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Andrea Franks took a deep breath and struggled to seem unaffected by her enemy's presence.
"You shouldn't have come," she said.
"I have to talk to you." The middle-aged military man stood over her, casting a shadow across her sacred space.
Sitting cross-legged on the solid earth she continued to focus on Sparrow Lake, fed by run-off from the snow-capped Rocky Mountains. The lake water rippled in soft, calm waves, so unlike the rage building in her chest. The evil was back, invading her precious serenity.
"I want you off my property," she said.
"Not until we talk."
Daisy and Oscar growled, her golden retrievers in tune to their master's mood.
"I have nothing to say to you, Biehl." Major Thaddeus Biehl, the devil who had led her husband directly into hell.
She took another deep breath, hoping that if she ignored him he'd disappear as quickly as he'd come.
"I'm not leaving until you hear me out."
She straightened to her full five foot eight inches. Adjusting the belt of her beige cotton tunic, she faced the man who had destroyed all that she'd held dear.
"You promised never to find me, not to make contact. You've invaded my privacy and I resent it." She plucked her pillow and dried sage from the ground as casually as she could.
"Can you fault me for wanting to check on an old friend?"
"Friend?" She brushed past him and started up the trail toward the cabin. "Now that's a joke."
Determined male footsteps disturbed the slumber of mountain animals as Major Biehl closed the distance between them.
"Wait." He touched her shoulder.
Chills shot down her spine. She glared at his well-manicured fingers then looked into his cool gray eyes. Eyes devoid of honor, eyesdevoid of a soul.
Oscar growled a warning, complete with bared teeth. Biehl let his hand slip from her shoulder. "Some-thing's happened."
She waited, stripping her countenance of every possible emotion. She'd become a master at hiding her thoughts and feelings. At times, even from herself.
"One of our operatives has disappeared from our hospital in Denver," he said.
"More like escaped from your prison." She had her suspicions about what happened to operatives who developed a conscience after discovering the truth about Beta Force. "We think he's coming this way." His expression softened.
She'd only met Biehl twice in her life: the first time when Jimmy had brought him home, excited about what Biehl was offering, and the second when Biehl had told her about Jimmy's death.
And the worst part was, she hadn't felt much of anything when she'd heard the news. Jimmy had seemed dead to her long before he was killed in the line of "duty."
Guilt settled low in her belly.
"I've come to ask for your help," Biehl said.
"My help?" She squeezed the satchel of dried herbs in a vice-like grip. "How can I possibly help you?"
"You know the terrain better than anyone." He motioned with his hand toward the mountains. "You could help us track him."
"No, thank you."
"Then how about we set up a mobile unit in your cabin? I'm sure there's plenty of room." He eyed her home with devouring eyes.
She fisted her hand to keep from slapping his face back to attention. He had no right looking at the cabin that way. No right at all. Wasn't it enough that he'd stripped her husband of his honor and integrity? Now he wanted to strip Andrea of her new, safe life as well?
"I can't help you," she said.
He sighed. "Andrea, Jimmy would have wanted"
"How could you possibly know what he wanted? I was married to him for seven years and hadn't a clue who he really was."
Biehl pulled out a cigarette and struck a match. His cheeks hollowed with the first, long drag of tobacco. "Surely you feel some loyalty to the organization considering everything we've done for you?"
Like turn her husband into a killer?
"Jimmy is gone. That part of my life is over."
If only that were true. Her isolated existence proved otherwise. She turned and walked away.
"Wait a minute. We're not done," he said.
Get to the cabin. Lock the door. Forget the past.
"I've got work to do," she shot over her shoulder.
"Like what? Plant more weeds? Honestly, Andy, you'd think you had a full day's work ahead of you."
She spun around and squared off at him. "You have no idea what my days are like. You and your country-club memberships, your wife and two kids in the suburbs. Does your wife have any idea what you really do for a living?"
He exhaled gray smoke and narrowed his eyes.
"I didn't think so," she said. "And don't ever call me Andy."
She marched to the wooden stairs of her log cabin, the dogs trotting beside her.
"I need you to hear me out."
Pausing at the foot of the stairs, she removed the elastic hair band from her wrist. In quick, short jerks, she secured her long, black hair into a ponytail. She always wore her hair free during meditation. It helped her feel open and at peace.
That peace was now shattered by ghosts of the past. She'd been a fool to think she'd ever be free of them.
She turned to face him. "Make your speech and go."
He crossed his arms over his chest. "We need to find this man before he does something stupid."
"Like realize his sins?"
He glared. She swallowed down her next retort. The man had the power to shoot her and call it his national duty. They both knew it.
"You can help us," he said. "I could have a team here in twenty-four hours."
"How dare you threaten to take my home away from me after everything you've done."
"I gave Jimmy an opportunity to fulfill a dream."
"Stop, just stop talking." Because if he didn't, she was going to haul off and slap him.
"Andrea, you're not safe out here." He paused. "Alone." Sure, she wasn't safe from people like him.
"I would hate it if something happened to you because of one of my agents," he added in a caring tone.
"I can take care of myself."
"I'm sure you can. But honor dictates I protect my men and their families. I heard Jimmy's brother and his wife had a baby boy about a year and a half ago. What does that make, two kids now?"
Regret tore through her at the mention of her nephew, hers and Jimmy's namesake. Another child she would never know.
"Andrew James. They call him A.J.," she whispered. She'd only seen the child once and it had nearly torn her apart. Being around the love, the warmth of Jimmy's family only intensified her pain as she clung to the truth she'd never be able to share with them. They deserved to remember Jimmy as a hero. "Andrew James," Biehl repeated. "Must be nearing the terrible twos. Toddlers can get into all kinds of trouble at that age."
"Excuse me? Is that a threat?"
"A threat? God, no, Andrea, what do you think I am?" He smiled again. Her blood ran cold.
"I want to protect you," he said. "For my own peace of mind, I'll leave a radio with you. It's tuned in to our frequency so if you see anything strange you can contact me immediately. This soldier is an expert at jungle warfare. I'd hate to see you come up against him by accident. He's extremely dangerous."
"He's killed people."
She laughed, a deep, throaty sound unfamiliar to even herself. "And this surprises you? What did you pay him to do? Dress up as Santa Claus and do the malls at Christmas?"
His jaw twitched. "You know what I mean. He's killed the wrong people."
"Killing is killing. There's no right or wrong way to kill."
"Anyway," he flicked a bug off the wooden rail, "it's in your best interest to help us. I'm sure you'll come to realize that." He went to his Jeep and pulled a hand-held radio from the front seat. He held it out to her and she just stared at the black device. He placed it on the stairs beside her.
He started back to his car, then turned to smile at her. "Good seeing you again." His gaze raked across her body.
She stood straight. She would not be intimidated by this bastard. "Good-bye, Major."
He settled himself behind the wheel of his car, glanced in the rearview mirror and smoothed his salt-and-pepper hair into place. He shot her a smile, a smile of knowing, a smile of death.
The government-issued vehicle kicked into gear and groaned its way up the steep gravel drive. She wished for a torrential rain to wash away all roads leading to her private sanctuary.
Biehl disappeared beyond a cluster of spruce trees, out of sight, but not out of her life.
Never out of her life. "Damn it!" she cried, racing up the stairs and swinging open the cabin door. The dogs ran past her to claim the ideal spot under the kitchen table. She slammed the door and stormed toward the bedroom, frustration blurring her vision.
She'd eluded them for three years, enough time to start the healing and plant the seeds of hope. But they were back, wrapping her in the palm of their iron fist and squeezing with firm, agonizing pressure. She knew the depth of Biehl's power. No one could help her.
Since Jimmy's death she'd made it her goal not to need anyone's help, especially a man's, nor would she be pushed around by one.
Now Biehl was threatening the most remote connection she had to another living soul: her nephew. An innocent child. That's what he was doing, wasn't it? Mentioning A.J. in the same breath as getting into trouble? Or was she being paranoid?
"I've got to warn them," she said, determined to protect the little boy. She'd have to call her brother-inlaw. And say what? She'd never told Jimmy's family the truth about his role in Beta Force. It would tear them apart to know he was a killer, not a hero.
She went into the bedroom, ripping her cotton tunic as she stripped it off. She opened the top drawer of the oak chest and groped for something to wear.
Nothing seemed right. She was a fool to think it would ever be right again. She pulled open the bottom drawer and dug into the pile of soft cotton pants. Her fingers hit glass and her breath caught.
She cupped the silver picture frame, pulled it from the drawer and read the engraved words: Andrea and James, Loving a Lifetime 1998.
Two strangers stared back at her: a girl of twenty-one with feathered bangs and a young man with white-blond hair, cut in military style. She'd forgotten how handsome he was, perfect white teeth gleaming with what they used to call his "million-dollar smile." And his eyes. She'd once confessed her fear of drowning in the clarity of his pure blue eyes.
Andy and Jimmy. The perfect couple. Everyone thought they'd live happily ever after. They couldn't imagine the secrets that would destroy them.
"Jimmy," she whispered, eyeing the photograph of the boy named most likely to succeed where everyone else failed. He was a hard-working student, a natural athlete and a loyal son.
A trusting soul who believed in people.
Pain swelling in her chest, she hurled the photograph against the wall, the glass splintering like a spider's web. Then her eyes caught on something else. Jimmy's diary. She pulled the maroon leather book from her drawer and clutched it to her chest. The government letter recognizing his brave service stuck out between the pages.
"Oh, Jimmy," she whispered. She hadn't been able to bring herself to read his diary. Yet it brought her peace to have this part of him.
Hugging her knees to her chest, she willed away the tears. She thought she'd created an impregnable shield to protect her from her grief.
Tonight the feelings came rushing back: helplessness and grief, pain she thought might keep her from breathing.
"No," she said. Biehl's threats would not consume her. She'd find a way to protect her family and fight the evil that had obliterated her life once before. This time she would not be a victim.
BREATHE, DAMMIT. Block out the pain.
Kyle McKendrick focused on those thoughts, determined to stay alive. If only he could outmaneuver the soldiers and disappear into the mountains. He glanced at the towering trees and thanked God he'd made it this far.
Taking another step, he stumbled into a tree, the pain shooting down his arm to his fingertips. He leaned against the tree for support, but his knees buckled. Giving in, just for a second, he sat down and closed his eyes in surrender.
Get up! Only a punk would give up now! Stand at attention, soldier!
He inhaled the crisp scent of pine and fought the pain caused by a well-aimed bullet. In reality, the pain had begun the day he'd joined Beta Force.
His thoughts wandered as he slid his hand inside the leather jacket he'd swiped from an unsuspecting tourist. Squeezing his shoulder, he hoped the wound had finally started to clot. Instead, warmth spread across his hand. Fresh blood. He clamped his hand tighter against the wound and tipped his head back.
How had it gotten so out of control? All he'd wanted to do was help people, save lives.
Instead he'd ended up taking the life of his best friend. Jimmy. Guilt arced through his chest, intensifying the pain of his shoulder wound.
Can't think about that now. Have to find her, get the evidence and put Biehl away.
Panic hovered low. Damn drugs. Biehl's mad scientists had taken special care to use anxiety-inducing meds to try and terrorize the information out of Kyle.
But there was nothing more horrific than killing your best friend. Neither drugs nor torture would prevent Kyle from making that right and putting Biehl behind bars.
And nothing would absolve Kyle of his sin.
A mountain lion cried out. He wondered what would get him first; wild animals or Beta Force? Did it matter? If he died, his mission died with him.
You can't let that happen.