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By Donna Grant
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 Donna Grant
All rights reserved.
"You double-crossed me," came the heavily accented Spanish voice.
Mia looked into black eyes and saw nothing but death reflected there. Thunder rumbled right before lightning flashed and sounded with a crack that reminded her too much of the pop of a gun.
She wanted to take a step back, but she was surrounded by Colombians with no way out. Her gun was on the plane. A show of faith between her and this unsavory party.
But she wasn't exactly weaponless — never would be again after. ... She stopped that train of thought. She needed to focus on the here and now.
She took a deep breath and lifted her hands. If she didn't get control of this situation, it could go from bad to worse. "You've got it all wrong, Camilo."
"Really?" He smirked and looked at the three men around him. Camilo ran his thumb and forefinger along his thin mustache as he regarded her.
He took a step closer, bringing him within reaching distance of her. His reputation as a lady's man was one he embodied in everything he did, from the Armani suit to his perfectly styled hair.
"Yes, really," she said. "You hired me to fly to Panama and retrieve your boxes. I've done that."
His eyes narrowed. "But you don't have my merchandise."
She kept her gaze on Camilo, but she was aware of every move his men made. They might not have guns, but, like her, they weren't weaponless. "I'm not to blame for the authorities checking my plane and confiscating what they found."
"I was told you were the best. That you could get anything into the States."
"This is the first time in hundreds of flights that I've been caught with anything. Perhaps if you'd told me I'd be transporting reptiles for the black market trade, I could've determined what airfield might have authorities searching planes for just such cargo and diverted to another."
"You didn't need to know," he said.
She shrugged. From the moment the reptiles had been taken from her plane and she was arrested, there had been no other outcome. She was in serious trouble with the law — not to mention the sanctions that would be placed on her by the military.
Her only hope had been leaving Florida before Camilo and his men found her. If they had only arrived five minutes later, she would've made it home.
"A shrug," Camilo said with a grin that held not an ounce of humor.
Shit. This was about to get very bad. If only she'd listened to Sergei, but the old Russian was always telling her to stay away from bad men. Never mind the fact that he was such a man.
Camilo walked around her. "You give me a shrug when I'm out two million dollars."
She turned her head to keep him in her sights. "These things happen."
"Not to me. I've promised those animals to someone, and he doesn't take a shrug for an answer."
"I'd be happy to make another run to Panama for free. However, my plane will be searched every time from now on."
"That's not my problem." He stopped before her, closing in on her. "You agreed to bring me my cargo. I want it. Tomorrow."
Mia hated when people got into her personal space. The creep did it because he thought he'd intimidate her — a common misconception with men.
"I can't be clearer if I spelled it out for you. I'll be lucky to retain my pilot's license after this. I can't help you."
"Then you'll pay me the two million."
She lowered her hands to her sides. Then she said, "No."
"You obviously have no idea who you're messing with," Camilo said before taking a step back.
Mia ducked and spun around as she felt one of the men come at her. When she straightened, she fought the desire to release her hidden knife into her palm.
She moved back to keep all four men in sight. They would come at her all at once. They had the numbers, but they would underestimate her.
"You'll die tonight," Camilo said with a laugh. "Or perhaps I'll take you with me and give you to my men. It'll be fun seeing what they will do to that nice body of yours. I doubt you'll last a week."
No one would ever keep her chained again.
She smiled at the men and motioned them to come at her. The first to reach her was the biggest of the group. She dodged his meaty fist by ducking.
This time when she straightened, the hilt of her knife slid into her grip. It felt good to have a hold of the weapon. She kept it hidden so that none of the men saw it.
The next time the big guy came at her, she leaned to the side to evade his punch. Then she twisted as she reversed her grip on the hilt of the blade. Swinging her arm wide, she sliced the big guy's chest.
The next instant, she spun back the other way and stabbed him in the gut. When he attempted to grab her with both hands, she used his momentum against him, sticking him in quick succession.
He stood still, swaying. She took a step back before kicking him in the chest. By the time he hit the ground, he was dead.
"Get her!" Camilo yelled, spittle flying from his mouth as he rushed her.
She was good in hand-to-hand combat against one. Against two, she could hold her own. Against three? Well, she wasn't going down without doing some damage of her own.
Right before one of the men reached her, a knife embedded in the back of his throat. He fell at her feet, gurgling blood. She looked around, trying to figure out where the blade had been thrown from, but she couldn't see anyone.
Then she didn't have time to keep looking as she was fighting Camilo and his last man. She gritted her teeth as her upper right arm was sliced.
She took a step back and eyed Camilo and his man, each holding a long blade. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw movement. She caught a glimpse of a man in all black right before Camilo raised his weapon and came at her.
Mia held her stance as he charged. She saw her advantage and took it. Using the big guy's dead body as a vault, she launched herself, feet first, at Camilo in a double leg grapple.
Wrapping her legs around his neck, she used her momentum and swung to the side, bringing him to the ground. She felt his neck break as she twisted.
Rotating midair, she landed on one knee with her left hand on the ground. With her combat knife still in hand, she turned to the last of Camilo's men — only to find him lying on the ground with a knife in his chest.
A man in all black walked from the trees and retrieved his blades. Without a word, he made his way to her. As he closed the distance between them, she let her eyes run over this unknown man.
Tall, muscular, and ... hard. He walked with purpose, as if assured that he would get whatever he was after. He had the appearance of a military man with his dark hair cropped close on the sides and short on top.
The hint of whiskers graced a strong jaw and chin. His wide, thin lips tilted in a half-smile that made her stomach feel as if she'd just been on a roller coaster — and wished for another ride.
Thick brows slashed over hazel eyes that watched her with interest. He stopped a few feet from her and let her look over him. She slowly stood, taking in the black fatigues and black tee shirt.
"We've got company," he said and jerked his chin as he looked over her shoulder.
She turned her head and saw the six men rushing toward them. A second later, bullets began flying around them.
"Go!" the man said as he grabbed her arm and tugged her toward the plane.
She didn't need to be told twice. In moments, she was inside the plane and starting the engines. With every bullet that pierced the Valkyrie, she winced.
The sound of the engines roaring to life made her smile. She started forward, glancing back at the open door. Whoever the stranger was who'd helped her had little time to reach her before she left.
She closed her eyes briefly, because she knew she wouldn't leave him. It wasn't in her nature. Impatience filled her as the plane began to roll forward away from the gunfire.
There was a grunt. When she looked back, the stranger was in her plane, pulling the door closed. Without a word, she throttled the aircraft, speeding down the runway.
The flashing lights of police cars halted the chase of Camilo's men, but for how long? They didn't know where she lived. With Camilo dead, they might leave her alone. But it was a big "might."
When the stranger came to sit in the seat next to her, she glanced his way. He buckled the seat belt and leaned his head back, closing his eyes.
"Who are you?" she demanded.
"Not even a thank you?" he asked with a grin, his eyes still shut.
She held back a sigh. "Thank you. Now. Who are you?"
"I thought you'd know." His head turned, and his eyes opened to stare at her again.
There was something about him that looked familiar. It took her a moment, but she pieced it together. "Which Loughman brother are you?" "Cullen," he said with a smile.
Cullen. She stared at him with a bit of surprise. She knew from talks with Orrin, as well as from reports she'd read, that the Loughman boys were some of the best around — military or private sector.
She also knew the middle brother, Owen, was the peacekeeper, who was quiet as he listened to everyone and everything before reacting. The eldest, Wyatt, was the intense one with barely leashed violence beneath the surface.
But it was the youngest, Cullen, who set her back on her heels. Each time she thought of him, chills raced over her skin — and that was before she knew he was heart-stoppingly good-looking.
He made her ... ache ... in a way she hadn't experienced in a very long time.
Why did it have to be him that came to her? Why couldn't it have been Wyatt? She could've handled the eldest Loughman with ease.
Cullen held a combination of both his brothers. There was a heavy dose of lethal brutality just waiting to be released on those who stood against his country — or his family.
But he was also patient. To some, he might seem indifferent, but she'd seen the look he currently wore on Orrin's face before. There was no indifference. Only planning and preparation down to the very last detail.
She briefly closed her eyes. The attraction couldn't be denied. But it wasn't just that. She'd felt desire before. This was something ... more. It was deeper, fuller.
It left her with a yearning that rocked her, a hunger that consumed her. She might've heard stories about Cullen, but she didn't know him.
Her gaze locked on him as if magnetized. His hazel eyes watched her like a predator, but she wasn't afraid. No, it was more exhilarating than anything.
Forcing her attention back to flying, she set a course for Dover. Back to the place that hadn't just altered her life, but the Loughman boys', as well.
"I've been expecting one of you," she finally said.
He looked out the windshield. "There are answers to questions about my father's kidnapping at Dover. And with you."
"Nothing is going to stop me from finding him. Orrin is one of the best men I know."
"Then start at the beginning. We've got a little time before we reach the base."
The beginning. No. Not so far back as that. There were things Cullen didn't need to know, things that were better left in the past.
She may be in an unsavory situation, and he might have just saved her, but that didn't give him the right to her secrets.
"It was Orrin who approached me," she said.CHAPTER 2
Cullen hadn't expected Mia Carter to be so ... amazing. He'd never seen a woman fight with such passion or with movements so beautiful that he'd found himself watching her instead of finishing off the Colombian.
For the first time in Cullen's life, he couldn't find words. He could only stare at the beautiful woman with one thought — Valkyrie.
She was the epitome of what he imagined the winged creatures of Norse mythology would look like. All she needed was armor and a sword to complete his vision.
Now, as he sat in the cockpit of the British WWII Bristol Buckingham C. MK 1 plane, also known as the Bristol Type 163 Buckingham, he couldn't keep his eyes off her.
Beautiful didn't begin to describe this incredible woman. Every time her steely black gaze fringed with impossibly thick lashes turned his way, he became entranced. Her eyes were large and slightly tilted up at the corners.
He forgot to breathe as he took in her unblemished, sun-kissed face. With high cheekbones and wide, full lips, he was smitten.
Wisps of inky black hair escaped from her ponytail to fall along the narrow column of her neck. An olive tee skimmed her torso to show mouthwatering curves, and black denim showcased her lithe legs to perfection.
"It was Orrin who approached me," she said.
That didn't surprise him. His father had always had a gift for finding talent and using it to his advantage. "When?"
"A few years ago."
It made Cullen wonder what else his father had been up to. While he and his brothers were off building their lives, Orrin Loughman had been setting up a team of Black Ops members to do some of the dirtiest jobs.
One of the missions, put together by the DOD, had sent Orrin and his team to Russia to steal a bioweapon.
Except something had gone terribly wrong. Someone betrayed Orrin Loughman. In the process, he'd been kidnapped, and his team was executed.
The last person to see his father was the woman sitting next to Cullen.
The years he'd spent as a Marine Force Recon captain had taught him many things. He knew how to fight his way out of various situations using his hands, body, and mind. He knew how to spot lairs and traitors. He also had dozens of rescues to his name.
He was damn good at his job. But he had to be more than good now. His father's very life depended on it.
"How did you find me?" Mia asked.
"I went to the Air Force Base. When you weren't there, I went to General Davis's office. It seems they keep a record of every flight you make."
Her lips compressed. "That they do."
"To my benefit. If I hadn't arrived, you would either be dead or in Camilo's care. Neither of which sounds appealing."
"I already thanked you."
"Yes, ma'am. You sure did." He linked his fingers over his stomach. There was something about Mia Carter he found compelling, and it had nothing to do with her beauty. She was very much like him, he suddenly realized.
Wary of the world with a look of cynicism she didn't bother to hide.
"Tell me how a pilot with your skills is able to have a hangar on a base, work for the military as a contractor, and still be able to take jobs with criminals. Because let's be honest ... Camilo was a criminal."
"It won't matter what I give you as an explanation. You've already formed an opinion," she replied coolly.
In fact, he had formed an opinion. He suspected that she liked danger. She also loved to fly. Combine the two, and she was in heaven.
"You were telling me about how you and my father began working together," he said, getting them back on topic.
She cut him a look with her black eyes. "What you really want to know is if I betrayed him. As I told Callie — and everyone listening on the phone that day — it wasn't me."
"I do remember that call. Though I've learned that people say a lot of things that aren't the truth."
"You want the truth?" she asked, turning her head to him. "I'll tell you the truth. I hated taking orders, so I left the Air Force as soon as I could. But I wasn't ready to give up flying. It's my life."
That much he could tell. It was in her blood.
"Lucky for me, the Air Force wasn't quite ready to see the last of me. My skills as a pilot come in handy. I came up with the idea of contract work in exchange for using a hangar and obtaining parts for my plane. It's a mutually beneficial situation."
He nodded, impressed. "Smart move."
"I was taking ... other jobs when Orrin approached me to fly one of his missions. I never flinched at the work, and I never let him down."
Cullen looked out the window at the cities below. "And the Russian job?"
"Orrin contacted me about flying the team. The money was good, and I didn't mind the trip. I explained to him that while my plane is sturdy, she couldn't make the entire trip without stopping in Ireland to refuel."
"He agreed to that?"
"There was no other way," she said with a slight shrug. "But we got to Russia without incident."
"Did Orrin mention anything about having any doubts about the mission?" he asked.
She thought for a moment before she shook her head. "He acted as he normally did before a job. Quiet, thinking over everything. An hour before we arrived in Moscow, he and the team went over the plans."
Excerpted from The Protector by Donna Grant. Copyright © 2017 Donna Grant. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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