“You have got to be fucking kidding me. No. No way! Are you crazy? We’re not helping her!”
Chase Rathkeale stood calmly as Col, his best friend and an integral part of their unit swore up a storm. He was all dressed up and ready to go in black fatigues, his dark hair cropped close to his head, his handsome features twisted with disbelief and outrage. All had been fine until Chase had made the tactical error of telling him where they were going and why. He should have waited until they were on the freeway to say anything.
“She needs us.”
“No. Absolutely not. I’m not lifting a finger to save her after what she did.”
“Rex, Max, and Brian are all waiting in the van,” Chase said. “We need you, buddy. Do it for us, not for her.”
Col rounded on him, finger pointed. “You always wanted to fuck her. You should have done it back then. Got it out of your system.”
“This isn’t about sex, Col.”
“What is it about, then?”
“It’s about a woman who needs our help.”
“Oh. A woman needs our help,” Col sneered. “And this one, unlike the tens of thousands of other women who need help in this country, just happens to also have seriously fucked us over. Hard. Is she paying us?”
“No, of course she fucking isn’t.” Col let out a dark laugh and threw his hands up. “What is it with her? Why is she the damsel that just has to be rescued? She fucking betrayed us, Chase. She ruined our lives. And you expect me to help her?”
“I expect you to follow orders.”
The voice that spoke wasn’t Chase’s. It belonged to Rex. At thirty-eight years of age, he was the senior member of their group. His dark hair was flecked with gray toward his temples and he carried a gravitas that made him seem far older than his years sometimes. Before they’d been dishonorably discharged, he had been their captain. Now he was the boss.
Col shut his mouth, gritting his teeth.
“You don’t need to worry if she’s paying us, because I’m paying you,” Rex continued. “And I expect you to do your job without complaint. We’re moving out. Now.”
Chase waited to see what would happen. There were only five of them in their elite private security unit. That was what they called it anyway. The rest of the world had a different name for them: mercenaries. Of the five, Col was usually the least likely to disobey a direct order. He had been the golden boy before the incident that had seen their likenesses splashed across every newspaper and website in the country, and before the military had cut them loose as national embarrassments.
“Rex…” Col’s voice dropped to a near whine. “Why? Just tell me why?”
“Have I ever told you why?” Rex fixed Col with a steely look. “I’ve told you to do a thousand things far more dangerous than this, and now you decide to start questioning my judgment?”
Rex was pulling rank. It was a risky move given how pissed off Col was. There was every chance Col would finally snap and tell Rex and the rest of them to go fuck themselves. He’d been close a few times before, but never this close.
Col swore under his breath and picked up the pack he’d already prepared. “Alright,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Chase followed Col out to the van, taking up the rear as they piled in. Brian had the wheel. He was the smartest guy Chase had ever met, bar absolutely none. Genius-level intellect and a twisted personality to match. Chase didn’t know how Brian felt about the mission. Actually, Chase wasn’t sure he had feelings at all. Everything was a problem to be analyzed for Brian. He was less well built than the rest of them, but he was still well over six foot and twice as powerful as most men.
As Chase got in, he noticed that the only guy who looked happy about this was Max. Max was hanging out the window, banging on the side of the van. He’d taken the opportunity of leaving the military to grow his dirty blond hair out to the base of his neck and he usually sported a five or even ten o’clock shadow. Right now he had sunglasses pushed up over his head and was doing his best impression of a 1980s action hero.
“So we’re really doing this,” Col said, taking the center seat. “We’re going to help Lacey Christie. This is some serious…” He trailed off as Rex sat next to him. The cursing that would have escaped him was cut off abruptly. Rex quite often positioned himself next to Col, like a physical fuse on his temper.
“Don’t worry,” Max said from the front seat. “There’s something sweet in it for us.”
Lacey bit her fingernails and twitched the blinds for the fiftieth time. She was nervous, a sheen of sweat covering her body as she paced the floor of the cheap motel room where she was holed up. She did not look her best, which shouldn’t have mattered, but somehow it did. With her entire life out of control, at least looking somewhat put together would have made her feel a little better.
She was wearing gym clothes. Dark leggings, a pink tank top, and near enough matching tennis shoes. Her long brown hair was drawn back off her face and tied in a ponytail. In preparation for seeing Chase again, she’d tried to enhance her appearance with a bit of mascara and the remains of a tube of lipstick she’d found in her glovebox. She had nothing else. Her apartment was too dangerous to go back to. She’d been on her way to the gym when she’d realized she’d forgotten her ionized water and headed home just in time to see two shadowy figures through the window.
Most people would have interpreted that as a sign of a burglary in progress and called the police, but Lacey knew better. She knew three other journalists, her closest friends and professional confidantes, were dead. She knew that all their deaths had occurred in their homes, a series of unfortunate ‘accidents’ that weren’t accidents at all. She had footage from the last one, and in that she had seen those shadowy figures moving around before they got her friend. She was not going to stick around to find out how she was supposed to go out. So far it had been slipping in the shower, accidental electrocution by faulty blender, and a home gym weightlifting accident.
If it weren’t for Adam getting suspicious and setting up a hidden camera that streamed his murder, there would be no evidence at all. But this wasn’t the sort of evidence she could take to the police. This was the sort of evidence that would lead to her dying in a cell. The people she had crossed were not ones to be concerned by police. They owned the police. And they wanted to own the media too.
With nowhere left to turn to, she’d fled to a shitty motel on the outskirts of Washington DC, knowing there was only one person she could call. Unfortunately, he didn’t owe her a favor. He didn’t owe her a damn thing. She owed him everything.
To her utter shock, once she’d given him a hurried explanation of what was happening, he’d agreed to come. Right away. That she hadn’t expected. He wasn’t as far away as she’d thought either. They were all based in Washington, apparently, though she was now looking to get as far away as possible, as quickly as possible.
A big dark van pulled up outside her room. She held her breath as someone got out of the driver’s side. Tall, dark hair, handsome, maybe mid-twenties. She didn’t recognize him, but he did look familiar somehow. He wasn’t Chase. Another guy got out of the other side, shaggy blond hair down to his collar, sexy in spite of some facial scarring. Him, she did recognize. That was Max Brolin. The back of the van opened and three more men got out.
Had Chase brought… everybody?
She took a step back from the blinds and tried to gather herself and her thoughts. Everybody. All of them. This was the reunion she’d hoped would never happen.
A heavy knock at the door startled her, even though she knew exactly who it was. She hesitated, not knowing if she should open it. These weren’t friends, in any sense of the word. Chase alone was a risk. The whole clan?
It had been three years since she last saw them. Two and a half since she’d ruined their lives. God. This wasn’t a rescue mission. This was… she glanced toward the back of the motel unit, wondered if she could make it out the back.
Another hard knock brought her out of her panic and made her think a little more rationally. There was no running away from these guys. Maybe Chase had just brought them as backup. Now wasn’t the time to be refusing help, no matter where it came from.
Lacey opened the door and saw Chase standing there, looking down at her from his great height. She was 5′4, a respectable height for a woman. He was a giant of a man, 6′3 and counting. She gazed up at him, her heart skipping a beat as she was instantly transported to the first time she’d ever looked into those stunning blue and gold eyes.
Three years earlier
Lacey tried to get comfortable on a hard stone ledge that doubled as her bed. She was barely able to move thanks to the ropes that were biting into her skin, causing sores that were already getting weepy in the Venezuelan heat. The little room stank. There was an uncovered bucket half-full of her own waste in the corner, which made things even worse. It was hot and dark and oppressive in that little cell, which was barely the size of a single closet. There were no windows. There was no fresh air and the light came from a single incandescent bulb that burned continuously. Flies swarmed around the bucket in an ever present cloud that was the only way she could tell the time. They slept in the evening and rose in the morning, their little insect brains attuned to the world she was no longer part of.
“American spy bitch!”
The guard’s vicious voice made her tremble as he came past and banged on the iron door. Every time they came to see her they threatened to kill her. She was sure that they would make good on that threat sooner or later. Probably sooner. She wasn’t a spy, but she knew she’d seen too much for them to let her live. What truly frightened her was the reason they were keeping her alive. What were they going to do with her? Ransom her, maybe. That was about the best case scenario. All of the others she could think of were far worse.
She didn’t know anything, but that didn’t stop them from dragging her out every few hours or days and screaming questions at her. Press credentials hadn’t satisfied them that she wasn’t a spy. They refused to contact her editor to confirm her identity. Apparently he was a spy as well. Everyone and everything was a spy to these paranoid militia who were trafficking so much cocaine they basically bathed in the stuff. There wasn’t one of them that didn’t have perpetually dilated pupils, a powder mustache, and a nasty teeth-grinding habit that made them grimace from time to time, their sweaty cruel faces contorting in demonic ways that made her sick to her stomach with fear.
Half the questions they asked didn’t make any sense. The other half were so far out of her realm of knowledge that she could barely think of anything to stutter in response. At first it had been terrifying, but as the days had gone on, her body had adapted into a survival mode and she was no longer fully aware of her own fear, except in the moments between the bolts of pure terror that were evoked every time one of her guards came near.
Tense, she waited for the guard to come back. She was hungry and thirsty. Sometimes they refused to let her eat or drink until she told them something. She’d told them everything they wanted to hear. She’d told them lie after lie. She’d told them the truth too. None of it mattered because it didn’t really matter what she said.
Loud bangs outside made her cringe. Her captive mind was unable to parse the sensory information with any kind of hope. It sounded like gunfire. Were they practicing for her? Were they fighting each other? Were they just discharging weapons at random? Anything was possible. Paranoia was everywhere, and had sunk into her bones. She couldn’t help but hear her death in the sounds that were growing closer.
Lacey began to whisper the only prayer she knew under her breath. These weeks in Venezuela had taught her there was no God, but she prayed anyway, because it was all she had.
The door burst open, a gun was pointed straight at her face, and her eyes widened as she saw the most beautiful thing she had ever seen in her life: an American soldier. He was dressed from head to toe in black tactical gear without any kind of identifying markings. His face was covered aside from his eyes, two brilliant blue orbs the color of the sky. There was no real sign that he was what she thought he was, but she knew in the core of her being that he was American. She knew. She just fucking knew.
She started screaming. “Help me! I’m a journalist! They’ve captured me!”
He stared at her, his weapon lowered to the floor. For a second, absolutely nothing happened. Then he spoke.
That was the first word she’d ever heard Chase Rathkeale say. A curse word in a mid-West accent. It was like hearing a choir of angels sing and she burst into tears of pure relief.
She could burst into tears right now, just seeing him again. It took a real effort not to throw herself into his arms, but she resisted, not knowing the kind of reception that would get. He’d come, but that didn’t mean he’d forgiven her.
“Hi,” she said, hoping she didn’t sound as shy as she felt. “Come in, please.”
She held the door open as the men filed in. She looked at their hard faces carefully, trying to work out where sympathy lay. Chase, sickeningly handsome, was the only one to really make eye contact with her. The others either stared over her head or through her completely. The one at the end wouldn’t look at her at all. His jaw was twitching as he stared at the shitty motel art.
“Are you okay?” Chase looked at her with concern.
God, he was handsome.
“Um, yeah. I mean, I don’t think they saw me. I think they’re still waiting for me to get home. I don’t know.”
“Okay,” he said, taking her by the arms. He moved her around and sat her on the end of the bed, which left her looking up at the line of men and then he crouched down in front of her, holding her attention with his gaze. “Tell me what happened.”
“I went home and…” She launched into a description of the events of the day, and those that had come before it. Pulling out her cellphone, she showed him, and by proxy, the rest of the silent men, precisely why she was so sure that death was stalking her. It was the footage Adam had taken. The evidence that proved his death was no accident whatsoever.
“His name was Adam Stern,” she said. “He’d been followed and he thought something might happen so he set up cameras in his apartment that streamed to our secure server.”
Tinny voices were raised through her phone’s speakers. She heard Adam’s last words. They weren’t brave. They were confused and laced with fear. Lacey knew what happened next. She half-shut her eyes, but she could still hear the sickening sound of a heavy bar of weights being dropped on his prone neck.
Chase didn’t so much as wince. He took the phone from her limp fingers, and she let him have it.
“So you’ve got this,” he said, no reaction whatsoever to seeing a man die. “Anything else?”
“I’ve got a lot of stuff,” she said. “We worked independently to uncover a range of crimes. They all led back to Senator Fishland. You know, the one with those shitty ads where he’s fishing and then he makes that dumb joke about being a fish out of water? That guy has fingers in every fucked-up pie there is. There’s not a criminal syndicate in the country that doesn’t own him. He has ties into the FBI for sure, likely the CIA as well. He’s pretty much untouchable at this point. I guess that’s why he got so blatant with some of it. Anyway, everyone had a piece of the puzzle, and everything was encrypted. That was supposed to keep us safe. There’s a system. We were all linked up to it, and when any of us didn’t sign on for a twenty-four-hour period, the information we held was sent to those who still had active accounts. I have the last one. I have everything. And it’s, uhm… it’s a lot.”
Chase nodded and stood up, turning to the others. “See?”
She didn’t understand the significance of the word, but obviously he’d just proved something to his men.
“I’m really surprised you all came,” she said. “I didn’t expect, I mean, I know… I’m so sorry about what happened. I had no idea you’d be… I had no idea… I thought you’d be heroes. You were heroes to me.”
She hoped that her little speech would soften them, but it didn’t seem to help. Five sets of distinctly unimpressed eyes settled on her with hard expressions. A couple of sweet words weren’t going to make things better. Lacey understood that. What she didn’t understand was why they were all there.
“Uhm, I really don’t expect you all to help me,” she said. “I don’t expect any of you to. I just called Chase because I needed to know how to survive this…”
“Well, you won’t survive it alone,” Chase said decisively. “You’re dealing with shadow government agents. They have abilities and powers no other organization does. How did you check in here?”
“Cash,” she said. “I’m not dumb enough to use my credit card for anything.”
“Is that your car out front?”
Her little yellow Kia Forte was parked next to their big black behemoth.
“They won’t be far off,” the tall dark-haired one with the innocent face said. “We passed a bunch of plate readers on the way here.”
Suddenly nervous, Lacey popped up from the bed. Chase reached out with one hand and pushed her back down into a sitting position.
“Easy, Ms. Christie,” he said. “The pattern of deaths is concerning. It sounds like you and your friends really were on to something.”
“We were,” she said. “I’m going to take it to mass media. That’s the only way to spread it. The story can’t be buried…”
“Easy,” Chase soothed. “You’re already in over your head. Let’s not make that worse.”
She bristled, wanting to deny that, but she couldn’t. She’d been in over her head when they first met, and she was drowning now.
“So. Uhm… I appreciate this, but I mean… how…” She just had to ask the question outright. “How can you help me?”
“Since we got booted from the service, we started our own little mercenary unit. We’re pretty well equipped, Lacey.”
“Wow,” she said. “I called the right guys then. You landed on your feet. That’s awesome. I’m so happy for you.”
She smiled around at them all. There was not a single smile back. What on earth was going on? They were there, but they didn’t seem happy—and she got that, but if they didn’t want to help her, then why had they come?”
An uncomfortable feeling started to build in her belly. The relief and nervousness that had overwhelmed her when she first saw them was starting to turn. Something wasn’t right. These men didn’t look helpful. She suddenly felt like a lamb surrounded by a pack of wolves.
“Okay, what’s going on?”
Chase glanced over at the man who had been conspicuously quiet so far. Chase hadn’t been the leader of the unit when she met him in Venezuela. That role had been played by Rex Waltham. And Rex was standing more or less behind him, just off to the left, his large arms crossed over his broad chest. She’d not had much to do with him back then. He’d been the one barking orders, the one who coordinated everything. She wasn’t easily intimidated, but she was nervous around him. There was just something in his steel gray gaze that sent shivers down her spine. Now that it was fixed on her, she could barely breathe.
“You want to explain, Rex?” Chase threw it over to him.
“Alright.” Rex had a Texan drawl, a rough, gravelly voice that gave him natural gravitas. He was older than the other men by about a decade. Lacey was twenty-five. She’d been twenty-two when she was captured, just an idiot naive journalism grad who fancied herself an international freelancer. In the years since, she’d learned a lot about herself, and the world, but she felt small compared to him. Rex had to be in his late thirties now. The rest of them were mostly around thirty or so, except for the one on the end. He was a bit younger. The pup of the group.
Rex stepped forward, and she instinctively leaned back a little. It wasn’t that he was menacing her on purpose, it was just the sheer force of his personality. Back then he’d been clean-shaven. Now there was stubble around his chin and jaw, a very closely trimmed beard of sorts. He was graying a little at the temples, but it wasn’t the kind of gray that made a man look old. It was the kind that made him mature. Matched with the steel hue of his eyes, it only made him more intimidating.
“You’ve caused us quite a bit of trouble over the years, Miss Christie.”
There was no denying that. When they’d rescued her, they’d been an elite military unit on a classified mission. They’d told her not to mention anything about their role in her rescue, but she hadn’t been able to help herself. As a junior freelance journalist, the story of being rescued by elite Special Forces had been too good not to tell.
The story had been picked up and syndicated internationally. It had been her first big break, the beginning of everything—and then someone had worked out who the men in the story were, and a new scandal had developed around geopolitical relations and… basically a whole bunch of shit most people really didn’t care about. The brass did though, and every single one of Rex’s unit, all the men now looking at her, had been court-martialed and dishonorably discharged. That part of the story hadn’t hit national news, but she’d known about it. Tried to apologize for it too, but only Chase had taken her call.
“I really didn’t mean to…”
“You were told not to say anything.” Rex’s tone was clipped and harsh.
“I know, but…”
“There are no buts. You cost us our careers, and we were lucky that’s all that you cost us. If we’d been active when that story broke, you could have cost us our lives.”
“We’re not interested in sorry,” Rex said bluntly.
Her hackles were starting to rise now. Had they come just to waste her time?
“What are you interested in, then?” She was just barely keeping her temper now. From the fear she’d been filled with at seeing assassins in her apartment, to the relief when she first saw these guys again, she was now just confused, guilty, and more than a little upset.
“We understand your life is in danger,” Rex said. “But you don’t have the kind of money we cost, Miss Christie, and frankly, you owe us more than mere money could really cover anyway.”
“So you came all this way just to tell me that you’re not going to help me? Thanks,” she said, bitter and sarcastic. “Hope you all have a nice drive home.”
“We came to offer you a deal.”
A deal? She let her eyes run over the line of hard military men. “What kind of deal?”
“We get paid to protect what belongs to other people. But we’ll happily protect what’s ours for free.”
Her head jerked back as her gaze was drawn back to Rex again. “Uhm… what?”
“If we help you, you will belong to us. All five of us.”
“Belong to… as in…”
“As in your body.” Rex made things bluntly clear.
Her eyes widened in shock. He couldn’t be serious. There was no way. There were five of them, and they expected her to… it was utterly unthinkable what they expected. This was taking advantage, pure and simple.
“You’re honorable men. You can’t mean this. Chase…”
“We used to be honorable. We’re not so much into that these days.” The one at the end bit the words out bitterly. She’d forgotten his name, but not his face. He was viciously handsome, very dark eyes that were held perpetually narrowed, dark brows, a hard jaw and lips that at the moment were a thin slash. Her heart skipped a beat. Danger. She recognized it instantly. They were all dangerous, of course, but he stood out among them, a fierce, barely restrained male force.
“There has to be something in this for us, Lacey,” Chase said more reasonably. With his sandy blond hair and blue eyes, Chase looked like the boy next door—if the boy next door had been pounding protein shakes and pumping iron for the past decade. He was a good man, the only one to accept her apology for what had happened after her story broke. Her heart ached whenever she so much as looked at a picture of him, but right now she was just stunned.
“Has to be something in it for you? I thought you were better than this, Chase.”
“Why? We don’t really know each other, Lacey. Not like that.”
Good point, she guessed. She’d known them for a couple of days in Venezuela. Same length of time they’d known her. Which was probably why they’d had the balls to make this kind of proposal. If they knew her better, they wouldn’t have wasted her time and theirs.
She looked down the line of men, hoping to find some salvation. Max—she’d never forgotten that name—was grinning as if he expected her to just immediately fall in love with the idea. He’d gathered a few more scars since she’d last seen him. Had the one over the bridge of his nose always been there? First to throw himself into action, last to care about the consequences had been her assessment when she’d dashed out the article about them.
Then there was the last one. The younger one. Brains. No. Brian. That’s right. Definition of tall, dark, and handsome. Could have been a runway model with his elongated frame. He ran the tech, from memory. She had been impressed with the alacrity with which Brian had handled a fire fight while simultaneously scrambling satellite signals and giving them a clear window for escape. He seemed to have the least reaction of any of them. Not angry. Not happy. Just a hard to read neutral. She was sure there was more dancing behind those green eyes than he was letting on.
They seemed to be presenting a united front. So they were all in on and into this little plan. What a pack of sickos.
Rex was talking again.
“You’ll do as you’re told, when you’re told to do it. You’ll make yourself available to any one of us. You’ll be ours. And in return, we’ll make sure nobody captures you, tortures you, and kills you. Sound like a deal?”
Lacey straightened her shoulders, looked him dead in the eye, and answered, “No deal.”
For a second, she thought she saw disappointment in his eyes. Did he really expect her to take that deal? Did any of them? As she glared at them, they did all seem a little deflated, except for Mr. Angry.
“Well, Miss Christie, it was nice to see you again, we wish you all the very best,” Rex said. He was either calling what he hoped was a bluff, or they were actually going to leave her to her fate.
A bullet sang through the window, skimmed past her cheek, and slammed into the cinder block wall just inches from her head. Lacey screamed and threw herself down, finding herself immediately covered by two very large bodies. In spite of the fact they were ready to leave her to die a second earlier, every single one of them threw himself to her defense without question. Col and Max ran out the door, guns at the ready and Chase and Brian were hunkered over her while Rex barked orders.
There was shouting, running, squealing tires. Whoever had taken the shot didn’t want to be run down and caught. The entire incident lasted maybe thirty seconds, but it left her trembling on the bed, tears in her eyes. They were really trying to kill her, and they’d found her. She wasn’t going to last ten seconds without these men to help. If they hadn’t been there… Lacey couldn’t bring herself to think about it.
Chase pulled her up and pressed his thumb to her cheek. “Small graze,” he breathed. “You just got the kind of lucky most people don’t get twice.”
There were six people in the room. The guys had been lined up like sitting ducks next to the window. If it had been random, one of them would have been easy to take out. But nobody wanted them. That bullet had been meant for her.
“Rex,” Chase said, his voice desperate. “We can’t leave her.”
“She doesn’t want our help,” Mr. Angry said as he returned to the room, still brimming with rage. Then the rest of them began to chime in, talking over one another.
“Of course she didn’t agree to that!”
“Maybe she doesn’t have a choice.”
Rex looked at Lacey coldly as he had the final say. “Take her.”
It happened far faster than Lacey could react. All four of them aside from Rex grabbed her, pushed her face down on the bed, and pulled her arms behind her back. They were fastened a second later with what felt like a thick band of plastic. A similar device was wrapped around her ankles. Cable ties. She was being taken prisoner.
Lacey was so scared and confused she didn’t even scream as her rescuers turned into her captors. A second later, a pillowcase went over her head and the whole world went beige.