"Catherine Mann writes an amazing combination of keen suspense, unique characters, and heart-stopping romance. I'm a fan!"—Lori Foster, New York Times bestselling author of Savor the Danger
On This Mission, There Are No Accidents...
Pararescueman Jose "Cuervo" James is the guy they call for the most dangerous assignments. He lives for his job.
On a high-risk rescue deep in the African jungle, Jose encounters sexy, smart Interpol agent Stella Carson. They'd once had an affair that burned hot and fast, but family is everything to Stella, and Jose just can't go there.
Fate has thrown them into the deadly hot zone together, and sparks will fly...but only if they can live to tell about it.
Praise for Under Fire:
"A thrilling ride that will have readers hanging on the edge of their seats."—RT Book Reviews Top Pick of the Month, 4 ½ Stars
"Mann once again gives the reader a spellbinding story with special super heroes."—Long and Short Reviews
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Horn of Africa
When Stella Carson was eight years old, her mother rented the movie Out of Africa so Stella could envision where her mom lived when she left Tallahassee for Peace Corps trips. Those images had helped through the first night alone saying her prayers. And through a summer with her brothers as babysitters while their father drove his UPS route.
In the fall, a photo of her mother went in her backpack, helping Stella hold strong during a rocky start of third grade when she landed in the principal's office for a playground fight. Nobody would make fun of her daddy's efforts to send his baby girl off to school, even if her braids were lopsided with mismatched bows. Stella knew how to punch like a boy, thanks to her three older brothers.
Her siblings had failed to mention the importance of saving the infamous Carson left hook for the walk home, off school grounds.
But she'd survived the principal's punishment, as well as her father's disappointment, by envisioning her mom dispensing medicine and mosquito nets to needy kids. The school wouldn't suspend her anyway because they needed Stella's perfect scores on standardized tests. Tuning out the principal's lecture, she'd stroked one of the mismatched ribbons between her fingers, tabulated the number of pinholes in the ceiling tiles, and pretended she didn't need her mother.
When Stella was fifteen her mom died on one of those annual aide trips. She had a tough time understanding why Melanie Carson chose to leave her family to help other families in a foreign country. It didn't make sense to a grieving teenager, and Stella craved answers. Understanding. Order.
By college, she'd realized if she didn't decipher what really happened the day her mother died and find peace for the restlessness inside her, there would be no building a family of her own. Something she desperately wanted. So she'd changed her major to criminal justice, landed a job in Interpol's American office as a code breaker, and poured all her energies into wrangling an assignment in Africa.
Here. Now. In a country every bit as magnificent as in the movie Out of Africa and as tumultuous as her feelings about the place that stole her mother.
Finally, she could piece together her mom's last days. Find answers about her mother's mysterious death. And if not answers, at least gain closure.
Although her whole quest would be moot if she didn't squeeze more life out of the sleek boat she was steering at breakneck speed along the Arabian Sea into the Gulf of Aden.
Stella thumped the already maxed throttle, the metal so hot to the touch it damn near blistered her palm. Logic told her the engine didn't have anything more to give. Still, she calculated angles to take the choppy sea faster. She stayed well clear of the other vessels just as they stayed away from her. Everyone kept their distance in these lawless waters.
The hull's nose popped over a wave and slammed back onto the churning surface. She bit her tongue. The metallic taste of blood filled her mouth. The motor revved and muffled, catching hold of the water and shooting forward again. Seconds counted. Timing was everything.
A team of Navy SEALs and a pair of Air Force pararescuemen were counting on her to be in place for the pickup if things went wrong with their helicopter rendezvous. Sure, those special operations dudes could swim for miles, but even the most elite of the elite warriors didn't relish hanging out in shark-infested, pirate-riddled waters.
Sea spray stung her overheated face as the sun melted downward in the sky. She gripped the steering wheel tighter, her eyes on the sonar and radar screens feeding images of the SEALs and pararescuemen-also known as parajumpers or PJs. Six SEALs and two PJs were diving, about to "count coup" on a suspected pirate frigate, a stealthy tap-and-go.
The mother vessel was towing four faster skiffs for overtaking their targets once they reached the open sea. Except today the U.S. forces were under water disabling the smaller crafts, something the Somali pirates wouldn't discover until they were out in the middle of the sea ready to prey on others. Those four malfunctioning boats, clearly dismantled right under their very noses, would screw with their heads.
Never underestimate the power of psychological warfare.
As a field operative for Interpol, she'd been sent to assist with the investigation into stolen artifacts by pirates off the Horn of Africa, to decipher the codes and patterns to their movements. Local government officials in the region had requested international help. Those stolen treasures brought major bucks on the black market, money then used to fund separatist groups and local warlords that increased criminal chaos. Groups responsible for instigating ruthless uprisings. Rampant looting where women were brutalized. Young males, barely teenagers, were being pressed into service. At least one of those child soldiers was on that main vessel today.
Another reason the PJs had been tapped to participate was for the safety of the kid as well as the SEALs if things went to hell. PJs received the same SEAL training needed to carry out the mission, but with additional medic skills to make a house call behind enemy lines. PJs were like Supermen with EMT bonus powers.
There hadn't been any PJs around for her mom. Melanie Carson died here and her family had been given sketchy details along with her body to bury. Authorities had written off the injuries as results of a car accident. Stella hadn't believed them then any more than she believed them now. She'd worked her entire career with Interpol with one goal: to find the truth about her mother's death. Finally, she had her chance and she wouldn't allow anything to derail her plans.
Today's launch of her mission was everything.
A helicopter had dropped the SEALs and PJs in the water five miles out from the pirates. Afterward they were supposed to swim five back where the chopper should be able to pick them up. But as a fail-safe, she and four heavily armed CIA operatives stayed nearby in the speedboat.
She'd plotted contingencies, and more contingencies for the contingencies, because logic was her strength, her secret weapon even. It was all about backup plans.
Pop, pop, pop.
The unmistakable sound of gunfire carried across the water. Stella braced, sweat chilling under her bulletproof vest. She looked over her shoulders at her four CIA teammates aiming MP5 submachine guns.
"Is it pirates?" she shouted over her shoulder, wind tearing strands of hair loose from her braid.
"Don't think so," an operative known only as Mr. Smith barked back, scanning the distant horizon where two fishing boats bobbed. Of course, CIA agents were always Smith or Brown. Or if working in a pack like today, Jones and Johnson joined in. "They seem to be shooting in the air, partying maybe."
His buddy Mr. Brown squinted into the scope on his gun. "The place is littered with these bastards. I'm not trusting that party spirit."
Mr. Jones hitched his weapon higher. "We can outgun them."
Stella eyed the horizon. A whale arched just ahead, then slapped its tale in a majestic display so at odds with the turmoil playing out on the water's surface above them. "Or we can stay cool and keep moving closer in case the chopper needs to bail out."
An explosion in the sky sent shock waves across the water. The CIA dudes dropped to their knees. So much for keeping cool.
Stella steadied the boat and studied the radar. Her heart punched into her throat. Had the pirate ship blown up? Had the PJs and SEALs been injured in the raining debris and flames?
The radar offered plenty of details.
But the news?
As bad as it got.
"The chopper exploded," she announced, forcing her voice to stay flat, calm. Professional.
Now that she knew where to look, debris rained in the distant sky, a splash spewing on the horizon. The crew she'd briefed this morning was almost certainly dead, and if not, a different contingency was in place to search for them-a second PJ pair. Just the thought delivered a sock in the gut as she thought about another child hearing the news that her mom or dad wasn't coming home.
But she had to push through the feelings threatening to suck her under. Her role now? Crystal clear.
"We have to get our guys out now rather than waiting for them to swim closer. Those look like dolphin fins out there, but if I'm wrong... We need to move."
Nailing the throttle again, she compartmentalized. Later, she would climb up onto the embassy roof alone and mourn the aircrew. At this moment, her focus had to be on extracting the men in the water.
How far had the special ops men swum from the vessel? How close would she have to sweep by the known pirate frigate? And the unknown bad guys in these waters? Who had launched that rocket at the chopper?
She took a read off the sonar beside the radar, homing in on the blips. Beacons sent signals from her pickup targets. Men. Swimming. Closer. She eased back on the horsepower. Searching the surface for the slightest... ripple.
"Got 'em," Mr. Smith announced with conviction an instant before she saw what snagged his eagle eyes.
The barest perceptible cuts through the water. The pirate vessel was a surprisingly distant shadow in the sunset. Good God, how had the men made it so far so fast? Even if the other boat was speeding away.
She cut the engine back to idle. Her four CIA field agents went into action while she kept the boat as steady as possible. They didn't talk much-but dudes from the agency rarely spoke. One at a time they hauled sleek bodies in wet suits onto the deck. Her muscles burned as she gripped the wheel straining to spin free.
Man after man rolled onto the deck. Six, seven... eight.
The final guy whipped off his face mask and pinned her with piercing brown eyes and an intense focus that kept people alive beyond the odds. The air snapped in an indefinable way that defied the logic she embraced.
Had to be.
He nodded once, giving her a thumbs-up. "Go, go, go!"
Shaking off the momentary distraction, she revved the engine to life again. Her brain cycled to contingency twenty-freaking-two, a cave cut into the mountainous shoreline. Minutes passed in a blur as she drove and watched the screen, monitoring traffic. Pathetically few officials policed the area. A boat racing across at a reckless speed wouldn't appear at all out of the ordinary around this place.
Even as the yawning entrance to the cave came into sight, she refused to relax her guard. She pulled back on the throttle. Entering slowly, she scanned while her quiet companions held their MP5s at the ready. Would an Interpol operative, four CIA agents, six SEALs, and two PJs be enough to face anything that waited inside? The low hum of the motor echoed like a growling beast in the cavern, one light strobing forward into the darkness.
Illuminating a waiting U.S. fishing boat.
Her final contingency.
Her plan had to work; otherwise, she would screw up her hard-earned chance of working in Africa before the mission barely got off the ground. She flung open the door to the small forward cabin of her speedboat. The clang of metal hitting metal echoed in her mind like the closing of her mother's coffin. Melanie Carson's daughter would not give up on day one.
Digging around in the hull, Stella pulled out small duffel bags, one after the other, tossing them to each of the men in wet suits.
"Change, gentlemen. We're about to become American tourists on a sightseeing excursion. Mr. Jones," who could blend in best with the locals and even spoke a regional dialect thanks to his mother, "will be our guide. We're swapping boats, then splitting up at the dock. Blend into the crowds. Report at the embassy. You've got a duress code if you need to call in. Any questions?"
Only the sound of oxygen tanks and gear hitting the deck answered her.
"Good." Her heart rate started to return to something close to normal again.
The sound of zippers sent her spinning on her heels to take care of her own transformation. She unrolled a colorful rectangular cloth, an East African kanga, complete with the standard intricate border and message woven into the red and orange pattern.
It would be hot as hell over her black pants, top, and bulletproof vest. But a little dehydration was a small price to pay for an extra layer of anonymity.
She turned and there were those coffee dark eyes again. Static-like awareness snapped when she looked back at the intense gaze that had held hers earlier as he'd lifted his face mask. Except now he was more than eyes and a wet suit. He was a lean, honed man in a pair of fitted swim trunks he must have worn under the diving gear. He was glistening bronze with a body trained for survival anyplace, anytime.
The boat rocked under her feet from a rogue wave. At least she thought it was a wave.
"Uh, no, I'm good. Thanks. You should get dressed. We need to haul butt out of here." And his current state of undress definitely didn't qualify as "low profile."
"I meant, do you need help with the cut on your temple?" He gestured to the left side of her face, almost touching. "You brought along two PJs for a reason, ma'am."
Her skin hummed with a sting that her brain must have pushed aside earlier for survival's sake. She tapped the side of her forehead gingerly.
"Ouch!" Her fingertips were stained with blood as murky red as her hair.
"A bullet must have grazed you," he said with a flat Midwestern accent. A no-accent really, just pure masculine rumble. "Could have been much worse. This was your lucky day, ma'am."
"Stella." For right now she could be more than Miss Lucky Smith.
"They call me Cuervo."
No real name from him for now. Understandable and a reality check to get her professional groove back on. "Do I need stitches?"
He tugged a small kit from his gear, a waterproof pack of some sort. "Antiseptic and butterfly bandages should hold you until we can get someplace where I'll have time to treat you more fully."
Her brain hitched on the word, the answer to who she would be partnering with as they escaped into the crowd. She wasn't saying good-bye to him-to Cuervo-at the dock. Irrational relief flooded her, followed by a bolt of excitement.
"Thanks, Cuervo. Blood dripping down my face would definitely draw undue attention at an inopportune time." She forced a smile.
Still, his face, those eyes, they held her, and while she wasn't a mystical person, she couldn't miss the connection. Attraction? Sure, but she understood how to compartmentalize on the job. This was something that felt elemental. Before she could stop the thought, the words soul mate flashed through her head.
And God, that was crazy and irrational when she was always, always logical. Her brothers called her a female version of Spock from Star Trek.
Still, as those fingers cleaned her wound, smoothed ointment over her temple, and stretched butterfly bandages along her skin, she couldn't stop thinking about spending the rest of the day with him as they melded into the port city and made their way back to the embassy.
Damn it, she could not waste the time or emotional energy on romance or even a fling. Right now, she could only focus on working with the Mr. Smiths and Mr. Browns of her profession. She needed to make peace with her past, then move on with her life. Then, and only then, she would find Mr. Right and shift from the field to a desk job so she could settle down into that real family dream she'd missed out on.
Yet those brown eyes drew her into a molten heat and she had the inescapable sense that Mr. Right had arrived ahead of schedule.
What People are Saying About This
"Mann sweeps readers along with pulse-pounding suspense, passion and a full-out frontal assault of the senses that will keep readers gripping their seats... 4 ½ Stars" - RT Book Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Reviewed by: JoAnne Book provided by: NetGalley Review originally posted at Romancing the Book Free Fall is a military adventure but also a romance novel. Stella and Jose had such chemistry you could feel it oozing off the page. They were both so alpha and gave 110% to their jobs and also to each and every assignment they were given. But they were always aware of each other with an almost hypersensitivity even when they didn’t want to be. The story was so real and believable and took so many twists and turns to keep me guessing at what might happen next. Even though a military story there was an unbelievable amount of romance and love along with friends and family, heartache and tears, some laughter and lots of intrigue. The prologue and epilogue were ingenious both to get me involved in the story and also give me the background on Stella and Jose. It also gave me the closure I needed with several unexpected happily ever afters. It’s been awhile since I’ve read one of Mann’s books but she is definitely moving up my TBR pile. This book – fourth in the Elite Forces series – kept me engrossed so much that I didn’t want to put it down and finished it in less than 24 hours. I haven’t read books 1, 2 or 3 in the series but I will definitely be going back to do so. This was so well written that I didn’t realize it was part of a series and I didn’t feel there were any missing gaps to the storyline. I look forward to reading the other books in the series already written along with others that may be in the pipeline. Pick up a book by Mann if you haven’t done so already. You’ll be glad you did!
Catherine Mann’s Free Fall was an action-packed story about Jose “Cuervo” James and Stella Carson set in the wilds of Africa. Jose, a pararescueman, and Stella, an Interpol agent, had a relationship that soon fizzled after meeting on a mission. Months later, Jose is called in to rescue Stella from a hostage situation, and has to try to use all his power in order to try to save the women he once loved. Throughout Free Fall Stella continues to display strength and fortitude both in completing her mission as well as her relationship with Jose. Having suffered through the emotional upheaval of her mom’s death as a young girl she refuses to settle for less than the best when it comes to her own family. Jose, on the other hand, is insecure about the impact his job will have on both a relationship as well as a family. Jose is a strong Alpha male, who tries to provide support for Stella while also being the man she needs emotionally. Stella, on the other hand, still struggles with her own emotional issues from her childhood that she has to work out. Interwoven in the storyline are flashbacks to Jose and Stella’s relationship, as well as an unexpected secondary romance that adds a depth to the original storyline. Reviewed by Lucy for Cocktails and Books
Stella is on a mission to find out what really happened to her mother all those years ago. The government told her family that her mother had been involved in a car accident, battering her body to the point of unrecognizable. But Stella knows it’s more than that. She blames her mother for leaving her family behind to take care of other children in Africa, while her own children were missing her back home. As an Interpol agent, she is thrown into some dangerous situations, one that gets her kidnapped when she is undercover as a flighty college student studying abroad in one of the more dangerous areas of Africa. As she tries to make contact with her handlers, she repeatedly informs them that she could use some “Jose Cuervo” — the man she broke up with just a month before. No matter the break up, Jose is there for her, he and his team rescuing her and the other students that lived, retrieving the bodies of those who didn’t. And from there it’s a matter of finding out what code is woven into a cloth that one of her fellow survivors took from the compound they were being held in. It’s a semi-fast paced book that will get your heart racing and your mind whirling, trying to figure out who is on which side. And when Stella and Cuervo get back together, the sparks fly in some pretty hot scenes (and not just because they’re in Africa). This whole series, by Catherine Mann, is definitely a great one, and it’s one that I’m reading through the previous books now. I can’t get enough of the pararescumen (no matter how many times spell-check tells me that’s wrong) and their alpha-superman complexes. I want one of my own. Definitely a four out of five flowers!
Great read! I have read all in the series! Can't wait till the next one comes out.
Catherine Mann’s Free Fall is another thrilling story in her Elite Force series. Jose “Cuervo” James is a top notch Pararescueman. He thrives on the dangerous assignments and works to keep his team safe. When is former girlfriend has been captured, he will stop at nothing to get her back safely. Stella Carson became an Interpol agent to get to the bottom of what happened to her mother many years ago. She is an elite code breaker and use her skills to help other agencies. Stella’s latest mission has gone terribly wrong and she is a prisoner. She knows if she can contact Jose and his team she has a chance to survive. Jose and Stella’s previous affair burned hot and bright until Jose’s past came between them. If they can get out of this present danger they may finally get a second chance that they both deserve. Jose and Stella’s connection is powerful and both have reasons to tread lightly on a second chance. But neither can ignore the hands of fate and will risk everything to fight for this renewed love. Catherine Mann’s books are a must read. Her Elite Force series is spell bounding and powerful. You will fall in love with each and every character.
Have always loved Catherine Mann, and this did not disappoint! Lots of action with a great hero and heroine.
It’s clear from their first meeting that Pararescueman Jose “Cuervo” James and Interpol agent Stella Carson have a connection between them, but with them wanting different things, they break it off after a five month affair. When Stella is kidnapped 4 weeks later and Jose is brought in to assist, they realize the fire between them is still burning as strong as ever. As they race to find the traitor in their mist and keep everyone safe, Stella and Jose face the fears about both of their pasts and have to decide whether or not to take the chance on loving each other and having the future they both deserve. From their first meeting to their unique dating history (monkey watching in Queen Elizabeth National Park), Free Fall had me hooked. Catherine Mann delivers an intriguing, captivating story in this latest installment of her successful Elite Force series. Check it out, you won’t be disappointed!
Well worth reading!
I love the pararescue series!!! Absolutely love Cuervo's story! While he's fighting the bad guys, you learn more about his past and what has brought him to where he is now. Great story!!!! If you love romantic suspense, here's a series for you!!
James "Jose Cuervo" is committed to his job as a pararescueman and little else. His job demands complete focus or his team could die. And then he has a one night stand with Interpol agent Stella Carson, and focus is shot to hell. Now thrown on a fateful mission together deep in the African jungle, they question the truth while fighting Jose's fears and Stella's tragic past. It's up to them to decide between letting the spark fizzle or a life of forever. This is an author who knows her military background well. It made for a flawless, realistic read that's hard to put down. The characters were well drawn, complete with imperfections and fears. The setting was detailed, putting you right in the moment. The action was hammering and intriguing. The plot was steady and real. And the romance was hot. Really hot. My only quirk was I felt the conflict a touch lacking, and the ending wrapped quickly from an emotional standpoint. In saying that, I highly recommend!
GREAT BOOK :)
“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” -- Carl Jung I immediately grinned when I saw my favorite Carl Jung quote at the beginning of Free Fall. Upon finishing, I revisited this quote and thought how fitting it was for Jose and Stella's story. Although Stella Carson, a code breaker and trained agent for Interpol, meets pararescueman Jose “Cuervo” James in the prologue, the story quickly jumps forward six months later to the present when they are no longer together. Circumstance brings their lives together again when Jose is called in to be part of the team to rescue Stella, who was taken hostage while undercover. In the midst of terrorists threats and twists unfolding, we get glimpses of Jose and Stella's relationship through flashbacks. I know some would prefer that the story not go back and forth from past to present, but I found this didn't bother me so much. The flashbacks to their romantic dates together were some of my favorite parts! In these scenes Catherine Mann whisks the reader away to the most romantic and exotic locations in Africa. Jose planned some truly special dates for Stella to sweep her off her feet. Really, even I was swept off my feet! So, why did these two soul mates and intense lovers break up? I found two running themes throughout Free Fall...second chances and making difficult choices in order to protect loved ones. Jose and Stella have a huge opportunity for a second chance to be together if they can only work out their differences. I love how Catherine Mann wove the second theme throughout the story. Boy, does it get really emotional as the plot thickens! There is no doubt that fans of the Elite Force series will enjoy Free Fall. The heart-pounding action and suspense is all there. Free Fall can be read as a standalone. I've only read book 2 and 4, but I very much enjoy this series and plan to read the other books soon. I've been hooked! Catherine Mann's military romances are simply quite addicting! ***I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.***
Stella, an Interpol agent who specializes in code breaking (but does way more!) and Jose, a pararescueman meet when she helps on an assignment as back up rescue to SEALS and PJ's in Africa who are trying to break a pirating ring. Stella and Jose have an immediate connection when they first meet. Stella has made her way to Africa through Interpol in hopes of finding out what really happened to her mother many years ago when she was, to Stella's knowledge, on a peacekeeping mission. Stella has shared with Jose her past, but she holds back from him the real reason she is in Africa. Stella has a goal and after that she plans to find Mr. Right, settle down, and have a family. Mr. Right just showed up earlier than she'd planned! Jose comes from a family of alcoholics, and though he hasn't drank for 5 years he fears that one day he will slip. This is his rational for definitely not wanting to settle down and have a family. Stella and Jose have a 5 month affair/relationship, taking time when they can but Stella wants more than Jose can give her and they break it off, leaving both of them heartbroken. A month goes by, Stella and some students in Africa are kidnapped...some of them do not survive. With her skills and quick thinking, a rescue is launched and Jose plays a big role in that, throwing them together again. Despite the rescue, there is still work to be done and serious threats to be neutralized. At a time of life and death, they must focus not just on each other but on doing their jobs. Can they survive and make a relationship work? There is so much more to this story than I've summarized here...but I don't want to spoil it! Catherine weaves a fantastic, breath taking, mesmerizing story in Free Fall, I could not put this book down! I loved Jose, Stella, and all the other characters that made this book what it is. Jose and Stella are both struggling with their own demons, doing the best they can. I have read all the other books in this series and it was nice to see a few of the characters again, but I also believe it would be easy to read this as a stand alone book, Free Fall holds it's own! I would recommend this to anyone looking for some breath taking romantic suspense! You won't be sorry!