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Tampa, Florida August 21, 7:20 a.m.
He had her dead to rights.
Maybe dead, in fact, too, Shannon Brandt realized as a deep voice warned, "Don't move," and something hard jammed into her back. The barrel of a handgun? All from a passerby she'd barely noticed as she hurried to the corner breakfast joint where the rest of her team was already positioned, ready to make the grab. The tall white male, face mostly hidden by the brim of a goofy tourist ball cap, had been looking down, apparently engrossed in a brochure for the kitschy mermaid park nearby. He'd seemed harmlessly distracted, with a diaper bag tucked guy-style, like a football, beneath one arm. Waiting for his wife, she thought, and paying no heed to anyone else.
Or so it had seemed until the moment she'd passed and he was out of sight.
Her stomach plummeted when he ground out, "Into the car. Now. We'll have our little talk there, Special Agent."
Giving her a slight push, he propelled her not toward the nondescript stolen vehicle she might have expected but to a cherry-red Cadillac the size of the Queen Mary. The gas-sucking seventies engine rumbled, and she saw a sweaty-looking pale man with dark, reflective glasses slouched low behind the wheel.
Though shaded by a floppy beach hat, the driver's weak chin gave him away as one Garrett Smith, she realized, her heart constricting with the knowledge that that meant the man behind her, the fake dad with the weapon, was well prepared to use itthat he was the very fugitive she'd been so certain she had fooled into walking into their trap.
She blanched, wondering how long it had taken him to figure out she was FBI. And whether he meant to retaliate for her online masquerade and efforts to entrap him.
She sucked in a lungful of humid air, thinking of the slim-frame Glock in her inside waistband holster. But thinking, too, of the half-dozen civilians gathered at the nearby bus stop, the men and women on the sidewalk with their greasy sacks of sugary doughnuts and newspapers, or their lunches packed for a new workday.
For a split second her mind lost its purchase, allowing the memory of another nightmare to crash its way through to reality. The concussive blast, exactly where she'd ordered the tactical team to place its charges. The hot crimson slick spreading from beneath the collapsed wall.
The cigar store hostages in Iowa, whose lives she had been charged with saving. The hostages whose lives she'd blown away just two months ago
The faint drawl of a West Texas accent yanked her ruthlessly back to the present.
"Make a move for that gun and this goes real bad in a hurry, Special Agent. I promise you, we're only talking. I swear it as an officer of the U.S. Army Rangers."
"An AWOL officer," she corrected, "on a mission your superiors never authorized and"
"Let's go catch up with your mother, honey," Captain Rafe Lyons interrupted, his deep voice turning cheerful. "The little guy probably needs changing by now."
Adrenaline detonating in hot waves all through her, she couldn't wrap her brain around the shock of this game changer. Around the fact that rather than playing a crucial role in capturing the commando, she was the one being taken to his waiting car instead. Taken captive, possiblyor maybe to be killed before her thirtieth birthday, regardless of what he had just promised.
She could already hear the voices, the old guard bureau veterans at her funeral scoffing, If that girl was half the agent her old man was, she'd have fought her way free and dragged Lyons back in handcuffs. Could picture her older brother, Steve, a special agent working out of Oklahoma, wondering aloud why she couldn't quit competing with him and find herself a nice safe job teaching preschool.
Like hell, Steve. Fury ramping past her fear, Shannon pivoted, one hand reaching for her waistband, while the other rose to shove aside her assailant's weapon and allow her enough space to go on the attack.
But though she'd practiced such defense tactics in scores of training sessions, Lyons was no ordinary sparring partner. Dropping his arm beneath her grasp, he closed in and brought his handthe hand holding what she took to be a pistolup against her neck. Before she could cry "Rape!" or free her own gun, she felt herself tumbling, glittering blue bursts crackling through her brain and muscles. Independent of her will, her head and limbs flailed wildly with the voltage surging through her.
Not a guna stun gun, her mind registered as her body crumpled, her forehead smacking the sidewalk and heat streaking past her eyes. As the jolt ended, she heard the Ranger, with his maddening Texas accent, telling the gathering bystanders, "Stand clear. Police business." She could picture him flashing a wallet with a badge and an official-looking ID.
Though there were a few murmurs, the onlookers scurried away, eager to look elsewhere as he deftly removed her Glock.
A minute later, as Lyons flipped the front seat forward and shoved her into the white leather backseat cavern, Shannon struggled to fight, but her abused muscles would only twitch uselessly in response. He climbed in beside her, and his big hands frisked her briskly and efficiently, plucking the cell phone from the pocket of her khaki skirt and dropping that lifeline with its built-in GPSbeside the curb.
He reached to close the door and urged the driver, "Let's go."
The man Shannon had ID'd as Lyons's brother-in-law pulled out into traffic. Sped up to take her somewhere that her team, only a block distant, couldn't follow.
She fought to sit up, but her body was having none of it. She struggled to protest, but her words spilled out in an incoherent jumble. Instead, she coughed, choking on the acrid taste of her own terror. Or maybe there was blood, too. Judging from the pain, she'd bitten her tongue, and something was dripping down her forehead, which felt as if she'd cracked it open like an egg.
"Don't try to talk." Bent over her, Lyons briefly came into focus, with his chiseled features, short hair black and shiny as a panther's, and intense green eyes set in a worried face.
He started to cuff Shannon's hands behind her, then appeared to change his mind, binding them in front instead and pressing a towel he pulled out of the diaper bag into them. "Hold this against your forehead." As he spoke, he winced, regret flashing across his handsome features.
She reached up, wiping at the bloody mess and struggling to reorder her scrambled thoughts. When she touched the rising lump with the towel, she groaned and struggled not to be sick, pain slicing like a cleaver through her skull.
"Wish that hadn't had to happen," he said, perspiration rolling down the side of his face. "It shouldn't have been necessary. I told you, I just wanted to talk."
"W-would you have bought that and
and gone quietly?" The words sounded thick and clumsy in her ringing ears.
"Well, no," he allowed. "But that's me, andanyway, I'm not the one sitting here bleeding."
"And I'm not the one heading to Leavenworth for assaulting and abducting a federal officer," she told the man she had already pegged as just another macho cowboy. Having been raised, alongside her chauvinistic brother, in Wyoming by a testosterone-breathing uncle, she was well-acquainted with the breedand couldn't wait to slap cuffs on this Texas-born example.
As the vintage Cadillac picked up speed and cornered sharply, Shannon would have fallen to the floorboards if Lyons's strong hands hadn't grabbed her.
"Damn it. Careful, Garrett," he barked. "We don't need to draw any more attention."
"You're calling me by name?" the driver complained, sounding as nervous as he had every right to be.
Lyons laughed. "You're kidding, right? The agent here knows exactly who we are. As much as she knows anything, in the shape she's in right now."
"You promised me nobody'd get hurt. Nobody but those murderers
" Grief choked Garrett's voice to a whimper. "God. Lissa
With the heel of his hand, Rafe popped the corner of the driver's seat. "Don't say her name. All right? Not now. Not until we find them. Then we can ram it down their throats."
Lissa Lyons Smith, they meant. Garrett's wife of two years and Rafe Lyons's little sister. The sister he had raised after their parents' deaths in a head-on collision, when Lissa had been fourteen to her brother's twenty-two.
The same sister who had been brutally murdered almost exactly ten years later. Only three weeks ago in Abilene, she'd been found, her eight-months-pregnant body an empty husk. The medical examiner had determined she'd already been dead, or at least deeply unconscious, from the shattering blow to her skull before the killers started cutting.
Shannon prayed that part was true. But whether or not it was, the young woman's death and her child's disappearance had been more than enough to bring the Ranger captain known by his men as "the Lion" back early from his combat mission in Afghanistan.
It had been more than enough, too, to send the decorated Rangerby all accounts, a heroAWOL following the funeral. Out of reach and out of control as he pursued a missiona personal vendettaof his own.
One he had begun by punching out the lead Amarillo detective in frustration before returning to his home base in Georgia, closing out his bank accounts and emptying his gun case.
"You don'tyou don't need to do this. We want
We're working to find them, too," Shannon explained, though waves of pain like black tar were rolling across her vision. Whatever you do, she told herself, you can't pass out.
Would they dump her somewhere if she did? Maybe even kill her? Or did Lyons mean to kill her anyway, as a warning to back off, directed at the team assembled to rein in one maverick the government deemed too valuableor too dangerousto allow to run amok?
"Those animals are strictly secondary targets." Ly-ons's anger only intensified the pounding inside her head. "I'm working to find her."
?" Who did he mean?
On that fateful evening, neighborhood witnesses had spotted a white plumbing van leaving the Smiths' homea vehicle found abandoned only hours later, not far from where a Ford SUV had been taken from the garage of a vacationing neighbor. When the theft was finally reported three days later, the vehicle's anti-theft tracking system located it abandoned in Northern Floridaless than a mile off of I-10, the main east-west corridor that ran across the Southern U.S.
There were a host of theories, each more horrifying than the last, regarding the crime itself, but state and federal investigators alike agreed on one fact. The two assailants had been male, with both sporting facial hair and a compact, muscular build.
It seemed likely the men were working for someone else, a monster who had set all this in motion. Could a creature cruel enough to order an unborn infant sliced from the womb of an expectant mother possibly be a woman?
The light in Rafe's green eyes went almost feral. "My niece. I only want my niece back."
"Of course." She cursed her spinning head and the confusion that came with it. "Then you've found evidence the baby survived?"
"We were going to have a girl." Smith's voice broke as he interrupted. "A little girl, and we were going to name her Amber Lee."
"But do you know the baby lived?" Gritting her teeth against the pain, Shannon focused on the question, on keeping her eyes open.
"We don't have hard proof," Smith admitted. "But we think. She has to"
"She's alive," Rafe promised, his voice a rumble of barely suppressed emotion. "She's alive, and I'll kill anyone who stands between me and getting that little girl back to her family."
Dabbing once more at the dripping blood, Shannon pushed herself into a sitting position, then stared up at him and challenged, "Does that include a federal agent, Lyons? Because I mean to stop you. I plan to bring you in. Today."
Rafe stared, dumbfounded, into the brunette's ice-blue eyes. Eyes that stood out starkly from a face that he thought might be attractive despite the blood dripping from the rising purple lump below her hairline.
She was serious, he realized, recognizing the same raw determination that marked the soldiers of his unit. The men who earned the Ranger tab, who earned respect through leadership and combat.
She might have frozen on that crowded street, hesitated for the single instant it took him to predict what she would do. But he knew damned well she would have shot any man who was a fraction of a second sloweror any less desperate than he was to find his niece.
Yet it was neither the coldness of her gaze nor the memory of her training that reminded him to tread carefully around her. It was the starkness of her statement, a statement another man might have laughed off but he instead took as a warning.
She would not go quietly. Would not concede defeat even as she slumped back against the plush white leather, her blue eyes fluttering closed.
As Garrett slowed for a red light, a jacked-up black pickup pulled beside them, its bass thumping out a salsa rhythm. Ignoring it, Lyons pushed the towel she'd dropped into her hands, and in that single moment she erupted into action.
She drew back her legs, then screamed and kicked at the driver's-side window, clearly hoping to draw attention, maybe even smash the glass. Still too weak to be effectual, she did no better than a couple of hard thumps.
In less time than it took for Garrett to let out a startled oath, Rafe hauled her around and pushed the fist-size black stun gun against the curve of her waist.
When she went still, he laid on the Texas drawl. "You don't want another friendly zap, now do you? Come on, sugar. Calm down."
Pressing her back against the door, she glared up at him, her look pure poison. But the effort must have cost her, for the face behind the bloody mask paled, and her eyelids fluttered even harder.
Blinking hard, she grimaced and then slurred, "I'm not your 'sugar,' cowboy."
"And I'm not your 'cowboy,' Special Agent," Rafe said with a shake of his head. As the car once more began moving, he said quietly, "But I'd like to be
Well, I sincerely hope to be your partner for a while."
First confusion and then mutiny flashed across her face. Her lips movedhe thought he might have read Hell, nobut no sound followed.
And wouldn't, as her last measure of determination winked out and those striking blue eyes rolled back into her head.