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Jenna Dougherty woke to darkness, the pulsing agony in her head drowning out sound, wiping away thoughts and memories. For a moment she knew nothing but darkness, nothing but pain, and then she knew it all.
Three men breaking down the door to the hotel room, dragging Magdalena Romero away. Jenna following, screaming for help as she tried to save her friend. Both of them being shoved into a van and driven for hours before being dumped into a basement room.
Had they been there days or hours before the men had returned? Jenna wasn't sure, she only knew that she and Magdalena had fought for freedom.
Fought and lost.
For Jenna, there had been a moment of agony, and then nothing.
Jenna tried to move her arms and legs, tried to call out, but the bonds were too tight, the rag over her mouth oily and old. She gagged, her heart racing with terror, her fingers scratching against dirt-covered cement as she tried to gain leverage and mobility. She twisted onto her side, trying to shimmy closer to the area where she'd last seen Magdalena. Was she still there? Or had she been taken?
Please, God, let her still be here.
A sound drifted through the darkness. Fabric rustling as someone moved. Soft footfalls on cement.
Jenna tensed, her eyes straining in the darkness. She saw nothing, not even a hint of light or movement, but the blackness seemed to pulse with energy. Someone was there. She felt what she could not see, and she braced for the attack she knew was coming.
A humid breeze tickled her cheeks, carrying a hint of rain and the dusty, thick scent of sun-baked earth. Was a door open? A window?
She needed to get her numb hands moving, try to undo the heavy rope that bound her. Only then would she have a chance at survival. She shifted, hoping to ease the pressure on her arms, get some blood flowing to her fingers. She could do this. She would.
The sound came again. Closer. Maybe only feet away, then right beside her. The air alive with it. Someone touched her neckwarm, dry fingers probing the pulse point thereand Jenna jerked back.
Or tried to.
Her movements were sluggish, the retreat nothing more than a subtle recoiling of muscle.
"It's okay. I'm here to help." The voice was as deep and velvety as the darkness, but Jenna didn't believe the lie. She wanted to kick and punch and claw her way to freedom, but her body would not respond, and she could do nothing but lie still as hands slid down her arms, felt the rope around her wrists.
"I'm going to use a knife to cut you free, Jenna. Hold still. Your brother will have my hide if I hurt you."
Kane? Had their folks called him when she hadn't made her Monday evening phone call?
She tried to ask, but the gag kept her from speaking, and she choked on the oily cloth.
A hand smoothed her hair, the cold blade of a knife pressing close to her head for just a second before the gag fell away.
"I" she started, but her mouth was dry, her throat tight, and she could do nothing but suck in great gulps of humid air until she thought she would drown in it.
"Shhhhh. Whatever needs to be said can be said when we're out of here." He spoke quietly, his hand gentle on her cheek. There and gone as he bent over her wrists, sliced through the ropes. Her ankles were next, and then she was free but not free, her body still numb from hours spent tied up.
"Can you stand?"
"Yes." If it meant escaping, she could do anything. She pushed against the floor, struggled to her knees.
His arm wrapped around her waist, and he pulled her upright. "Come on. We may be on borrowed time."
"I can't leave my friend," Jenna rasped out. "Magdalena?"
"There's no one here. Just us."
"She was here. She has to still be here." Jenna took a step away, her legs trembling, sharp pain shooting up from her feet as the blood began flowing there again.
"There's no one here. Let's go before that changes."
"It's dark. Maybe if we find a light "
"What did you say?" He put a hand on her shoulder, holding her still.
"We need to turn on the light."
Fabric rustled and hands cupped her cheeks.
"What can you see, Jenna?"
She wanted to shove his hands away, tell him that they had more to worry about than what she could or couldn't see, but something in his tone held her motionless. "Nothing."
"No shadows? No light?"
"It's broad daylight. There's light spilling in from the window I climbed in through. You can't see it?"
She went cold at his words, everything within her stilling.
And then she reached up, touched her eyes, not sure what she expected to feel. What she hoped to feel. Maybe a blindfold. Something that would be blocking the light. But there was nothing.
"I can't see anything."
"You've got a deep bruise on your forehead. Maybe that has something to do with it." His fingers traced a line from the bridge of her nose to her hairline, probing the tender flesh there.
"It doesn't matter how it happened. I'm blind!" She could feel herself panicking, feel the breath catching in her throat, her mind spinning away.
"Hey, it's okay. Take a deep breath. Let it out slowly." He laid his palm against her cheek again, let it rest there as she tried to catch her breath.
"No. It's not."
"Yeah. It is. You're alive, and you're going to stay that way. We'll worry about the rest after we're out of here."
He was right.
She needed to calm down, get a handle on her emotions the same way she had the day she'd been told she had cancer and had less than a year to live. She'd fought that diagnosis, and she'd won. This was simply another battle, another challenge.
"Okay. I'm okay," she managed to say, even though she wasn't sure it was true.
"I knew you were. Now, let's get out of here and get you to a hospital." There was a hint of an accent to his voice, but Jenna couldn't place it.
"We have to find Magdalena first." She pulled away, turning around in a circle, the darkness suddenly deeper, more oppressive. She was blind, and that was something she couldn't think about. Not if she was going to help her friend and herself.
"I told you, she's not here."
"Then they took her. We have to figure out where they brought her." She took a step, her arms out in front of her as she tried to navigate her way through the blackness.
"How? Who would we ask? The men who beat you? We don't know what happened to your friend. Maybe she's alive. Maybe she's not. What we know is that you are alive, and if you're going to stay that way, we've got to get out of here."
Maybe she's alive.
Maybe she's not.
The words slammed into Jenna's already pounding head. She and Magdalena had met in college and become good friends. Jenna had been Magdalena's maid of honor when she'd gotten married and had been on hand for the birth of her son three years ago. When Jenna was diagnosed with leukemia, Magdalena had left her busy Houston medical practice and flown to New York to be by her side.
They weren't just friends; they were sisters.
And there was no way Jenna was going to leave Mexico without her.
She yanked away from her rescuer's hold and ran, arms stretched out, feeling through the darkness. Her feet tangled in something, and she tripped, momentum carrying her forward too quickly for her sluggish body to compensate. She went down hard, her hands and knees sliding across concrete, pain stabbing up her arms.
Hot tears slid down her cheeks and she didn't have the strength to wipe them away. Didn't have the strength to get up and run again.
She caught a whiff of leather and mint, felt a warm palm brush the moisture from her cheeks, the touch so tender and light, so filled with compassion that more tears burned behind her eyes.
"You're in no condition to hunt for your friend. Do you see that now?" His voice rumbled through the darkness, steely and hard, much different from the gentleness of his touch.
Jenna stiffened, struggled to her feet, wishing she had the strength to prove him wrong. "You've made your point."
"I don't have a point. I have a goal, and that's to get you back home alive."
"What about Magdalena? She's got a little boy." All Jenna had was a black cat named Dante who came and went as he pleased.
"Then leave me here and go find her. I'll be safe enough until"
"Shh. Someone is upstairs." He pressed a finger to her lips, and she froze, listening as a floorboard creaked above her head.
"We need to get out of here. Come on." He swooped her up, carrying her across the room and setting her down again almost before she realized what he was doing.
"There's a window high up on the wall. I'll climb out, make sure the area is secure and then pull you through. Okay? " He whispered against her ear, his breath ruffling her hair.
There was a whisper of noise, and she knew she was alone again.
A minute ticked by. Then another.
Or maybe just seconds had passed, the darkness and ominous silence stretching each second into minutes, each minute into hours.
Floorboards creaked again, the sound reverberating through the tomblike basement.
Would the door fly open?
Would men pound down the stairs and haul Jenna away, just as they had Magdalena?
She reached forward and touched cement blocks, ran her palms up the rough surface, unwilling to wait another second for her rescuer to pull her through the window. Splintered wood dug into the palm of her hand, but she didn't pull back.
The windowframe. It had to be.
It was high. Maybe two feet above her head, but not so high that she couldn't manage to pull herself up and out. She felt along the wood with both hands, running her palms to the edge of the frame and as high as she could on either side. It was large enough to escape through, and she boosted herself up, ignoring the pain as slivers of wood pierced her skin.
If there was broken glass, she didn't feel it as she maneuvered her shoulders through the opening, felt hot sun bathe her face and realized her mistake. Was she at ground level? Or higher? Was anyone watching her escape? Was her rescuer standing nearby, or had he run?
She didn't know, but she was fully committed to her escape, and she wasn't going to back down now. She reached forward, trying to feel the ground, and shrieked as someone grabbed her hand.
"Shh. Do you want whoever's hanging out in that house to come after us?" her rescuer hissed.
"You could have warned me you were there."
"I was trying to maintain silence for the safety of both of us." He grabbed her other hand, tugged gently. "The ground is two inches below you. Come on. Let's get moving."
He gave another tug and Jenna maneuvered the rest of the way out the window. Humid air enveloped her, filling her nose with the scent of sun-baked earth and rotting garbage. Somewhere in the distance, people were talking or arguing, their rapid-fire Spanish beyond what Jenna was able to understand. Aside from that, the day was silent. No hum of traffic. No roar of buses. Nothing like the bustling Mexican border town where Jenna and Magdalena had been working with Team Hope.
"Where are we?" she whispered, as her rescuer urged her forward.
"Santo Trista. It's twenty miles from the border. Now, how about we stay quiet until we're in my car and out of here? I don't like the feel of things."
Neither did Jenna.
As a matter of fact, every hair on the back of her neck was standing on end.
Somewhere behind them, a voice called out, the Spanish words faint and unintelligible.
Her rescuer tensed, his hand tightening on Jenna's. She could feel him shifting position. Was he looking for the source, searching for some sign of what was to come?
A loud crack split the silence, and Jenna screamed, the sound cut off as she was lifted, thrown over a shoulder. Her head bounced against warm leather, the jarring motion only adding to the throbbing agony in her head.
They were moving fast, and she could hear her rescuer's steady, deep breaths as he covered ground. He was in shape, she'd give him that, but Jenna doubted that was going to be enough to save them. Another sharp crack, and something whizzed by so close that Jenna felt it slice through the air.
She wanted to scream. Would have screamed, but her throat was too tight with fear.
Please, God, please.
The prayer was only half-formed when her rescuer skidded to a stop, shifted her weight. "In. Quick."
He slid her down in front of him, and she reached out blindly, her hands sliding against warm leather seats as her rescuer urged her to move.
And she did. Crawling onto the leather seat, barely managing to move aside as he climbed in after her. The engine roared to life, and the vehicle jerked forward, picking up speed at an alarming rate.
"Get down!" He shouted the order as he pressed a hand against her back, forcing her to lean forward, her head slamming into something as she went. Pain wiped away all thought, and for a moment she floated in darkness, hearing nothing, feeling nothing. Glass shattered, dragging her from the edge of unconsciousness, pulling her back into reality.
She tried to sit up but was pressed back down as the car continued to accelerate, the tires spinning as her rescuer took another sharp turn. Jenna flew sideways, banging into the door and bouncing back again. She gripped the seat, her fingers digging into soft leather.
Had she escaped the basement so that she could die in a fiery crash?
Please, God, get me out of this alive.
The prayer filled her mind as the car took another sharp turn. She lost her grip on the seat, flew into the door again, her shoulder hitting first, her head following. Pain exploded through her and she felt a brief moment of panic, and then she felt nothing at all.
Nikolai Jansen had survived enemy fire in Afghanistan and a roadside bomb in Iraq. He didn't plan to die twenty miles from the U.S. border during what should have been an easy assignment.
He took a sharp left, smiling grimly as the squeal of tires and the sound of shattering glass filled the car. The old truck that had been following hadn't been able to make the turn.