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The crowd was growing disruptive. Angry shouts boomed in the afternoon air as hundreds of protesters raised their fists and chanted their outrage, standing united outside the parliament building. The mob's hostility was palpable, the first stirrings of violence coming as no surprise to Nick Prescott, who watched the scene without comment.
Standing under the pillared entrance of the coffee shop across the street, he examined the throng of people and swallowed a frustrated groan. Just his luck. After nearly two weeks of coming up empty, he finally got a real lead to investigate, only to find himself in the middle of a protest involving an election that didn't even concern him.
No way would his informant show up for their meeting today. Salazar was a member of the private guard that protected Cortega's president and government officials, and judging by the chaos in the streets, the countless news vans and story-hungry journalists, the man probably wouldn't be able to find time for a clandestine meeting.
Sure enough, Nick's cell phone buzzed less than ten minutes later, indicating a text message from Salazar.
With a muttered curse, he read the message, then dialed a number. When Captain Robert Tate picked up the phone, Nick got right to the point.
"Salazar bailed, but he said he'll try to meet with me tomorrow. Let's hope the protesters realize how futile this cause is and will have dispersed by then."
Not that he blamed the irate people. They'd gone to those polls in good faith, their votes bringing a new liberal party into power, and rather than be rewarded with a more democratic way of life, they were now being told the votes had been miscounted. Surprise! The real winner of the election was the oppressive regime they'd endured for the past five years! Anyone with half a brain could see through that line of bull, and Nick wholeheartedly supported the citizens' decision to make their unhappiness known.
He just wished their big stand hadn't fallen on the same day he'd hoped to get some answers.
After nearly a year of hiding out on foreign soil, Nick was pretty damn exhausted. He was tired of lying low, tired of discreetly digging around to figure out who wanted him dead instead of plowing full speed ahead and demanding answers, consequences be damned. But although he was no longer an active-duty soldier in the United States Armed Forces, he still followed the orders of his former commanding officer, who maintained that this entire mess needed to be handled delicately.
"So what's on your agenda, then?" Tate asked in that gruff voice of his.
"I'll hit the streets and see if I can track down the forger myself, but without a name it'll be tough. This city is crawling with shady characters, most of who dabble in fake IDs."
"Which is probably why Waverly made a pit stop there."
"Or this could all be an elaborate trap," Nick replied, a hint of aggravation in his voice. "Maybe Waverly never showed his face in Cortega at all. Maybe someone tricked us to think his credit card was used to charter that plane."
"To lure us out."
He gave a grim nod even though Tate couldn't see it. "To lure us out," he confirmed.
There was a beat. "You've been in Mala for two days. Did you get a sense that you were being followed? Have you heard about anyone asking questions about us?"
"No," he admitted. "And I've been keeping my eyes and ears open."
"So either your instincts have failed you, or the bastards who want us dead have no idea you're in Cortega."
Intuition was a soldier's greatest asset, and Nick held his in high esteem. Not only was his gut telling him he was in the clear, but he also hadn't seen or heard anything to indicate that his presence had been detected or expected. Which meant that Paul Waverly, the man they were hunting, had most likely been here.
And once he figured out what name Waverly was now going by, finding the little bastard would be much, much easier.
"All right, well, I'll keep looking," he told Tate. "Any news from Sebastian's friend at the Department of Defense?"
"None. Davidson has been trying to track Waverly down, but to no avail."
A wave of deafening cheers swept through the mob, drawing Nick's attention to the black wrought-iron fence separating the capitol from the street. Several protesters were attempting to scale the bars, egged on by the enraged crowd below them.
A second cacophony rocked the air—loud shouts and booing as law enforcement officers on the scene began setting up barricades in an attempt to steer the people out of the road to let the line of honking cars through. Several uniformed officers wielding batons swarmed the fence with sharp orders for the climbers to descend.
He suppressed a sigh and tried to focus on the deep voice grumbling in his ear.
"What the hell is going on there, Prescott?"
"The people are pissed," he replied flatly. "They got screwed over by their government again."
"Yeah, I feel their pain," Tate muttered.
Nick clenched his teeth. He wanted so badly to contradict the captain, but he couldn't, not when the evidence of his own government's betrayal kept piling up.
Once upon a time he'd believed in honor. He'd believed that the government didn't harm or oppress, but that it protected its citizens and kept the country safe from outside threats. Damn naive of him maybe, but he'd been raised to respect and find value in the system. Sure, there would always be a few bad apples, but that didn't mean the entire tree was poisoned. If his father had taught him one thing, it was that society couldn't function without the support of a strong government, and he'd always had faith that his government truly cared for each and every citizen.
Clearly that wasn't the case, seeing as how his entire unit had been sacrificed—all so a mysterious high-ranking official could conduct biological weapons testing on innocent people.
Nick had been horrified when that gruesome truth had come to light. He'd known something had been off about his unit's last mission, and those internal alarms had only grown louder and more urgent after his teammates started dropping like flies. Mugging, cancer, DUI—Nick hadn't bought the line of crap Commander Hahn had tried to sell him. All those men had been murdered, and once Nick had a close call of his own, he'd realized he couldn't afford to stay in D.C., not if he valued his own life.
Joining forces with Tate and Sebastian Stone, another member of their unit, had seemed like his best course of action. The three men had decided to band together to find out who wanted them dead, and after ten months of digging, they were finally getting somewhere.
And Nick, once an advocate for the importance and integrity of the government, had officially become disillusioned.
"Anyway," Tate was saying, "Davidson also assured Seb that the antidote to the Meridian virus is being developed by the CDC. If the virus somehow does get released again, they've got measures in place to get the treatment out as quickly and efficiently as possible."
Nick felt a spark of relief. Although he hadn't seen the effects of the disease firsthand, more than a thousand people had succumbed to the Meridian virus ten days ago after a terrorist group released it in a small town in New York. The terrorist cell had been neutralized, but not before Sebastian nearly lost the woman he loved to the virus. Fortunately, Julia had been administered the vaccine just in time, and the sassy doctor was now in Ecuador with the others, helping them figure out who'd authorized the creation of the virus in the first place.
Their best hope of learning the truth lay with Paul Waverly. After attempting to infect Sebastian with the virus, the DoD aide had fled Washington and hadn't been heard from since, but the man's ties to the Pentagon confirmed that someone in the current administration had given the order to kill Sebastian.
That same someone had also allowed a biological weapon to be engineered, tested on a remote South American island and placed in the hands of terrorists.
"Check in after you meet with Salazar, okay?"
Tate's command snapped Nick back to the present. "Sure thing," he answered.
After the two men hung up, Nick edged away from the concrete pillar. His temples were beginning to throb, and the noise levels weren't helping. Car honks, shrieks from the crowd, the earsplitting police whistles.
"I can't see a darn thing!"
Somehow, the melodic female voice penetrated the din and succeeded in snagging Nick's attention.
He shifted his gaze in time to see a pretty redhead stalk down the sidewalk. She wore blue jeans, a black T-shirt and white sneakers, and although she was petite as hell, she looked like a force to be reckoned with, carrying herself with confidence and single-minded purpose. A tall, muscular cameraman with a shaved head trailed after her, an amused look in his eyes.
"Stand on the van," he suggested.
From their accents, and the fact that they were both speaking English, it was easy to deduce they were American. Nick searched the news vans in the distance, wondering which network these two worked for.
A few yards away, the reporter halted, spun around and propped her hands on her hips. "And I suppose I'll interview the protesters by shouting out questions while I'm standing on top of the gee-dee van?"
Nick furrowed his brows, trying to decipher that.
"Or," the cameraman countered, "maybe you don't do any interviews." When she balked, the man's expression grew serious. "I'm serious. I don't like the looks of these people, Becks. They're starting to get riled up."
No sooner had the words left his mouth than the sound of shattering glass filled the air and a fresh wave of cheers rolled through the mob.
Nick's heart dropped to the pit of his stomach when he glimpsed the source of the commotion. A dozen protesters had ambushed one of the cars attempting to drive through the clogged street. A man in ratty jeans and a sweat-stained tank top had driven a crowbar through the windshield and was now going to town on the hood. His cohorts were rocking the car and pounding their fists on the windows while the family inside the vehicle let out terrified screams.
This really was getting out of hand. Nick glanced at the police officers, who were trying to control the crowd, then at the armored van that had just arrived on the scene. Black-clad soldiers, the equivalent of an American SWAT team, poured out of the van, their shouts to cease and desist getting swallowed by the infuriated protesters.
"Crap," the cameraman blurted out. "The rubber bullets will be making an appearance soon. And those things hurt, damn it! Remember the riot in Johannesburg last year?"
The redheaded reporter laughed, and for some reason, that twinkle of sound made Nick's heart do a strange little flip.
"We made it out of there alive," she replied. "And we'll make it out of this alive, too."
And then, to Nick's surprise, the curvy little woman marched toward the commotion rather than away from it.
He tried to keep his gaze on her, but it was a difficult task, especially when she seemed determined to push her way into the swarm of screaming people. The crowd did not part for her like the Red Sea, it just swallowed her whole, and only that gorgeous red hair made it possible to see her. The afternoon sunlight caught in those long wavy tresses, making them shine like burnished copper. Because most of the protesters were of South American descent, boasting swarthy complexions and dark hair, the American reporter, with her bright hair and fair skin, stood out like white at a funeral.
Something suddenly clicked, making Nick suck in a breath. Damn, that wasn't just any reporter. That was Rebecca Parker, the star foreign correspondent for ABN, the American Broadcast News network. Known for her gutsy coverage of the world's most dangerous conflicts, Parker was a news heroine, hailed as the next Christiane Amanpour, and one of the main reasons Americans tuned in to ABN.
Especially men aged twenty-one to forty-nine.
Hell, make that any male, any demographic. With those gorgeous good looks, sharp green eyes and a perpetual smirk that was half mocking, half sensual, Rebecca Parker was appealing as hell.
"Down on the ground!" boomed a member of the tactical team. The order was spoken in Spanish and had been directed at the vandals surrounding the damaged car, none of whom followed instructions.
Nick watched the rising tensions with uneasiness, feeling the threat of impending violence building in the air. As usual, his instincts didn't lead him astray. When chaos broke out, he was expecting it, and yet it still managed to catch him off guard.
The mob turned savage, attacking the vehicles on the road, attacking the police officers and SWAT members, attacking each other. Bottles and food items and garbage sailed through the air, glass smashing on the pavement, police whistles blaring as the officers tried to subdue the suddenly ferocious crowd. The protest had turned into a full-blown riot, and Nick quickly ducked away from the coffee shop as a dozen enraged people stormed the cafe and proceeded to throw bottles at the plate-glass window.
He could barely hear his own thoughts because the noise was so loud. The situation had grown critical in the blink of an eye, and Nick's pulse sped up as he suddenly remembered that Rebecca Parker was splat in the middle of all that anarchy.
Squaring his shoulders, he took a decisive step forward. Although he made no move to grab the 9 millimeter tucked under the waistband of his cargo pants and hidden by his T-shirt, he was acutely aware of the weapon. Any hint of trouble, and he'd shoot his way out of this damn riot if need be.
He swept his gaze over the sea of people, searching for that telltale flash of red. Where the hell was she?
And what kind of woman willingly placed her neck on the line? Didn't she have any concern for—There. Relief coursed through him as he spotted her.
She was thirty feet away, being jostled and manhandled by the people around her as they attempted to charge the fence in front of the parliament building. The woman was pushing her way through the crowd, trying to make it to safety. Her cameraman was nowhere in sight, much to Nick's dismay.
He quickly threw himself into the fray. Within seconds he was surrounded by hundreds of people. The scent of sweat and body odor and fury filled his nostrils, the heat of all those bodies making his T-shirt cling to his chest. He kept his gaze locked on the redheaded reporter, focusing on his target like a heat-seeking missile.
The uneasy flicker in Rebecca Parker's green eyes was evident, but it wasn't the flash of panic he expected to see. The woman was holding her own, throwing elbows like a street fighter. For a moment, he even questioned the decision to come to her rescue, because she seemed to be doing just fine on her own.
Or at least she was until a beer bottle flew through the air and collided with the side of her head.
Nick's gut went rigid as he watched her stumble. A second later, the redhead went down like a light and her body crumpled to the pavement.
In perfect position to be trampled by the mob.
Posted May 8, 2013
## What a terrific conclusion to this trilogy by Elle Kennedy. Although book #1 (Tate's story) remains my favorite, this one was fantastic as well. The heroine was beautiful, sassy and so very smart which I love. And of course Nick was hot. Can't wait for another series from this talented author.
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