Nick Darcy has always needed rules. So when he's temporarily suspended from a job he's dedicated his life to, the unstructured days ahead make him desperate for a distraction. That's when a blast from the past resurfaces on his front steps, bleeding and spinning a wild tale of assassins on her trail.
Their history is complicated. But Nick is still McKenna Rigsby's best chance when it comes to surviving. Her cover blown by a mole in the FBI, she needs a partner who can stay levelheaded in a firefight. She has no doubt they're headed for a showdown. And that this time, there won't be any rules left to break
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Tablis, Kaziristan, baked beneath the August sunshine, and no amount of joking about it being a dry heat could make the place feel any cooler to the soldiers and diplomats assigned to protect the US Embassy against the rising unrest in the no-man 's-land beyond the city walls.
For Nick Darcy, who'd spent most of his childhood in the cool, mild south of England, the brutal summer heat in the Central Asian republic was a shock to the system. The dress code for his job with the Diplomatic Security Servicesuit, tie, holstered weapondidn't help.
But the escalating tensions in the Kaziristan countryside had driven considerations such as climate and comfort from the minds of everyone tasked with the embassy's protection.
Something was building. Something bad. Darcy could feel it as if it were a living creature writhing beneath the dusty earth, making the very ground beneath his feet feel unsteady.
Trouble was coming. Fast and hard.
A harsh squawk of static from his handheld radio jangled his nerves. "BOGART on the move."
Darcy acknowledged the signal and watched from his post for the ambassador's car to emerge through the slowly opening gates. The dusty black sedan moved safely through the opening and onto the four-lane boulevard in front of the embassy. The sedan made it down the road about thirty yards before all hell broke loose.
A rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the ambassador's car and sent pieces flying through the air. One slab of metal debris slammed into the stone column next to Darcy, fragmenting the stone and sending a large chunk slamming into his forehead.
Staggered by the blow, he held on to the column to stay upright and tried to see through the blood pouring into his eyes. The road in front of the embassy was suddenly teeming with armed men and even more young men throwing rocks and swinging clubs.
The embassy was under siege.
Darcy managed to get his pistol out of his holster, but his movements felt slow and awkward, as if he couldn't quite convince his limbs to do what he asked of them.
A pair of small but strong hands wrapped around his arm and pulled. "Move it, Darcy! We 're under siege!"
He turned to look at the speaker, tried to focus on her small, freckled face and her sharp green eyes, but the world seemed to be spinning out of control, around and around until black spots started to appear in his vision.
She muttered a profanity and started yelling for help in that hillbilly accent of hers that always made him smile. He tried to smile now, but his face felt paralyzed.
Nothing made sense. Not anymore.
His world fragmented into a thousand shards of light, then faded into nothing.
Nick Darcy woke to the sort of darkness that one found miles from a big city. No ambient light tempered the deep gloom, and the only noise was the sound of his heart pounding a rapid cadence of panic against his breastbone.
Only a dream.
Except it hadn't been. The embassy siege had happened. People had died, some in the most brutal ways imaginable.
And he'd been unable to save them.
He pushed the stem of his watch, lighting up the dial. Four in the morning. As he sat up and reached for the switch of the lamp on the table beside him, he heard a soft thump outside the cabin. His nerves, still in fightor-flight mode, vibrated like the taut strings of a violin.
Leaving the light off, he reached for his SIG Sauer P229 and eased it from the holster lying on the coffee table in front of the sofa.
The noises could be coming from a scavenging raccoon venturing onto the cabin porch or the wind knocking a dead limb from one of the blight-ridden Fraser firs surrounding his cabin.
But between his years with the DSS and the past year he'd been working for Alexander Quinn at The Gates, he knew that bumps in the night could also mean deadly trouble.
As he moved silently toward the front door, he heard another sound from outside. A soft thump against the door, half knock, half scrape.
There was no security lens set into the heavy wood front door of the cabin, a failing he made a mental note to rectify as soon as possible. He improvised, edging toward the window that looked out onto the porch and angling his gaze toward the welcome mat in front of the door.
The view was obstructed by the angle, but he thought he could make out a dark mass lying on the porch.
He checked the SIG's magazine and chambered a round before he pulled open the front door.
A woman spilled inside and crumpled at his feet.
Fearing a trick, Darcy swept the porch with his gaze and his SIG until reassured the woman at his feet was his only visitor. Crouching next to her, he didn't touch her at first, looking for any signs of a booby trap or some sort of body-worn explosive.
Instead, he found blood. A lot of it, seeping through the woman's dark sweater and leaving a smear on the hardwood floor of the cabin.
In the dark, he couldn't make out much more about her except that she was small and slimly built, with a mass of curly hair that seemed to wrap itself around his fingers like a living creature as he pushed it aside to take a look at the face hidden beneath.
Even in the gloom, there was no mistaking the belligerent round chin or small, slightly snub nose.
She stirred at the sound of his voice, her eyes opening enough for him to catch the slight glitter of reflected moonlight before her eyelids fluttered closed.
He pushed to his feet and flicked the light switch by the door, squinting against the sudden brightness. Illumination only made things seem more dire, he observed as he knelt beside McKenna Rigsby's still body and checked her vitals.
Her pulse was stronger and steadier than he'd anticipated. Good sign. The blood on her sweater, while sufficient in quantity to be alarming, seemed limited to only that one spot near her rib cage. He eased the sweater up and away from her skin, revealing a pair of bullet holes in the soft tissue of her left side, beneath the rib cage but above the curve of her hip. Not a large caliber, he saw with relief. The bullet had gone in and out without leaving a large exit wound.
Still, she needed medical attention, and soon.
Well, as soon as EMTs from town could get out to this stretch of wilderness in the Smoky Mountain foothills.
What was McKenna doing here? Had she come here looking for him after all these years?
Questions can wait. Find the phone. Call 911.
As he started to rise, McKenna's hand snaked out and grabbed his, keeping him crouched beside her. Her eyelids opened to reveal bright green eyes dark with pain. "Don't trust anyone."
"Don't trust anyone. Don't call a doctor." Her grasp weakened, her hand slipping away to fall with a soft thud to the floor. Her eyelids shut again, and she was out once more.
At any other point in his life, he'd have ignored her whispered commands and called 911 anyway. But the past few years had taught him a hell of a lot more than he wanted to know about treachery. He was on suspension from The Gates because of someone's treachery, with no access and no way to find out who was trying to destroy his life.
Tugging the sweater up again, he looked more closely at the bullet wounds, trying to remember everything he knew about field triage. Her pulse was still strong and steady, and the blood on her sweater, while a gory mess, wasn't more than a couple of pints. As long as no vital organs or blood vessels had been hit, she could survive that much loss of blood if he could stop the bleeding and rehydrate her.
The bullet holes in her side were only a half inch or so from the curve of her abdomen, so it was possible the bullet had gone through flesh only, missing any organs.
But why was she unconscious?
He checked her head, ignoring the way her curls tangled around his fingers as he gently probed her skull for any sign of a head injury. He felt no bumps, no cuts or abrasions, nothing to suggest she'd taken any sort of blow to the head. He sat back on his heels and observed her for a second.
She appeared thin. Thinner than he remembered, certainly. Her skin was naturally fair, but the darkened shadows beneath her eyes gave him an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Her eyelids fluttered open. "Hi."
He smiled. "Hi. Can you stick around this time and tell me what happened?"
"I'm tired." Her eyes started to close again.
He gave her a light shake, earning a grimace of displeasure from his patient. "If I'm going to do what you asked and not call a doctor, I need you to give me a good reason for my restraint."
Her eyes snapped open again, meeting his steadily for the first time. "Darcy."
Her lips curved slightly at his dry response. "Of all the cabins in all the Podunk little mountain towns "
"You had to fall headfirst into mine."
"I knew you lived here." She made the admission as if she was a little embarrassed. "I didn't know who else to trust. Not even sure I can trust you, but I need help, so "
"How bad are the gunshot wounds? Can you tell?"
"I don't think it hit anything major." She tried to rise, grimacing with the effort.
He helped her into a sitting position. "Define major!''
She looked up at him through a tangle of auburn curls that had fallen over her forehead. "No internal organs or major blood vessels compromised."
"Are you certain?"
"I've been running through the woods for six hours and I haven't bled out yet."
Six hours? She'd been in this condition for six hours? "Do you know who shot you?"
She shook her head no. "Not a clue. Which is why I can't trust anyone." She pushed her hair back with one shaky hand, meeting his gaze. "I'm hoping I can trust you."
"You can," he said firmly. "We need to stop the bleeding."
She looked down at her side, her lips curling in dismay. "That's gonna leave a scar."
"Never knew you to be vain, Rigsby."
She looked at him from beneath a furrowed brow. "Been so long out of the DSS that you've forgotten what battlefield humor sounds like?"
He didn't feel like smiling. "Why would someone be shooting you, McKenna?"
She made a face at his use of her first name. "I was looking into something. For the FBI. I guess I got too close."
"Too close to what?"
She looked down at her bloody hands. "Do you think we could get me cleaned up a little before I undergo the postmission debriefing, Agent Darcy?"
"I'm not with the DSS anymore."
She slanted him a look of pure irritation. "Yes, I know."
"Keeping up with my career, Rigsby?" He helped her to her feet, keeping his hands on her arms until he was sure she wouldn't topple over if he let go. "I'm touched."
She pulled her arms free of his grasp and took a staggering step back before she regained her balance. "Purgatory is in my new jurisdiction," she said coolly. "I was assigned to the Knoxville Field Office a few months ago."
"After the incident at the Tri-State Law Enforcement Society conference?"
"As a matter of fact, yes." She tugged the edge of her bloody sweater down to cover her wounds, wincing. "I really need to sit down."
Muttering a soft curse, he crossed to where she stood and picked her up, tightening his grip against her weak struggles. "Stop fighting me and I'll let you go soon enough."
He carried her through the narrow hallway into the cabin's main bathroom and set her on the counter of the long double-sink cabinet. She looked around the spacious room, one ginger-brown eyebrow cocking upward. "Nice digs."
"It came with the job." Most of the men and women who worked for Alexander Quinn had no idea that he owned about half the real estate in the foothills just east of Purgatory, including almost fifty rental cabins that brought in a generous income beyond his profits from The Gates. While the security and investigation agency was doing remarkably brisk business for a new company, the kind of hightech services The Gates offered weren't inexpensive. But Quinn was a wealthy man in his own right, and if he had chosen to funnel his own money into the company, who was Darcy to question his wisdom?
"Looks like one of those tourist-honeymoon cabins." She nodded at the ridiculously large claw-foot tub. "Is your bed heart-shaped?"
"You'll see for yourself once you've cleaned up and re-hydrated."
"I could kill for a strong cup of coffee." She winced again as he tugged the hem of her sweater up to take another look at her wounds.
"We'll start with water and see how that goes." He opened the drawer of the sink cabinet and pulled out a clean washcloth. "First, we need to clean your wounds and get them disinfected."
"Don't suppose you know a crooked pharmacist we could bribe for some antibiotics?" she asked as he turned on the hot-water tap and let the water soak the washcloth.
"Sadly, no, though I could probably throw a stick in any direction and hit a methamphetamine dealer."
"We call 'em 'meth mechanics' or 'meth cookers' around here," she said, a smile in her voice despite the obvious pain creasing her forehead. "I will say you've lost a little of your accent since the last time I saw you."
"Perish the thought." He wrung some of the excess water from the washcloth before adding a dollop of antibiotic hand soap to the rag. "Not quite Betadine, but"
"Ow!" She sucked in a harsh breath, making him feel like a brute.
"Sorry," he murmured, trying to take it easier on her.
"No, don't be gentle. The cleaner you get it, the less likely I'll end up in a hospital on an IV." She twisted to give him better access to her injury, moaning a little as he washed the ragged edges of the bullet wounds.
"You're likely to end up hospitalized no matter what I do," he warned as he rinsed blood from the used washcloth and dug into the drawer for a fresh one. "Why is it that you think there's no one you can trust?"
Instead of answering his question, she leaned forward, resting her forehead on his shoulder. Her low alto drawl came out weak and strained. "Hold off a second, okay?"
He put his hand on the back of her head, his fingers tangling in her curls. Her skin was hot and damp, and her breath burned against his throat when she turned her head toward him.
"I was so afraid you wouldn't be here," she murmured.
"I'm here." He stroked her hair, fighting against an old familiar ache of longing. McKenna Rigsby had twisted him into knots once, a long time ago, and it had taken years to untangle himself.
"I know you have every reason to be mad at me, Darcy," she whispered against his collarbone. "I wouldn't blame you if you tossed me back into the woods to fend for myself."
"I would never do that."
She lifted her head, gazing up at him with pain-dark eyes. She lifted one bloodstained hand to his face. "I know. That's why I came to you."
He couldn't stop himself from bending to touch his forehead to hers. Her breath came out in an explosive little whoosh, mingling with his ragged respiration. "You'll be the death of me yet, Rigsby."
"I never wanted to hurt you, Darcy. That's why" Her words ended on a soft sigh. "I don't like to need people. You know that."
All too well. "But you need me now."
She pulled back, her gaze intense. "I do. I need your help."
"You have it."
To his surprise, tears welled in her eyes. She brushed them away with her knuckles. "Ready to give this torture another go?"
He reached for the hot washcloth and the hand soap.
She stripped her sweater over her head, tossing the bloody garment onto the floor, revealing her bra and a holster on her right hip the sweater had hidden. She tugged the holster free and laid it on the counter, the Glock 27 gleaming.
Bending to expose her side to him, she told him, "Finish it."
He cleaned the wounds a second time, making sure to remove anything that looked like debris from the raw skin. The bleeding had nearly stopped, he saw with relief. If he could get a few pints of water into her, she should recover from the blood loss soon enough.
He washed the blood from his own hands and opened the cabinet over the nearest sink. He had a prepackaged first-aid kit stored there, though he wasn't sure the maker had planned for a medical emergency that included bullet wounds. There were better kits stocked at The Gates, but he was on paid leave from the agency at the moment. He could hardly sneak in and spirit out supplies without someone taking notice.