The Kelly Group International (KGI): a super elite, top secret, family-run business that handles jobs the US government can't. Qualifications: Military background, high intelligence, and a rock hard body...
It’s been one year since ex-Navy SEAL Ethan Kelly last saw his wife Rachel alive. Overwhelmed by grief and guilt over his failures as a husband, Ethan shuts himself off from everything and everyone.
His brothers have tried to bring Ethan into the KGI fold, tried to break through the barriers he's built around himself, but Ethan refuses to respond...until he receives an anonymous phone call claiming Rachel is alive.
To save her, Ethan will have to dodge bullets, cross a jungle, and risk falling captive to a deadly drug cartel that threatens his own demise. And even if he succeeds, he’ll have to force Rachel to recover memories she can’t and doesn’t want to relive—the minute by minute terror of her darkest hour—for their love, and their lives, may depend on it.
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About the Author
She lives in the South with her husband and three children and other assorted babies, such as her two Bengal kitties and a calico who’s been with her as long as her youngest child. She’s an avid reader of romance and loves to dish books with her fans and anyone else who’ll listen!
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Table of Contents
Praise for the novels of Maya Banks
BE WITH ME
“Three hot men and one lucky woman. I absolutely loved it! Simply wonderful writing. There’s a new star on the rise and her name is Maya Banks.”
—Sunny, national bestselling author of Lucinda, Darkly
“Searingly sexy and highly believable.”
“This story ran my heart through the wringer more than once.”
—CK2S Kwips and Kritiques
“From page one, I was drawn into the story and literally could not stop reading until the last page.”
—The Romance Studio
“Maya Banks’s story lines are always full of situations that captivate readers, but it’s the emotional pull you experience which brings the story to life.”
FOR HER PLEASURE
“[It] is the ultimate in pleasurable reading. Enticing, enchanting and sinfully sensual, I couldn’t have asked for a better anthology.”
“Full of emotional situations, lovable characters, and kick-butt story lines that will leave you desperate for more. I highly recommend For Her Pleasure for readers who like spicy romances with a suspenseful element—it’s definitely a must read!”
“Totally intoxicating, For Her Pleasure is one of those reads you won’t be forgetting any time soon.”
—The Road to Romance
Berkley titles by Maya Banks
FOR HER PLEASURE SWEET SURRENDER BE WITH ME SWEET PERSUASION SWEET SEDUCTION SWEET TEMPTATION
THE DARKEST HOUR
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
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Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
THE DARKEST HOUR
A Berkley Sensation Book / published by arrangement with the author
Berkley Sensation mass-market edition / September 2010
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
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BERKLEY® SENSATION Berkley Sensation Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,
To Stephanie Tyler, Jaci Burton, Karin Tabke, Sylvia Day and Lorelei James.
Good friends are the sweetest pleasures in life. Thank you for being mine.
HE’D hoped if he drank enough the night before he’d sleep right through today. Instead his eyes popped open at eight A.M., and sunlight promptly fried his retinas.
Ethan Kelly threw an arm over his face and lay there as the reality of the day hit him square in the gut.
He could say something incredibly corny like . . . June 16, the day his world irrevocably changed. June 16, the day everything went to hell. Truth was, it had done that long before.
The phone rang shrilly from the nightstand, and he quelled the urge to smash it. Instead he listened as each ring pierced his skull like an ice pick.
When it didn’t quit in a reasonable length of time, he reached over and yanked the cord from the wall. It could only be one of his well-meaning family members, and the last thing Ethan wanted today was sympathy.
If it was his dad, he’d give Ethan a lecture about how Rachel wouldn’t like the man he’d become. No, Rachel hadn’t liked the man he’d been. Huge difference there. He hadn’t liked the man he’d been.
Frank Kelly would go on about how it was time to get on with his life. Move on. He’d grieved long enough.
If it was one of his brothers calling, they’d ride his ass about when he was coming to work for KGI.
Knowing there was no chance of him going back to sleep with a head that was split apart at the seams, he struggled to the edge of the bed and planted his feet on the floor.
He’d sought oblivion, but all he had to show for the alcohol binge was cotton mouth and a stomach that felt like he’d ingested lead.
And he still had to face today.
Eyes closed, he pressed his fingers into his temples and then covered his face with his hands. His palms dug into his eye sockets, and he massaged as if he could wipe away the cloud hovering in his vision.
Her name whispered through his tired mind, conjuring memories of his laughing, smiling, beautiful wife. They floated there like butterflies.
Just as quickly they shriveled and turned black as if someone had held the wings to fire.
Rachel was gone.
She was dead.
She wasn’t coming home.
He pushed himself up from the bed and staggered toward the bathroom. His reflection didn’t shock him, and he didn’t spare a moment to splash his face with water or wash out his mouth. He took a piss and stumbled back out, his tongue rasping over the roof of his mouth.
He needed a drink. Preferably something that wasn’t going to make him puke.
Mechanically, he walked barefooted across the wood floors into the living room. Everything was just as she’d left it. The room reflected her personality. Classy, elegant, and uncluttered.
He was a rough-around-the-edges slob.
With a heavy sigh, he wandered into the kitchen to make himself a cup of coffee. Maybe his dad was right. Maybe it was time to put the past behind him. Get on with his sorry life. But he wasn’t sure he could ever forgive himself for pushing her away.
He stood by the coffeemaker, waiting for it to quit gurgling. He could sell the house and move to something smaller. It didn’t make sense to keep it since it was just him now.
He needed to move somewhere he wasn’t reminded of her at every turn, but then this was part of his penance. She didn’t deserve to be forgotten and discarded even if that’s what he’d done.
He thrust his cup forward and poured the steaming coffee from the pot. Then he ambled over to the glass table that overlooked the back deck. He sat and stared out over the landscape that had suffered over the last year. Rachel and his mom had painstakingly planned every detail, putting in long hours planting and weeding. Ethan had helped—when he was home.
He’d often been gone for weeks on end, the assignments always out of the blue, classified. He left Rachel with her never knowing where he was going or if he’d return. It was no way for them to live.
He’d resigned his commission after Rachel had miscarried their child. During the two years they were married, he’d failed her a lot, and he’d sworn he wouldn’t do it again. But he had.
He rubbed his eyes then let his hand rest lingeringly on the three days’ worth of stubble that resided on his jaw. He was a wreck.
A flash of peach caught his eye. He zeroed in on the vase of roses he’d bought yesterday. They were her favorite. Not quite orange, not quite pink, she’d always say. A perfect shade of peach. He should take them to her grave, but he wasn’t sure he could bear to stand over that cold slab of marble and tell her for the fortieth time he was sorry.
As quickly as the thought seared through his mind, he curled his lip in disgust. He’d go. It was the least he could do. In the weeks leading up to the one-year anniversary of her death, he’d avoided the cemetery. It shouldn’t surprise him that he was all too willing to shirk his responsibility. He’d made a practice of it.
He shoved the cup of coffee across the table, sloshing liquid over the rim. Ignoring the mess, he went back into the bedroom and pulled on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. He needed a shower and a shave, but he wasn’t taking the time to do either. If his appearance put people off, all the better. Making small talk and exchanging pleasantries wasn’t on his agenda.
Back in the kitchen, he paused in front of the vase of roses. With shaking fingers, he touched one of the soft petals. He hadn’t bought Rachel flowers in a long time. Not since the first year of their marriage. What did it say about him that he bought them now?
Regret was hard enough for a man to swallow, but to swallow the knowledge that he could never do anything to right the wrongs was more than he could bear.
He gripped the vase, his self-disgust making him more nauseous than the sour alcohol swirling around his belly. He grabbed for his keys and stalked toward the front door, determined to go to her grave, face the past and make his peace with the day.
As he opened the door, he came face-to-face with a FedEx deliveryman. He wasn’t sure who was more surprised, him or the FedEx guy, but judging by the way the man backed up a step, Ethan guessed he didn’t look too welcoming.
“Are you Ethan Kelly?” the guy asked nervously.
“Have a package for you.”
“Just leave it,” Ethan said, gesturing toward the rocker on the porch. He was impatient to be gone, and he looked pretty damn stupid standing there clutching a vase of flowers.
“I, uh, need your signature.”
Ethan caught the snarl before it escaped and set the flowers down on the porch railing. He gestured impatiently for the stylus and scribbled his electronic signature on the handheld unit.
“Thanks. And here’s your package.”
The guy thrust a thick envelope into Ethan’s hand and hastily backed down the steps. With a wave, he got into his delivery van and roared off down the drive.
Ethan glanced down at the envelope but didn’t immediately see any identifying information. He leaned back into the house and tossed it on the small table in the foyer. Then he slammed the door and reached for the vase.
When he arrived at the small church his family had attended for decades, his gut tightened. It was old, whitewashed and situated off a gravel road well off the beaten path. The cemetery was adjacent to the church, and it was where his ancestors had been buried since the late 1800s.
He got out of his truck, swallowed and then made his way down the worn path to the fenced-in plot of land that made up the cemetery.
The roses shook in his grasp, several petals falling and then catching in the breeze. They swirled crazily and blew across the collection of marble headstones.
His mom had been here. Probably this morning. There were fresh flowers and Rachel’s headstone gleamed in the mid-morning sun.
Rachel Kelly. Beloved wife, sister and daughter.
They’d loved her. His whole family adored her. His brothers used to tease him, tell him if he wasn’t careful they’d lure Rachel away from him.
His gut churned. Acid rose, burning a path through his chest. Why had he thought he could return to the place where he’d said good-bye to his wife? His family had gathered round him that day, his mother’s hand on his arm, his father standing to the side, looking for all the world like he’d break down and cry any moment.
He hated this place.
He leaned down and placed the roses next to her headstone. Tears burned his eyes, and he clenched his jaw, determined not to allow his emotions free rein. He hadn’t cried. Not since he’d received her wedding bands in the mail. The only personal effects recovered from the crash. A crash that had taken the lives of the small group of relief workers flying home from South America.
No, he wouldn’t cry again. If he started, he’d never stop, and he might well lose his tenuous grip on sanity after all. Coldness suited him much better. He knew his family thought he was unfeeling. He’d never allowed anyone to see how profoundly affected he was by Rachel’s death. The truth was he couldn’t bring himself to share her memory with anyone.
He stood there, hands shoved into his pockets, staring at the place where Rachel rested. Overhead the sun rose higher, beating relentlessly down on him. But he felt frozen.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “If I could take it all back I would. If I just had one more chance. I’d never let a day go by that I didn’t show you how much I love you.”
The knowledge that he’d never have another chance crippled him. The fact that he’d fucked up the best thing in his life . . . he didn’t have the words to describe the agony.
Unable to stand it another minute, he turned away and walked stiffly back to his truck. The drive home was quiet. He blocked out everything but the road in front of him. Numbness he could deal with.
He walked back into his house, absorbing yet more quiet as he shut the door. The FedEx package lay to the side, but he walked by it, his only desire right now to get a shower and rid himself of the smell of stale booze.
Twenty minutes later, he sat on the edge of the bed and hung his head as he tried to settle his roiling stomach. The shower had helped. Some. But it hadn’t rid him of the aching head and sick gut.
If it hadn’t meant facing his mom, he’d have gone over to get some of her soup. She didn’t deserve to see him hungover and looking like shit, though. It would upset her and make her and his dad worry more than they did already.
He flopped back onto the mattress and closed his eyes. Peace. He just wanted peace.
WHEN Ethan next cracked his eyes open, the room was dark. He sucked in a breath through his nose and tested the steadiness of his stomach. He didn’t immediately suffer the urge to puke, so he counted that as a victory.
He glanced over at the window to see that night had fallen. Somehow he’d managed to sleep the entire afternoon. Not that he was complaining. It meant he was that much closer to putting June 16 behind him.
His muscles protested when he crawled out of bed. He stretched and rolled his shoulders as he padded into the kitchen. His stomach growled, another thing he took as a positive sign.
He threw together a sandwich, poured himself a glass of water and made his way into the living room. Not bothering to turn on the light, he sat on the couch and ate in the dark.
He briefly considered finishing off the liquor he’d purchased the day before, but it would mean he’d start all over tomorrow and eventually his family would get tired of his avoidance and they’d come for him.
He’d shoved the last bite of his sandwich into his mouth when his gaze found the FedEx envelope hanging halfway off the table in the small foyer. He frowned as he remembered the encounter with the delivery guy.
Setting his glass on the coffee table, he walked over to retrieve the heavy envelope. As he returned to the couch, he ripped at the seal. He reached over to flip on the lamp, then flopped onto the sofa and slid his hand inside the sturdy Tyvek envelope.
He dragged out a stack of papers in varying sizes and shapes. Some were legal-sized documents while others were half pieces of paper. There were charts and stuff that looked like satellite imagery and GPS coordinates.
Had he gotten KGI stuff by mistake? Surely his brothers wouldn’t have made an error like that. No one they knew should even have his address, but this stuff looked official. It looked military.
There were photos. Several spilled over his lap and onto the couch. When he picked one up, his heart stuttered and all the breath left his chest in a painful rush.
It was a photo of a woman, obviously a prisoner in some shithole jungle camp. If Ethan had to guess, he’d place odds on South America or maybe Asia. Some fuckhole like Cambodia.
Two men flanked the woman in the photo and both carried guns. One had a grip on her arm, and she looked scared out of her mind.
That wasn’t what blazed through his mind like a buzz saw.
The woman looked remarkably like Rachel. His wife Rachel. Rachel who was dead. Rachel who he’d just visited in the fucking cemetery.
What kind of twisted joke was this?
He rifled through the stack of paperwork looking for something that made sense. Maybe some haha note from some sick fuck looking for kicks.
When he came across the short handwritten note, he froze. All the blood left his face at the four simple words.
Your wife is alive.
It was a kick right to the balls. Rage surged through his veins like bubbling lava. He crumpled the note in his fist and threw it across the room. It skittered along the floor and landed under the television.
Who the hell would pull a stunt like this and why?
He snatched up the photo again and then another. He gathered them all, his hands shaking so bad the pictures scattered like a deck of cards.
Cursing, he got down on his knees to collect the photos from underneath the coffee table. Some had slid under the couch, and still more were wedged between the cushions.
Papers had also scattered everywhere. Charts, maps, a whole host of crap that made no sense to him.
Get a grip. Don’t let this asshole get to you.
Even though he told himself it was all some morbid prank, he couldn’t control the rush of anger. Hope. Fear. Rage. Helpless fury. Hope. Against his fucking will. Hope.
He curled his fingers around the papers, wrinkling them with the force of his grip. The pictures stared back at him, mocking him. They were Rachel. All were Rachel.
Thinner, haunted. Her hair was shorter, her eyes duller. But it was Rachel. A face and body he was intimately familiar with.
Who would do this? Why would someone set up such an elaborate hoax just to fuck with him on the one-year anniversary of her death? What could they possibly hope to gain?
He forced himself to look away from the scared, fragile woman in the picture because if he continued to stare and if he gave any thought to it being Rachel—his wife—he was going to vomit.
The other documents blurred in his vision, and he wiped angrily at his eyes so he could make sense of what he was holding. He forced calm he didn’t feel. It took everything he had, but he switched off his emotions and studied the documents with the detached coldness necessary to remain objective.
He hastily spread everything out on the coffee table, positioning what he could fit, and then he lined the rest out on the couch.
The map pointed him to a remote area of Colombia about fifty miles from the Venezuelan border. The satellite photos showed dense jungle surrounding the tiny village—if you could call it a village. It was nothing more than a dozen huts constructed of bamboo and banana leaves.
Special attention was given to the guard towers and to the two areas where arms were stockpiled. What the hell would a shithole like that need with guard towers and enough ammo to support a small army?
He glanced again at the photo of the woman.
Her name floated insidiously through his mind.
It looked like her. Made sense it could be her. If it weren’t for the fact that her remains had been shipped home along with her wedding rings.
No DNA testing had been done.
Nausea surged in his belly until he physically gagged.
No. No way in hell he’d blindly accepted his wife’s death while she was being held, enduring God knows what by men who had no compunction about terrorizing an innocent woman.
She’d been identified only by the personal effects supposedly recovered with her remains. The fire had made even dental record identification a moot point. The explosion had incinerated everything in its path. Everything but the bent, misshapen rings and the charred remains of her suitcase. Half of a melted passport had been found in the wreckage. Her passport. It was the flight she’d taken and there had been no survivors. Ethan had never thought to question it.
Jesus, he hadn’t questioned his wife’s death.
He shook his head angrily. Boy was he getting carried away. There had to be some other explanation. Someone was messing with him. He didn’t know why. He didn’t care.
He scanned the rest of the papers. Guard post schedule. Drug drop schedule. What the hell? It certainly looked like someone wanted them to be able to waltz right in. It screamed setup.
GPS coordinates. Satellite photos. Topo maps. Whoever had sent it was thorough.
If this was for real, this information made these jokers sitting ducks. The Boy Scouts could mount an assault on the camp that would take it down inside of five minutes.
Your wife is alive.
He glanced at the shadow of the small, balled-up piece of paper lying underneath the television.
Four words. Just four simple words.
He hated the hope that sprung to life within him. His heart thumped like a jackhammer inside his chest. His pulse raced so fast he felt light-headed, almost like the night before when he’d obliterated any rational thoughts with really cheap liquor.
Only tonight he was stone cold sober.
No. No fucking way. He wouldn’t allow himself the small glimmer of hope that was battling its way through a year of grief. This shit didn’t happen in real life. People didn’t get handed second chances on a fucking platter.
He’d prayed for a miracle more times than he cared to admit, but his prayers had gone unanswered. Or had they?
“You’re losing it,” he muttered.
Finally he was losing the last shreds of sanity. Was this what it felt like at the end of the road? Was all that was left was for him to start barking at the moon?
He rubbed his hands over his face and then over the back of his neck. Then he stared down at the information spread out before him like a road map. A map to his wife.
He wanted to believe it. He’d be the worst sort of dumbass to give this any sort of credibility. But could he afford to dismiss it without even talking to his brothers about it?
Hell, they ran KGI. They kicked asses for a living. There wasn’t a military operation they couldn’t mount. They found people who didn’t want to be found. They rescued people from impossible situations. They freed hostages. They blew shit up. Surely some rinky-dink cartel outpost in the middle of Bum Fuck, Colombia, would be a walk in the park for an organization like KGI.
Oh God, they’d think he’d finally lost his mind. They’d have him committed.
But what if this isn’t a joke?
The thought took him by the throat. It had teeth. It wouldn’t let go.
He spent the entire night rifling through the material, document after document, mentally compiling the image in his head until it was so ingrained he could see the compound in his sleep. He knew it intimately, knew where every hut stood, where the guard towers were positioned. He knew when they changed guard, knew their drug drop schedule. Even when they took their prisoner and moved her to a different hut.
He had to be prepared. His brothers might think he was nuts. He couldn’t really blame them if they did. One thing he knew for certain. With or without them he was going in after his wife.
If she was there . . . if she was alive . . . he was bringing her home.
THERE weren’t scripts for moments like this. Nothing in his years in the military had prepared him for this bizarre turn of events. Even as he tried to beat down the hope pulsating in his chest, it lived and breathed inside his skin.
Ethan parked his truck in the driveway of his brother Sam’s lake house then reached down onto the seat to grip the envelope containing all the information on Rachel’s whereabouts.
They’d be surprised to see him. In fact, Sam, Garrett and Donovan were probably inside planning their raid on Ethan’s house. They’d been after him for months to join their special ops group, KGI. All in their plan to shove him firmly back into the land of the living.
A FedEx package had done what his brothers couldn’t do.
For the first time, he felt something other than guilt or grief. He was angry. Very, very angry.
He harnessed that rage and kept it close, needing it for the impending confrontation. His brothers were going to think he’d lost his mind. They were his only hope, though, so he had to convince them that Rachel was alive.
He got out of his truck and glanced toward the adjacent lot where the war room was located. Built next to Sam’s rustic log cabin that was nestled on the bank of Kentucky Lake, the state-of-the-art, completely decked-out, two-thousand-square-foot building housed the offices of Kelly Group International.
It was where Sam, Garrett and Donovan, Ethan’s older brothers, practically lived. They slept in the war room more often than they did the house.
Ethan headed there first. Last he’d heard, one of the KGI teams was doing a recon mission, which meant that his brothers wouldn’t venture far from the communications room.
The facility was impenetrable thanks to a high-tech security system. The location was benign and seemingly innocent, which was why Sam liked it so much. No one would suspect that military operations were planned and carried out in rural Stewart County.
Ethan stopped at the keypad and had to think hard to remember the security code. The last thing he wanted to do was get it wrong and get his ass laid out by his brothers.
After he’d punched in a series of codes, the door opened and he walked inside. Sam and Garrett were sprawled on the couches in the middle of the room, while predictably, Donovan was manning the computer system referred to as Hoss.
Ethan strode forward, a determined set to his mouth. There was nothing to be gained by coming across as some weak pansy. Sam looked up when he heard Ethan, and his eyes widened in surprise. He kicked at Garrett’s leg that rested on the coffee table and gestured in Ethan’s direction.
“ ’Bout time you dragged your carcass out of that house,” Sam drawled.
Donovan swiveled in his chair, and his surprised gaze met Ethan’s. “Hey, man, it’s good to see you.”
“You look like shit,” Garrett said bluntly. “When was the last time you slept?”
Ethan ignored the pleasantries and Garrett’s observations. “I need your help.”
Sam’s brows drew together, and he stared intently at Ethan. His gaze swept up and down, taking in every detail of his appearance. When he spoke, it was in a quiet, but firm voice. “You know all you have to do is ask.”
Excerpted from "The Darkest Hour"
Copyright © 2010 Maya Banks.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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