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Risking It All For Her Boss
A Heroes for Hire Novel
By Sharron McClellan, Tracy Montoya
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Sharron McClellan
All rights reserved.
"You think we will allow you to starve? Eat, or I will shove this down your throat."
Eva Torres hunkered outside the rickety wooden hut, listening as Rafael, a FARC guerilla and world-class sadist, delivered food and a message to kidnapped victim, Felix Bennett.
She heard a muffled reply, then the distinctive sound of flesh hitting flesh. Anger rippled through her. The members of FARC — Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia — Ejército del Pueblo — were known throughout Colombia, South America, for kidnapping and trafficking drugs, so it shouldn't surprise her that they'd beat someone who was already beaten down.
But despite a month of deep cover and pretending to be one of the guerrillas, she was still bothered by their callousness toward human life. She reminded herself that that was a good thing.
The door slammed open, and she pressed herself against the side wall of the hut. She willed her pulse to slow and listened as Rafael put the wooden bar across the door, locking Felix inside.
Staying low, she peeked around the corner and watched as he trundled toward the next hut to deliver more of the watery gruel that passed for the evening meal in the FARC encampment.
She ducked back behind the wall and let the air whoosh from her lungs in relief. She had two hours to get Felix to the extraction point and herself back to the valley camp before the next check. It was a tight timeline but one that had been set in place before she'd even entered the field. Once she had been deployed, there was no way to get a message to her without risking exposure.
Once the furor died down from Felix's impending escape, she would be on her way to the other FARC site — this one along the river and twenty kilometers away — and to Claire, another kidnapping victim. And after that —
Sushi. Hot showers. Television. The anticipation warmed her all the way to her bones. Although now was not the time to get excited. Home was over a month and two rescue operations away. Still, she allowed herself to smile for a few seconds before she put the grin away.
Palm on the rifle slung on a strap at her side, she rose and edged her way toward the front of the hut, then stopped when she caught sight of Rafael still in the open, relieving himself on a bush.
Her hand twitched, instinctively reaching for the trigger. She had a job to do, and she wanted to complete it. Now. But the flicker of impatience was followed by a solid, warm voice inside her head, telling her there was never a right time to lose her cool during an op.
Teacher, fighter, and the man who'd broken her heart, Quinn Blackwood had taught her everything she'd needed to know about subterfuge. He was master of the lie. There was no denying that painful and personal fact.
Her trigger finger tightened further. God, she wanted to shoot them both, Rafael and Blackwood.
But Quinn was also the Agency's top rescue and recovery agent, and while he'd taught her about secrets and sex — and how one could be used to uncover the other — he'd also schooled her in endurance and how to stay alive.
She watched the soldier, imagining that Quinn would be both pleased and pissed to find that infiltrating FARC had driven those lessons home more thoroughly than anything he'd taught her.
Her hand relaxed.
Not that Quinn mattered, she told herself. Not anymore. Not ever again.
Rafael zippered his pants, wiped his hands on his leg, picked up the pail of slop, and continued the delivery.
Eva pulled her camouflage jacket closed to cover her pale green T-shirt, and in seconds, a film of sweat covered her back.
"God help me," she muttered, then slipped to the front of the hut.
No challenge sounded, and there was no shout of discovery.
Heart pounding, she removed the board that served as a crude lock and stepped inside.
Felix crouched against the far wall, eating with his fingers. His clothes were gray, ragged, and stank of sweat and fear. His salt-and-pepper hair hung in greasy strands. Not a pretty sight and one that would shock his daughter, provided they made it to freedom. He appeared closer to seventy rather than the under sixty his file claimed was his age.
But stench and appearance weren't the problem.
His bone-thin frame was the issue. He'd gone over two months with no exercise and been fed half-rotten food that served to keep him breathing but little more. Beneath the skin was nothing more than wasted muscle.
He glanced up at her and hid the bowl of food behind him and out of her reach. "I'm not done."
"Leave it. I'm here to rescue you," she said.
"Rescue me? You?" His thin mouth pressed tight, the glint in his eyes almost feral as his gaze flickered from the bowl, back to her, and to the bowl again.
"Yes." She gripped his shoulder to try to draw him to his feet. "And we need to get moving."
Jerking out of her grasp, he pressed himself against the wall. "I have seen you around camp for over a month. If you were here to help me, you'd have done it sooner." He pushed her away, surprising her with the strength still left in his stick-thin arms. "Tell the commander that his tricks won't work."
Eva massaged her forehead. She hadn't been expecting resistance to a rescue. When she returned back to headquarters, she'd have to remember to let Quinn know his classroom was lacking in this particular lesson.
The anticipation of correcting him warmed her more than the previous idea of a soft bed and hot food.
Focus on the now, she reminded herself. As far as Felix was concerned, he knew her only as a FARC soldier. She'd have to convince him that she was one of the good guys.
She squatted down until they were face-to-face. "I know this seems like a trick." She rested a firm hand on his forearm. His skin twitched beneath her palm, but he didn't flinch, so she continued. "I work for High-Risk Security. And I'm here to get you out of here."
"HRS. We're a private company. I work in rescue and recovery. Specifically, people."
His accusatory stare told her he was anything but convinced. "And they sent you? No one else?"
She smoothed back her long hair, fighting her rising frustration. There was no time to explain the effort it had taken to plan a rescue that would both free the biologist and allow her to remain behind to help the other hostage, Claire.
"I'm good at what I do," Eva replied. She was, though this assignment had tested her in ways she'd never predicted. "And someone paid a lot of money to get you out of here. Let's move it."
He studied her hand as if the answers were to be found in her touch.
She remained still, as if coaxing a wild animal.
"They will catch me," he whispered, shifting his gaze to the wall. "They will catch me and beat me."
It was possible. Of course, if they were captured, she'd get more than a beating. She'd seen what they did to betrayers, and it always ended in blood and screams. Fear rose in her throat. She swallowed it back.
This isn't about you, Quinn's voice whispered in her head.
Shut up, she whispered back.
But he was right. This was about the client. She needed to do whatever it took to convince Felix that she was here to help. Ignoring the urge to simply drag the man to his feet and force him to follow, she searched her memory for anything that might help her persuade him to run.
What would make her run? What would make her believe in someone she saw as the enemy? Or rather, who?
She frowned, hating that he still occupied a part of her brain, but it did remind her of one thing — loved ones gave people strength.
Estranged from her father before the kidnapping, Pauline Bennett had become his biggest advocate since he was taken, pushing his company, a medical research conglomerate, to hire HRS for a retrieval.
Eva leaned in toward Felix. The stink of his skin and hair filled her nose. "Pauline misses you."
He froze. His gaze slid to hers, and he swallowed hard. "Pauline?"
She nodded. "I know you had words. I know you fought, but she misses you. She misses her father and wants you back home."
His eyes welled with tears. "I want to go home. To my Pauline."
"Then let me take you to her."
Still, he hesitated.
"Trust me, and I promise you. ..." Her fingers tightened, clutching him. "I promise that I will reunite you with your daughter."
He slid his hand into hers. She pulled him to his feet, feeling the strength in his grip and seeing the conviction as he morphed from defeated kidnapping victim to the scientist who was top in his field and in line to win a Nobel.
He'd need all of that and more if they were to reach the top of the hill — his extraction point — in time.
She opened the door and stopped short. Rafael waited on the other side, his expression grim.
For a split second, she wondered how much he'd heard, and as if in reply, he raised the barrel of his AK47.
Adrenaline flooded her veins, and she knew what had to be done.
He motioned for her to drop her weapon.
She widened her eyes in her best "please-don't-hurt-me-because-I'm-a- girl" expression and nodded, training kicking in even as her heart hammered inside her chest.
She released Felix and started to raise her hands, letting them shake. The tips of her fingers grazed the sides of her shirt, along the swell of her breasts, and she hesitated, the shiver of flesh against the tight cotton drawing the guard's gaze. It was barely a flicker of a glance, but a flicker was all she needed.
She grabbed the barrel of his weapon and shoved the butt-end into his face. Before he could cry out, she grabbed his arm and dragged him into the hut. Blood poured from his nose.
Rafael lunged for her, and in the moment he pulled his fist back for a heavy blow, Eva hit him again. This time the heel of her hand connected with his nose, driving the cartilage up into his brain.
* * *
"We'll never make the hill," Eva muttered. They'd been hiking upward and out of the valley for almost all of their two-hour window. Moonlight broke through the canopy, illuminating the path through the jungle. Despite the relative ease of the trek, the scientist began to slow.
Cupping her hand over her watch, she pressed the side button for illumination.
"Damn." In fifteen minutes, the helicopter would arrive to pick Felix up, and if he wasn't waiting, it would leave him behind. "Hurry."
He stumbled and fell.
She bit back the sudden, impatient words that came to mind. Instead, she helped him to his feet. "Tell me about Pauline," she coaxed, hoping the thought of their reunion would give the weakening man added strength and motivation.
His strained gasps were the only reply. She bit her lip. It seemed that dreams of the future were no longer enough. He needed something more concrete than words.
Reaching into the side pocket of her black cargo pants, she extracted a caramel. Sticky from the heat, it was mushy and unappealing, but the sugar would provide a shot of energy. Unwinding the foil wrapper, she pressed it into his hand. "Take this."
Felix popped the sweet into his mouth. Seconds later, he chuckled. "What is it?" she asked.
"I never liked sweets before I was taken," he said.
"The best meal I have had in months."
She didn't doubt it. FARC kept their victims underfed for a reason — weak people didn't escape, and if they did, they didn't make it far.
Behind them, voices floated on the night air, and she froze. There wasn't anyone for miles in this section of the Colombian jungle — besides FARC.
Damn. They must have found the body. Which meant they knew the scientist was missing and that he had help, since there was no way he could have overpowered the guard. But did they know it was her? If not, then her cover might be salvageable.
She took Felix's hand. "We have to move faster."
He wound his fingers through hers in mute reply.
Together, they broke into a trot, her rifle bouncing against her back with the rhythm of her steps.
"How much farther?" he asked, his weight combining with the moist heat of the jungle, threatening to drag her to the ground.
"Not sure," she replied. It couldn't be much farther. If it were, they were screwed. They rounded a bend, and the canopy opened up, the jungle-floor plants petering out before them to reveal a rocky ridge outlined against the starry Colombian sky.
"There." She pointed toward the top of the hill fifty yards in front of them. "That's where we're headed."
Behind them, the voices grew clearer, more distinct. Two. Maybe three men.
The extraction point was close. The voices were closer.
It was either leave the trail or be caught as soon as the soldiers rounded the bend. She slowed.
What to do? Salvage her cover and pretend to have captured Felix? Or get him to the pick-up and blow two months of undercover work?
She glanced at the old man and knew there was only one answer. "We have to hide," she said, her voice low as she pressed the spiked leaves of a bird-of-paradise plant aside, making sure not to break them as she and Felix slipped into the dense undergrowth. They squatted down.
She inhaled, and the rich scent of decaying vegetation combined with sweetness of a night-blooming cereus flower filled her nose.
"How will the helicopter find us?" Felix whispered.
"Don't worry. As soon as the soldiers go past, we'll get back on the path," she replied. It was a crappy plan with the soldiers so close, but unless she wanted to take Felix back to his prison, she was out of options.
She wondered who the pursuers were and prayed that none of them had tracker experience.
She lightly tapped her rifle. A metal talisman. She promised herself that if it came to it, she'd do what was needed. She might know her pursuers or have even befriended them as was her duty when working undercover, but there was no room for mercy. Not when it came to the success of the mission.
Another Quinn Blackwood lesson and one she took to heart.
The voices were almost on top of them now, and a sweat that had nothing to do with the heat and her light jacket trickled down her skin.
A moment later, three soldiers trotted past them. Two swept the thick foliage with their flashlights as they moved. The third kept his beam pointed ahead on the path. She recognized him as the light flashed across his face.
Diego. Her stomach rolled. A street kid, he'd joined FARC as a substitute for the family he'd lost as a child. Raised on the streets of Colombia herself, she'd bonded with the teenager. She understood his desire for safety, for wanting to belong to something bigger than himself, and his need to escape his past. After all, those were the exact reasons she'd joined HRS.
She prayed she wouldn't have to kill him.
The soldiers moved out of sight down the path. She counted to sixty to give them time to pass, then helped Felix to his feet.
Once again, she glanced at her watch. Seven minutes.
"What if they come?" he whispered, nodding in the direction in which the soldiers had gone.
She put a finger to her lips, not wanting to take a chance they might be heard, and signaled Felix to remain in place while she went ahead. Keeping low, she followed the trail, but there was no sign of the soldiers. It seemed the few minutes of hiding had been worth it. She hurried back to him. "Time to send you home," she whispered.
Taking lead, she continued to watch for the three men as adrenaline pumped through her, keeping her sharper than any manmade drug could.
Ten feet from the top of the hill, the remaining bushes and vines faded into rock, and the trail petered away into thigh-high rasp grass. Ahead of her, moonlight illuminated a single, dead tree protruding from the surrounding stones. Ground zero.
Excerpted from Risking It All For Her Boss by Sharron McClellan, Tracy Montoya. Copyright © 2014 Sharron McClellan. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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