A taut psychological thriller from S.T. Young...
Infamous for infiltration and becoming her undercover identities, Nina Hernandez disappeared without a trace. Three years later, Naval Intelligence agent Rory O’Donnell finds her in a tortuous mental hospital. He's unsure if it's really Nina, or if she's undercover and faking it. Either way, he's pretty sure something sinister is going on...
Rory springs Nina, and together they elude their determined pursuers. He needs to get her to safety...all while keeping his hands off the beautiful, mysterious young woman. As he works to convince her to trust him and share her darkest secrets, he wonders if he can trust her not to betray his...
Between her mercurial changes, sexy come-ons, and her exasperating independence, a protection assignment has never been so hard. On a dangerous trek across the country as they tumble from one danger into the next, Rory finds that resisting Nina might just be his toughest task yet.
|Publisher:||Entangled Publishing, LLC|
|File size:||3 MB|
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A steady cadence of footsteps echoed through the corridors of the Prima Vista Psychiatric Hospital. Crudely plastered walls, once a faint green, had long since aged to dirty yellow. Huge cracks everywhere made the walls resemble an intricate mosaic design. The black and white floor had been repaired so often the original checkerboard pattern was nearly unrecognizable.
"Again. I stand by my earlier recommendation," said an unpleasant voice that rang through the desolate hallways. Laced with a Latin accent, the words spoken were inappropriately loud. It punctuated one of many agonized screams rebounding through the high security ward.
Four men, one in a suit, three in typical hospital garb, made their way past the long row of patient room doors, blind and deaf to their unfortunate occupants.
"I'm firmly opposed to your choice of action, Agent O'Donnell," the wiry psychiatrist continued. "I agree that your credentials are impeccable, but a simple psychology degree will not be of any use. Miss Hernandez is a danger to her environment ... and to herself. The fact that you have insisted on stopping her medication for the duration of your visit is, in my professional opinion, unwise."
Rory O'Donnell cast the sleazy psychiatrist a steely-eyed, sideways glance. The man wasn't worthy of the title doctor. Head physician of the Prima Vista Psychiatric Hospital, Dr. José Armand Lopez had been prosecuted and acquitted due to lack of evidence four times in his thirty years as a practicing psychiatrist. Rumors of negligence and endangering his patients had persisted throughout his career.
Presently, the corrupt shrink appeared more annoyed with Rory's demands than worried about his patient's welfare. The man disgusted him and had from the moment they met.
"Your objection is duly noted," Rory said. "However, there is only one way to find out if this is the woman I am looking for. And that is to talk to her without heavy medication affecting her mind."
"It'll be on your head if anything goes wrong, Agent O'Donnell." The doctor twitched his stained tie in a nervous gesture. "I will not be held accountable for Miss Hernandez's actions while she isn't properly sedated."
"Naturally. I wouldn't have it any other way," Rory countered, doing his best to block out the strong antiseptic smell that permeated the hospital.
Sullenly, the doctor stabbed his hands into the pockets of his lab coat and looked back at the two beefy attendants trailing them. He had been doing this regularly, as if needing to make sure they were still there. Both men ignored the head psychiatrist, showing little respect for the man who paid their salary.
They reached the end of the corridor and halted in front of a steel door with a small window in its center.
"She appears calm enough today, Agent O'Donnell. Do you want to go inside, or would you rather use the intercom?" asked the tallest of the bullnecked orderlies. He'd been introduced as Buddy earlier.
"Inside, thank you. That will be all. I'm sure you have better things to do than babysit me."
The dismissal was clear. Dr. Lopez bristled, was about to protest, but then changed his mind. He rounded on Buddy, haughtily ordered him to stay before stalking off. The other orderly trailed after the shrink at a more sedate pace.
"I'll be right out here," bored Buddy told Rory. He unlocked the door and stepped aside. "Just holler if there's a problem."
Rory stepped over the threshold of the nine-by-eight padded cell. The place was a dump. There wasn't much light compared to the bright fluorescents in the corridor, and it took him a moment to discern anything from the ominous shadows in the corners. The thought of anyone actually having to live in this room made his chest hurt.
A muted shuffle drew his focus to a huddled-up form, barely visible in the dark recesses of the cell.
"Are you Nina Hernandez of Rising Sun?" he asked softly. His eyes, intent on picking out details, rapidly adjusted to the semidarkness.
Rory, despite his years of experience in the harsh world of terrorism and espionage, was shocked at what he saw. Though the undeniably striking facial features could easily be matched to those of Nina Hernandez, the young woman he now faced looked considerably worse off than the photographs he'd studied.
Like Nina's, her hair was black, due to her Hispanic origin. Instead of glossy shoulder-length strands, the patient's hair was cropped in a haphazard mess. It stuck out in uneven spikes, emphasizing her sallow features. Her skin was almost transparent, blue veins visible at her temples. Dark smudges cradled gray, very suspicious, fearful eyes, giving a hollowed-out impression. Her shoulders, narrow and fragile, stood out in the straitjacket she was wrapped in. Thin, long legs, encased in baggy, standard issue hospital garb, were drawn up tight against her chest. She sat there suspended in time, it seemed, shivering, so vulnerable it made his heart ache just to look at her. He hadn't expected that when he had first tracked her down. He'd thought of this as just another mission, only to discover that just looking at her could make him feel outraged on her behalf. What the hell had they done to her?
Fear emanated from her every pore.
And yet ... there was something predominantly aggressive in her all-too-clear eyes. How she could pull off the appearance of a frightened animal caught by the flare of headlights at the same time was disconcerting to say the least.
Not wanting to frighten her more than she already was, Rory lowered to his haunches and took in the sharp angles of her cheekbones, the delicate sweep of her jaw, her parched lips.
"I am Agent Rory O'Donnell," he said. Technically this wasn't a lie. It was just that the title would only last as long as his present assignment for Naval Intelligence. "I'm trying to locate Nina Hernandez, to make sure she is safe and well. Are you Nina?"
He watched carefully for any reaction to the name. There was none. Her unblinking eyes never wavered. Could he have been wrong? Or was she that good at faking it? He couldn't be sure.
She studied him, measured him up, no doubt trying to figure out the threat he posed — and how to stop him if he turned out to be a danger. He'd recognize that calculating look anywhere. It was typical of all Rising Sun's child-soldiers. More than a decade ago, a political sect called Rising Sun gained power rapidly in South America. They'd had a hand in toppling several governments and had taken over the most powerful drug cartels.
Snatching children from remote villages and orphans from the streets, they began creating their child-soldiers. Trained to be ruthless assassins and infiltrators, these children had been unwitting pawns, used to expand the cult's influence on an international level.
Had the U.S. government not decided to bring down the sect by any means possible, Rory had no doubt that the child-soldiers would have taken world terrorism to an entirely new level. They were trained well in the arts of strategy and combat, a lethal combination.
"I'm not here to hurt you, Nina," he told her, deciding to address her as such since she didn't confirm or deny its accuracy. "I was asked by Morgan McCabe to find you. I'm here to help you, Nina ... if you'll let me."
Due to their unusual shared past, Morgan McCabe had been Nina Hernandez's sister in every way except by blood. They were two of the five child-soldiers that had survived the raid of their camp so many years ago. The other thirty-three had not been as lucky.
For a moment, at the mention of Morgan, he thought he saw a change in her but couldn't be certain. It was fleeting, and the weak light of the single bulb hanging high above the grated ceiling didn't make reading her any easier. Was she even able to comprehend him?
What kind of crap had the crazy doctor been pumping into her system, anyway? His outrage grew, making stopping the doctor a future priority.
Rory tried again, "As I said, I'm here to help —" He fell silent when her eyes suddenly shifted up to the ceiling. An increase of tension sent a shiver through her body. Intrigued, he followed her gaze up. Through the grated ceiling, on the walkway over the cell, a furtive shadow caught his eye.
Son of a bitch.
Rory straightened. "Dr. Lopez!" he called, never doubting the identity of the unwanted observer. "This is a delicate matter. I'd appreciate — No, I expect privacy."
"Hijo de puta!" the woman in the corner hissed. That single expression, so soft and yet filled with so much hatred, made Rory look at her sharply. In her gaze, the same emotion burned with all-consuming intensity.
He was about to tell the sleazy shrink to fuck off, when she spoke again. "He is dead!" She snarled the words in a heavily accented voice. Her revulsion flowing freely now, it found a target in Rory, as well. "And so are you!"
Before Rory suspected what the woman intended, Nina Hernandez hurled herself at him with everything she had. Her shoulder slamming into his gut caught him completely off guard. Considering she was in a straitjacket, her incredible speed was a remarkable feat. The full-on impact left him breathless.
He stumbled back, taking her with him.
Her reckless charge supplied the advantage she needed. She used it brutally — her head came up, hard, and the back of her skull collided with his nose. A blinding shot of pain made the world around him spin. She stepped back, he realized dizzily ... one pace ... two? Blood spurted down, filled his mouth with a coppery tang.
Too late, he saw one delicately shaped foot come at him. Three quick taps and his leg buckled, then failed entirely. Unable to keep his balance, he fell back against the wall. His mind reeling, he landed ignominiously on his butt.
He blinked at the dangling light bulb overhead, tried to bring the world back into focus. He could see very little through the blur of pain, but a noisy rattle and shout from the other side of the door announced help was on the way.
A flash of gray in the corner of his eye warned him. Remembering his training at last, he dodged in the nick of time. Her knee smashed into the padded wall where his head had been.
"Nina!" roared Buddy.
Rory's attacker flinched. She snarled like a cornered animal and started to back away from the advancing orderly.
"You stay away from me!" she warned in that broken, heavily accented voice of hers. She kept backing up, just barely escaping Buddy's flailing arms.
"Stay away!" she screamed at the top of her lungs. "I'll kill you. I'll kill you before I let you touch me again, bastardo!" The woman dodged this way and that before resorting to more desperate measures, going into full attack mode.
Still somewhat dazed, Rory used this moment to watch and learn. What he witnessed was significant.
The patient, enveloped by the orderly's thick arms, twisted furiously within her captor's fast grip. She braced her bare feet against the wall and pushed off. It was a movement designed to escape such a hold and proved effective.
Though obviously experienced in handling difficult patients, Buddy staggered under the onslaught.
Taking advantage of the momentary lapse, she heaved, slamming the back of her head against the orderly's massive chin. His eyes crossing, Buddy loosed his hold. Freed, she didn't bother to run — as any normal crazy person would have done. No, she came back in from the side and jabbed her right knee into Buddy's left kidney. The debilitating blow sent the orderly to his knees.
Rory had to admire her proficiency. Her attack was, in fact, magnificent. He had heard stories about her skill, but it was something else entirely to witness it firsthand.
She didn't stop there. Using her knee again, she rammed it against Buddy's unprotected temple. The orderly fell to the floor with a reverberating thud.
Rory heard her mutter something in Spanish. It meant — if his interpretation was correct — that Buddy wasn't going to stick it anywhere, anytime soon. Going full out, she then kicked him in the groin, clearly aiming for irreparable damage.
Rory winced involuntarily at Buddy's broken falsetto scream. A satisfied smirk crossed the patient's face.
Behind her, two orderlies came storming into the room and tackled her to the floor. She shrieked and thrashed, refusing to go down without a fight even now, facing inevitable defeat. Within seconds, the overpowering might of her two retainers proved too much, and she was forced into submission.
Facedown, writhing futilely, she was injected with what Rory assumed was a sedative. The needle was slammed into her thigh with more force than he thought necessary.
Nina Hernandez's tortured eyes locked with his. The utter hopelessness he saw there, the intense hatred toward anyone who had caused her pain, hit him unexpectedly hard. The violence, combined with her desperation, deeply affected him, made him want to sweep her up into his arms and protect her against everything and everyone.
"I warned you about this, Agent O'Donnell," accused Dr. Lopez from the doorway.
Rory cut him a look. He didn't bother to point out that she hadn't freaked out until she had caught the creepy psychiatrist spying on them. Instead, he watched Nina continue her valiant struggle. But she was losing the battle against the chemicals racing through her system. They rapidly destroyed the last vestiges of her resistance.
Roughly, she was dragged to the door.
"I warned you too, Nina," the doctor continued, addressing her now limp figure. "I warned you to behave. Now we'll have to resume your treatment. Bring her to room number four and prepare her for half an hour of shock therapy. I'll be right there."
Her heartbreaking scream rang through the corridors long after they dragged her away. It cut into Rory like a knife. Still, he forced himself to remain in place, fought the protective instinct that would have him come to her rescue right this instant.
Later. It would have to be later.
Nursing his bleeding nose, his left leg still virtually useless, he focused his thoughts with grim resolve. In his mind, he began to formulate the woman's liberation from this vile place. He hadn't confirmed her identity yet, but no one deserved such treatment — crazy or not. At this point, he was determined to get her out. And if she turned out to be someone else entirely ... well, fuck it.
Slumped against the padded wall, he watched the shrink kneel beside Buddy's still squirming form, blandly telling him that help was on the way. Rory couldn't detect actual concern in the shrink's demeanor. More than anything, he seemed interested in what damage his patient had managed to inflict.
Rory didn't try to reason with Lopez about the treatment he threatened Nina with. He had no illusions — the man wasn't going to be swayed no matter what.
Three hospital attendants entered the cell to help both Buddy and him to the infirmary.
As soon as he could move on his own again, he would contact Admiral Creighton, the man who'd been responsible for Rory's shot at redemption. Like him, Creighton had very personal reasons for wanting to find the child-soldiers who had once belonged to the Rising Sun sect. Morgan McCabe had brought them together specifically for this mission. Creighton had the vast resources Rory needed to do what he did best — track down people who did not want to be found.
Right now, he was 90 percent sure he had found Nina Hernandez, the first of four missing former child-soldiers he'd been hired to locate.
And getting her out of this hellhole had just become top priority.
Rory started at the sound of his phone, then glared at the offensive device that aggravated the pounding in his head. Hernandez sure had done a number on him. Even a long evening with ice packs on the numerous damaged areas of his body hadn't completely alleviated the discomfort.
Back when she'd worked for the Anti-Terrorism Defense Force, or ATDF, the same covert government agency that used to request his services whenever they had a problem with a rogue agent, he'd heard of the skill of these former child-soldiers and the ruthlessness with which they took down a target. But he'd never actually gotten a personal taste ... not even when he'd captured Morgan McCabe and brought her in. It had all been incredibly civilized then, reason and logic prevailing in both himself and McCabe when they'd come face to face on that fateful night. She could have fought him, beaten him, even. Maybe.
Excerpted from "Girl in the Mist"
Copyright © 2018 S. T. Young.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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