Authors: Cindy Gerard
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense
He disconnected, then let his head drop back against the white bark of a gnarled dapdap tree with a muttered, "Fuck."
Dallas sat to Ethan's left at the base of the tree that dripped with brilliant red flowers. On his other side, Manny ripped open a power bar and said nothing. He knew from experience that when Ethan had something to say, he would say it.
After several long moments, though, Dallas grew impatient. He broke a silence so tense it hummed like a trip wire strung between them. "So I take it Nolan didn't have all good news."
Ethan inhaled deeply, let air out on a heavy breath. "No. Not all good news."
They'd been on the move all night. It had been slow, treacherous tracking. An hour ago, they'd had a breakthrough. Manny had found a trail. It was several hours old, but it was the lead they'd needed. Provided it led them to the terrorists who had taken Darcy. Until they closed in and got a visual, that was still up for grabs.
But Ethan knew. On a level that he couldn't begin to explain, he knew this was it. They were getting close.
But they'd needed rest. And he'd needed commo with Nolan.
When Ethan made contact with little brother, he found out Nolan had been busy. Nolan had called up some markers, oiled a few gears. It was because of his contacts at Camp Navarro that they'd had a bead on the tango's entry point into the island in the first place. The Air Force pilots flying out of the base at Zamboanga loved a chance to play outlaw, show off their toys, and indulge in a little unsanctioned extracurricular surveillance.
Their latest gimme—and all hell would break loose if the base commander got wind of it—was last night's midnight flyover in a plane equipped with forward-looking infrared aerial surveillance. Cruising thousands of feet above the island, the monitoring equipment had spotted not only the three of them but also a larger group about six hours ahead of them. Which meant they were on target to close in tomorrow.
That was the good news. The bad news was, in addition to them and the terrorist cell, the infrared technology had also picked up a mass of activity moving in from the base of Bud Tumangtangis.
Ethan dragged a hand over his face before breaking the news to Manny and Dallas. "Tourists and missionaries are abducted on a routine basis and the Philippine government makes noises but no tracks to find them. Seems that when an American embassy employee falls into the mix, however, the military decides to get its ass in gear and hunt them down." He paused, shook his head. "They're heading inland. A full company."
Dallas muttered Ethan's earlier assessment of the situation. Manny stood in silence.
They were so fucked. So was Darcy.
"So if the terrorists don't kill her, she's now in danger of getting caught in the crossfire from the Philippine military who are on a seek-and-destroy operation against Abu Sayyaf."
With a grim nod at Dallas, who now clearly regretted stating the obvious, Ethan stood, to the complaint of his knees. "Let's move."
Ethan kept in shape. He ran. Lifted weights. But it had been years since he'd slogged through a jungle, up and down crevasses and hills, carrying approximately seventy-five to one hundred pounds of combat gear.
"You know, this group might not be our bad guys," Dallas pointed out carefully as they set off, following the trail.
"It's them," Ethan said, and kept on walking. He knew they were on the right track, just like he'd known Darcy was the one the night he met her.
It had always been that way with Darcy. The first time he'd set eyes on her, he'd felt an unexplained connection. It was like a live wire, taut and tingling, had drawn them together.
He felt the same unsettling electric connection now. Felt it on a visceral level. Felt it living in his bones.
"Spread out... three to five meters," he said just loud enough for Manny and Dallas to hear. "And watch your six."
Ethan figured they still had four, maybe five hours before they made visual contact. But there could be trailers in the group and he wanted to make damn sure the three of them spotted any tangos before the tangos spotted them.
He had full confidence in Manny doing just that. Manny was an expert sniper, could pick off a target with the Barrett 82A1 .50-caliber semiautomatic rifle he was carrying at a thousand yards, no problem. How Dallas had come by that premium piece of firepower Ethan could only guess. It was a state-of-the-art weapon with a range of almost two thousand yards— and it was military issue.
Like every other piece of equipment and ordnance "commandeered" for this mission, Ethan didn't really want to know where Dallas had gotten the sniper rifle. The fact was, Ethan already knew everything he needed to know—about himself, about Dallas, and about Manny.
They weren't James Bond. They weren't MacGyver. They couldn't make an explosive device out of an MRE, a flashlight battery, and a little duct tape— although Dallas could make damn near anything with his roll of silver tape.
They were, however, among the best-trained fighters in the world. It may have been a few years since their last sanctioned op, but to a man, they'd never forgotten the regimen of combat training they'd received. Training that was designed for close encounters and geared for annihilation.
And as he pressed forward through the tropical heat, Ethan had no doubt it would come to that.
Just like he had no doubt he would find Darcy.
A cold sweat layered over the thick film of perspiration already soaking his body.
Sweet Jesus God, let her be alive.
She had to be alive. The thought of her dead was agonizing.
Darcy Prescott was the most vital human being he'd ever known. Just standing next to her or lying beside her or buried deep inside the sweet silky heat of her, he'd felt more alive than he'd ever felt in his life.
He might not have been a part of her world for the past five years, but he'd always known she was alive; he'd always known where she was. It hadn't been enough, but it had been bearable. Losing her now would not be.
EIGHT YEARS EARLIER
Ethan was barely aware of the murmur of the other members of the dinner party seated around the ambassador's dining room table. Hardly heard the laughter, the inane chatter. All the glittering jewels and designer gowns of the women in attendance were lost on him.
He heard only Darcy. Sweet Christ, she had him tied in a pretzel knot. He saw only her, in her simple black dress and wearing a simple silver chain around her neck. Saw the gentle ebb and flow of her pulse where that thin silver necklace lay against her skin. Saw the fiery sheen of her thick silky hair, the mobile fullness of her lips when she laughed or sipped delicately from her wineglass.
Every move was sexy. Every sound she made was a turn-on. And her scent. Floral but not too sweet. Fresh but not quite innocent. He'd never been so far gone on a woman so fast, never felt such immediate, gut-clenching need.
And he couldn't believe his good luck when after about an hour of carefully guarded small talk she asked, "Just how much time do you plan on spending in Lima, Lieutenant Garrett?"
His heart damn near stopped.
He had her.
Talk about a gift from the blue. He wasn't sure why, but this bright and beautiful woman was not only up to speed on his plans for her; she was also up for what he had in mind. It wasn't just the invitation in her question that told him; it was the invitation in her eyes.
Thank you, God.
He smiled into her beautiful all-American face. "How much time do I need?"
She sliced him a coy glance and lifted a water goblet to her lips.
And he almost went down in flames.
He didn't remember much of the rest of the dinner. He must have been a party to the general conversation, though, because the pompous ass on his right—an attorney on vacation from Baltimore who had wangled a dinner invitation because he was a distant relative of the naval base commander—kept peppering him with questions about the Green Berets the entire time.
Hell, it was his first decent meal in months—seven damn long courses—and he couldn't swear to eating beef or grubs.
But he did swear. Several times under his breath during the interminable two-hour meal when Darcy would smile at him a certain way and those green eyes would make promises of heaven. When his thigh "accidentally" brushed hers beneath the table his groin tightened like a fist. When their hands met, oh so briefly, the silk of her skin shot a goddamn 10,000-volt burst of electricity from his fingertips straight to his dick.
He'd turned into an animal in the jungle. It took every ounce of his control to keep the beast from howling at the moon and throwing the sexy redhead in the tight black dress down on the closest horizontal surface.
And wouldn't it just do wonders for U.S.-Peruvian diplomacy if he flipped up her skirt and put it to her between the butter knife and the sugar cubes?
the dinner was over.
After making what he hoped were the right noises to anyone who seemed to care, he excused himself and Darcy from the throng. Gripping her hand tightly in his, he led her out the door and into the back of a cab.
Where he sat.
Eyes dead ahead.
Fists clenched on his thighs.
Ordering himself not to act like the rabid dog he'd turned into sometime around the third course.
"Problem, Lieutenant?" That silk and honey voice sounded so amused in the seat beside him, he considered telling her exactly what the problem was.
She wouldn't look so smug if she knew what he wanted to do with her.
"I'm at the Hotel Bolivar," he said, doing what he thought was a remarkable impression of a man in control. "Will that work for you?"
When she said nothing, he gathered all of his restraint and looked at her. And oh God, he wanted this woman.
Her smile faded. Her breath actually caught.
He knew what she saw on his face. Need, squared. Greed, cubed.
For a moment, he thought he might have scared her to death—or at least into making a fast exit out of the cab.
He must have been holding his breath, because he felt it sough out of his chest on a slow, heavy sigh when she very clearly said, "My apartment's closer."
Sweet mother of God.
She scooted forward and gave the driver her address.
And Ethan lost it. She was so slight. So slim. Her hips so sweetly curved. Her ass so round and tight.
He reached for her, drew her onto his lap, and kissed her. Hard. Hungry. From the gut.
She made a low, humming sound deep in her throat and opened her mouth for his tongue. And damn, he thought he'd come right there in his dress greens and embarrass the hell out of both of them.
"Okay," he said, his breath hitching, his hands shaking like hell as he pried her arms from around his neck and set her away.
Deep breath. Another. "Okay. Just... um. Okay. Christ.
Darcy, I want you so bad I'm afraid I'm going to hurt you."
He breathed in deep through his nose, let it out through his mouth, fighting dizziness in the wake of all the blood that had rushed from his big head to his little one.
Just the sound of her voice did things to him. Good things. Bad things.
When he thought it was safe, he chanced a look her way.
Her cheeks were flushed pink. Her lips were swollen from that one heavy-handed kiss. Scared. She should be good and scared.
But her eyes said she was far from it. Her eyes looked all sleepy and heavy-lidded as she lifted her hand to his mouth, slid her index finger along the seam of his lips, and in a voice that grabbed him by the balls and twisted whispered, "You're not going to hurt me."
On a strangled groan, he covered her hand with both of his, sucked her finger into his mouth, then forced himself to drag her hand away again. He cupped it in both of his and pressed it against his chest where his heart beat like crazy. "Darcy—"
"You won't hurt me." She turned her palm into his and laced their fingers together. "But if I were in
might be a little afraid of getting hurt."
It made him laugh. A weary
oh my God, I can't believe I'm so far gone
kind of laugh. It was the reaction she'd wanted. And it was the relief he'd needed.
He lifted her hand back to his mouth. Kissed her knuckles. "How much farther?"
"So, Rocketman... is there more where that came from?"
Ethan groaned, pushed out a chuckle, and if he'd had the strength and the breath, he would have dragged her on top of him and hugged the hell out of her. But he didn't have the strength. And he could still barely breathe.
Then there was the mortification factor. Christ, it had been all over in two deep thrusts.
He turned his head on the pillow, smiled an apology into her sleepy, amused eyes, and thought,
am the luckiest sonofabitch on earth.
Two seconds ago, he'd been as embarrassed as hell. He hadn't lost control like that since he'd been sixteen and one huge randy hormone.
And here she was, smiling. Making it a joke. Making everything okay.
He'd make it up to her for going off like a rocket the moment he pressed into her incredible wet heat. Swear to God, he was going to take her places she'd never been before for being so generous and for telling him with her sweet, forgiving smile and really fine sense of humor that it was okay. She wasn't judging him by his less than stellar nanosecond performance.
Rocketman, if you don't mind."
Her soft laugh sounded lush and sexy against the pillow. "I stand corrected."
"Did I tell you I was a sprinter in high school?"
Still smiling, she sat up. "Never would have guessed it."
He grabbed her wrist and pulled her back down beneath him.
Levered above her on his elbows, he stroked a strand of her incredible hair back from her eyes. Soft. Her eyes were as soft as summer grass.
"God, you're beautiful. Why aren't you ticked off?"
"Let's just say I'm an optimist."
Yeah. So was he. And she was giving him more than enough reason to be optimistic about a lot of things.
The animal lust was quenched. A new tenderness replaced it. He ran a finger down her bare arm, amazed all over again by the silken feel of her skin. "Got to love an optimist. Don't love this so much, though. You've got too many clothes on."
His fault. They'd barely made it inside her apartment and he'd attacked her. Dragged her to her bedroom and dealt with the minimum amount of zippers and cloth and managed to roll on a condom to make what had just happened happen.
It had been that or die. He'd been sure of it. He was going to implode from the inside out.
Lord did he have a lot to make up for. Starting now.
He reached behind her and slowly slid down the zipper on her dress. "I hope I didn't ruin this."
Another sultry look on that gorgeous face had every muscle in his body knotting with need. "What you need to worry about," she said, lifting her arms so he could slide the dress up and over her head, "is ruining
and I don't feel even a little bit damaged."
He had to be dreaming. He
to be. He touched her again, just to make sure.
"Not that you have any reason to believe me," he shrugged out of his shirt and kicked off his pants, "but I have every intention of well and truly wrecking you before this night is over."
She reached behind her back and unhooked her black lacy bra. An adorable dimple dented her left cheek. "And you plan on starting this devastation ... when?"
Darcy semidozed where she'd been
shoved down against the red bark of a Narra tree. Was it forty-eight? Seventy-two hours ago that this nightmare had started? More?
She didn't know. She knew only one thing, and of that one thing she was certain.
She was past the fear stage.
The body and the psyche could only handle so much stark, raw terror before one or the other shut down. She'd reached the point of no return several hours ago. And she'd made a choice.
She chose to be pissed off. And she chose to live.
Provided she got lucky. It all came back to that.
She lifted her head and shoved the damp hair from her face with her bound wrists. Another morning had passed. Her captors had slogged through the heat and humidity, dragging her through the thickening undergrowth, and pressed deeper into the jungle. Slower, though. They moved much slower than they'd traveled yesterday. Part of it was due to the terrain.
Moss and vines covered hidden rocks and made them slippery. Heavy undergrowth and gangly roots snagged her feet and slowed everyone down.
Earlier, morning rain had pelted down in buckets, welcoming and cool for the thirty to forty minutes it had lasted. In its aftermath, the sun boiled down through the tree cover; now steam rose from the forest floor like thick, damp heat from a dryer vent. Wet ferns and leaves clung like her soaked clothes, slicing her bare arms and legs and drawing insects to the scent of the blood oozing from the thin cuts; moss and grass clawed at her sodden sandals, bogging her down in the muck on the more level stretches.