exit past the rest of them now that every remaining guard knew their target was inside the perimeter.
While Mendelson shouted orders at his people, Josh looked at Chelsea, whose gaze shifted into the quiet calm he’d seen whenever she was about to kick someone’s butt.
He gave her an imperceptible nod.
Her guard’s attention was locked on Mendelson.
Chelsea sagged as though she’d fainted, forcing the guard to move his weapon to hold onto her dead weight.
Josh lunged at Mendelson, shoving him into the behemoth guard holding the MP7.
Mendelson shouted. His guard stumbled back but recovered quickly, knocking Mendelson aside out of instinct to free his weapon hand. The giant shoved a little too hard. Mendelson’s head smacked the doorframe and he tumbled to the floor.
The guard got off a shot that ripped through Josh’s side right before Josh grabbed the submachine gun and yanked it to the left. He held onto the foregrip with one hand while he battered steel punches to the guard’s head, trying for a kill punch to the throat.
Not hurting the mountain of muscle one bit.
Behind the guard, Josh caught sight of Chelsea head butting her captor, who lost his grip on her. She reached between his legs and twisted a fistful of his gonads. He screamed.
She grabbed for the Ruger but missed it as the weapon fell from his hands and skidded behind him.
Josh fought the guard still gripping the MP7 with one hand. He battled to keep the weapon’s muzzle pointed toward the ceiling–away from him and Chelsea. A bear-sized fist slammed Josh hard in the ribs. At least one cracked, but he hoped the flood of adrenaline firing through him would mask the pain of the rib and the bullet wound until he could get them out of here.
The guard used his extra four inches of reach to grab Josh by the throat. He squeezed, cutting off Josh’s air. Pinpricks of light shot through his gaze. He bashed the guard’s elbow joint with his free hand. Nothing gave in the hard-muscled arm.
Mendelson was sprawled on his side, still unconscious, with blood running down his face from his head wound. His body impeded any fancy maneuvering in the close quarters.
Josh finally got both hands on the tug-of-war gun. Before he gave it his all he had to break the giant’s hold. Lifting his boot, he slammed the guard’s kneecap.
Bone snapped. The guard screamed.
Finally, a vulnerable body part on the hulking bastard.
Josh yanked the gun free.
The guard’s grip on Josh’s neck loosened. He sucked air through his raw throat and swung the metal rail of the MP7’s fore-end into the guard’s head, bashing open a bleeding geyser.
Chelsea broke all the way free from her guard, the one she’d tried to neuter. She kicked him backward. He hit the floor hard.
She spun around and drove one of her spiked heels through that guard’s throat.
Just as effective as a double tap.
The one Josh fought yelled and reached for him again in a haze of pain and rage. Fighting this guy was like trying to take down a Mack truck using his fists.
Coughing from a bruised windpipe, Josh swung the MP7 around and released a fast burst into the guard’s chest. “Game over.” Or that’s what he would’ve said, if something more than a croak had come through his bruised throat. He drew a hard breath, ears ringing from the gunfire in the small space. Choking, unable to speak, he turned to wave Chelsea out of the room.
She took one look at Josh and started toward him.
A movement on the floor caught his eye.
Mendelson had been playing possum, lying on his side, his upper body out of Chelsea’s line of sight.
The world slowed to seconds that stretched from one loud heartbeat to the next.
Mendelson lifted the Ruger from beside him.
Josh swung up his own weapon, yelling at the same moment, but only a croaked sound came out.
Chelsea stared, confused for a split-second too long before she realized what was happening and tried to move.
Both shots exploded at the same moment.
Josh’s hit Mendelson in the head. A hair too late.
He caught Chelsea as she folded to her knees. Mendelson’s bullet had passed through her chest. Had it hit her heart? Not if she was still moving. Blood spilled out the gaping exit wound. She covered it with her hands, eyes glassy with shock.
He scooped her into his arms, ignoring the screaming pain in his ribs and side. “Hold on,” he ground out of his raw throat.
Frightened green eyes stared up at him. “Tried...to...warn you...not to come.”
“I know, baby,” he rasped. “Couldn’t leave you.”
He made it to the stairs and looked down to find two armed guards on the main floor with their weapons pointed out broken windows.
He started to lower Chelsea to the ground to free his hands to shoot.
Before he could, the front window and door exploded into the house.
Both guards flew backwards, knocked off their feet. Josh’s back hit the wall, but he remained upright with Chelsea gripped tightly in his arms. The sharp smell of burned electronics, smoke, and charred wood flooded the air from the plastique his team had used to blast a way in.
Sabrina Slye burst through the smoke-filled opening like an avenging angel. She took out both guards with quick double taps. Black hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail. Her dark molle vest covered in pouches held enough ammo to take down a small city.
Spiked blonde hair totally out-of-context with his olive skin color, Dingo rushed in right behind her and looked up to where Josh stood. “We got burned, eh, mate?”
Josh had never been so happy to hear that Aussie accent in his life. He raced down the stairs to the main floor, gritting against the pain cutting through his adrenaline rush. “Yeah,” he croaked. Trying to yell was painful as hell. “The package is gone. Tell you everything later. Where’s Singleton? Chelsea needs a medic.”
From the way his side burned and the lightheaded feeling threatening to knock his feet out from under him, he did, too.
Dingo produced a second monocular from the vest he wore and slipped the headband over Josh’s head. As soon as he pulled the single night vision lens down into place, Sabrina shot out the lamp on the front table, veiling the interior with darkness. Dingo slipped a compact headset with a boom mic over Josh’s ears and clipped the small radio to the waistband of his tuxedo pants. No time to deal with the high-tech commo gear the rest of the team wore.
As Dingo did all of that, he explained, his words coming through Josh’s headset now. “Changed the plan when we lost contact with your tracker. Singleton’s waiting to cover our exit through the woods.”
Josh snarled a curse. The team had walked into an ambush and now medical care was out of reach, but he wouldn’t put his team at more risk. He told Sabrina, “You four stick with the plan.”
Sabrina took one look at Chelsea’s wound and realized he was saying he wasn’t going with them. “She won’t make it to a doctor.”
Chelsea coughed and blood trickled from her lips. Her voice was reed thin. “She’s right.”
“No, she’s not.” Josh gripped Chelsea closer as if he could force her to live by sheer will alone and growled at Sabrina. “Get the team out of here and I’ll meet you later.”
“How in the hell do you plan to do that dragging her around?” Sabrina said in a low voice tight with anger.
“I’ll take the Hummer.”
Sabrina clenched her weapon with white knuckles and snapped out, “I told you never to do this.”
Josh had no comeback. She was right and he’d sworn he wouldn’t get involved, but he couldn’t change what was and he wouldn’t abandon Chelsea to make a run through the woods. “Just go and let me handle this.”
Another explosion somewhere nearby shook the building.
Had to be Tanner Bodine’s handiwork, the only team member Josh couldn’t account for right now.
Fury rolled off Sabrina’s bunched shoulders. She started issuing orders, no different than back when she’d run their half-pint gang in Queens. Glaring at Josh, she snapped, “Are you hurt, or can you run?”
With so much of Chelsea’s blood covering his shirt, Sabrina’s question was routine and not because she had any way to determine he’d taken a bullet. Any mention of being wounded would start a new wave of conflict.
“I can run.” If he didn’t pass out from blood loss.
She turned to Dingo. “We need a path out the front gate. I’ll call the other two with the change of plans.”
Josh shook his head. “No, Sabrina.”
“Shut up and get ready to make a dash to the Hummer or I’ll shoot you myself. Stop at the limo then wait for my cover fire.”
Dingo had already vanished into the night like the shadow he could be when he wanted.
Josh knew better than to waste breath he didn’t have arguing with Sabrina when she had her mind made up. “Thanks.”
She ground out a derogatory sound in her throat that he translated as why did men have to get stupid over women. Casting another look at Chelsea, Sabrina muttered, “Save your thanks. You’re not out of here alive and she’s bleeding like a stuck pig.”
Blood poured through the fingers Chelsea had clamped over the wound. Her breath came in gasps. “Don’t be stupid...leave me...” Her eyelashes fluttered closed.
Josh shook her gently. “Come on, baby. Stay with me.”
When her eyes blinked again, he stepped over to the side of the door opening that had been widened with that blast. Gunfire chattered back and forth outside. Bullets pinged everywhere.
Sabrina moved to the opposite side of the opening and took up the position she needed to lay down cover fire to the vehicles. Raising her HK 416 to her shoulder, she said, “Move!” and raked the area outside with rapid bursts of fire.
Josh confirmed, “Moving,” and raced out into the pitch black where every light had been shot out. Now the world came to him in shades of grayish green through the night vision monocular. He hoped he was moving fast. His legs felt like lead. Zigzagging as good as he could, he reached the limo and ducked behind it, catching his breath.
His vision swirled. He shook off the dizziness.
A spray of bullets peppered the car and Josh ducked lower, clutching Chelsea to his chest as he waited for Sabrina to reload.
He twisted, watching the doorway for her muzzle flash. The minute she released another burst, he took off for the Hummer. He passed the Mercedes that had been turned into Swiss cheese.
Stars sparked through his vision. Sound withdrew and a black fog rushed at him. He thrashed at it mentally and pushed harder to reach the Hummer. He couldn’t lose consciousness now.
Sabrina rushed up beside him, still laying cover fire as she moved. She yelled, “Get in the damned Hummer!”
The shout boomed through his headset, rattling his brain. He growled and drove his legs harder.
She opened the rear door just as he reached the truck. Josh hit the seat with Chelsea still draped over his arms. The door slammed shut.
Sabrina jumped in the driver’s seat, all the time talking to her team through her comm set. “We’re in the Hummer. Load up!”
Starting the engine, she threw the truck into gear and made a rock-slinging sweep around the yard. Shots battered the windows and exterior of the truck, not getting through.
Bulletproof truck. Thanks, Mendelson, you rat bastard.
Josh pressed his hand over Chelsea’s, putting more pressure on her wound. She moved a finger to touch his hand, and wheezed “My grandmother...please...”
“She’s safe. I swear it. You’ll see her again.”
Her pale lips curved, and she drew a breath that gurgled. “Thank you...for...us.”
He kissed her forehead. “Shh. Save your energy.”
Tanner Bodine yanked the front passenger door open, running with the truck then throwing his super-sized cowboy body inside.
Sabrina wheeled around hard, heading out of the property. She took one look at Tanner. “How bad?”
“Bullshit bullet in the thigh. You?”
Josh heard them as if they were far away. He lifted his head. Everything spun again. Had Sabrina been hurt? “Where’re you hit, Sabrina?”
“Not hit. Knife wound. Arm. I’m good.”
Where was Singleton?
Sabrina slowed the truck just long enough for the rear passenger door across from Josh to open and Singleton to dive in. He scrambled to right himself and tug the door shut at the same time. Right before bullets splattered his side of the Hummer.
Josh said, “Need an IV. Gotta stop the bleeding in this one.”
Singleton shrugged out of his Medic’s pack and lowered his monocular to look at Chelsea in the dark then raised his gaze to Josh. If not for Josh’s night vision monocular, he wouldn’t have been able to see the grim concern on Singleton’s coffee-brown face. The soft-spoken doctor wielded a knife with unmatched skill whether he wanted to save a life or take one. “I can’t, Josh.”
Tanner asked, “Where’s Dingo?”
Explosions erupted on each side of the road ahead. Sabrina shouted, “Clearing the way.”
A loud thump landed on top of the Hummer then a fist pounded twice.
Sabrina floored the SUV. “Dingo’s onboard.” She punched the button to open the sunroof, and Dingo’s arm appeared, snaking inside for a handhold.
Josh swallowed, damned glad that the whole team had made it so far, but especially the two people he considered a sister and brother. Now if he could just patch up Chelsea. He ordered Singleton, “Do something, now!”
The Hummer slid right and left as Sabrina muscled the truck out onto the road. She yelled at Singleton, “Get an IV into her and Tanner. We’ll be at the helo in nine minutes.”
That got through Josh’s muddled brain. “No. Helo’s not safe. CIA burned us.”
Stunned silence blanketed the truck. Sabrina found her voice first. “You’re sure?”
“Mendelson said CIA traded us...for Len Rikker. He knew your name. Knew it was your team. Knew my legal name. We were the currency.”
Curses blistered the air.
Pain stabbed Josh’s side and he shouted, unsure if it was the wound or the broken rib. He swung around to find Singleton poking at him. “Leave it, dammit.”
A figure appeared in the headlights, standing in front of the truck. He fired straight at the windshield.
Sabrina plowed into the idiot. He hit with a hard thump. His body flew up in the air and out of the way. The man obviously hadn’t realized the windshield was bulletproof.
Sabrina demanded, “What’s wrong, Josh?”
Singleton answered, “Two things. Josh took a bullet in his abdomen, and we don’t have IVs.”
“My pack took a hit. Pack saved my ass, but IV kits were shredded.”
“Do what you can for Josh,” Sabrina ordered. Her fierce gaze lit up the rearview mirror, accusing Josh of lying to her by omission. “You’ll need more than an IV soon. Just hold on for me.”
That last part came out weary.
Josh looked over at their medic and saw multiple faces.
Singleton pulled a wad of gauze out of his pack and shoved it up against Josh who gritted his teeth and ground out, “Told you I’m fine. Chelsea needs help.”
“You’re not fine,” Sabrina said quietly. “I won’t lose you.”
Josh had never pleaded for anything, but he was the only one who believed Chelsea could survive. “Shingleton.” His chin drooped. He shook his head and worked his lips, trying to stop the slurring. “You got some...give her...jush buy time?”
No one spoke for a moment then Sabrina said, “Tanner.”
Tanner shifted around in his seat and looked back at Chelsea. “Ah, hell.”
“Tell him, Singleton,” Sabrina ordered.
Josh struggled to pull his thoughts together and fight off the fog sucking him into a dark vortex. “Tell me what?”
Singleton had latched his fingers around Josh’s wrist at some point, checking his pulse. He should be checking Chelsea’s. “Dammit...do somesing.”
Singleton spoke in his calm doctor voice, the one he used to talk patients through a disaster. He pulled off Josh’s monocular and tossed it away then lifted a small LED light and shined it down on Chelsea’s abdomen. “Josh, she...uh.”
Josh’s chin hit his chest. His eyes followed the light that moved from his blood-covered hand on Chelsea’s chest to her pretty neck, then up to her face, and …
Two beautiful green eyes locked open. No, no, no …
Pain reached into his chest and clutched his heart with steel fingers, squeezing and twisting.
Voices ran together in a blur.
Josh lost the battle to keep his eyes open, but he still saw Chelsea’s dead gaze staring at him. She’d never laugh again or spend another night with him, saving him from a lonely existence. His mind wandered. Sounds dulled and faded away.
Someone had betrayed them. Had killed Chelsea. Josh would find the bastard who had done this and ... he’d ...
Singleton shouted, “We’re losing Josh!”
An explosion blasted against the truck, throwing it up onto two wheels.
Josh hugged Chelsea. He was flung against the truck door and the world crashed in on him.