Read an Excerpt
Hunkered low in the underbrush, Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer "Rip" Cord Schafer gripped the M4A1 rifle with the SOPMOD upgrade and inchedforward, carefully placing every step to avoid tripping, snapping branches or making any other loud noises. Loaded with sixty pounds of equipment specially selected for this mission, he was ready for anything.
Gunny took point, leading the team into the Honduran camp, keeping to the darkness of the jungle. Moonlight shimmered through the occasional break in the dense overhead canopy, barely making it down to the jungle floor.
Rip had his headset in one ear and listened for sounds of the camp with his other.
Montana eased up behind Gunny, followed by Sawyer, then the newest SEAL, Gosling, with Rip bringing up the rear.
Their mission: extract one undercover DEA agent from a terrorist training camp deep in the jungle of Honduras.
No matter where he looked, Rip could detect no sentries standing guard or patrolling the compound. Strange. The DEA agent had been adamant about being pulled out. He 'd feared for his life and had been concerned the information he needed to pass on might be lost.
In his brief plea to be extracted, he 'd given specific
GPS coordinates. When Gunny reached the position, he held up his fist.
The team stopped in place and hugged the earth, waiting.
He pointed to Montana and Sawyer and gave them the follow-me sign.
The three surrounded the door of the building. Gunny nudged it open and disappeared inside. Montana and Sawyer followed. Gosling and Rip remained outside, providing cover.
Seconds later, they hustled out a man wearing rumpled clothing, his shoulder-length hair straggly and unkempt. He ducked low and moved quickly between them, hurrying toward the path leading out of the camp.
Gunny motioned for Gosling and Rip to fall in with the team. They had their man, and it appeared as though they were going to make a clean getaway with none of the terrorists aware of the agent's departure.
The hair on the back of Rip's neck stood straight up. The entire mission had been too easy. If there was any real danger, wouldn't there have been sentries on alert, wielding machine guns and willing to cut down anyone who stepped into range?
They cleared the edge of the camp, heading back to the river and the waiting boat.
Gunny was in the lead again, followed by Sawyer. Montana was in front of their extracted DEA agent and Gosling behind him.
The agent stumbled for a moment.
Gosling didn't adjust his stride in time. He caught up with the man then gave him a hand to right himself.
The sharp report of gunfire ripped through the night, shattering the silence.
Gosling collapsed where he stood.
Another shot rang out and the DEA agent grunted and crumpled to the ground.
Instinct made the remaining members of the SEAL team drop to their bellies.
His heart slamming into his ribs, adrenaline racing through his veins, Rip low crawled to the two men who 'd been hit. He shone his red penlight over Gosling. The man had taken the bullet in the throat. By the dark stain spreading in a wide blob on the ground around him, Rip suspected the bullet had cut a hole in the young SEAL's jugular vein. He lay sprawled on his side, his body completely still. Rip covered the wound with his hand, but nothing he did could slow the flow of blood.
"Roll call," Gunny spoke into Rip's headset. One by one the other team members reported in.
"Schafer," Rip said. His heart in his throat, he reported, "Gosling took a hit."
Sawyer spun around and low crawled with his weapon in front of him to where Gosling lay unmoving. He jerked Rip's hand off the wound. "Damn."
Gunny muttered a curse, "Status."
For a moment Rip closed his eyes, thinking of his last conversation with the young petty officer. Gosling's wife was expecting their first child. He 'd been so proud, scared and excited all at once.
Sawyer answered, "Gosling's dead."
Though Rip knew it, hearing Sawyer's confirmation made it all the more real and heartbreaking. Overwhelmed with grief but knowing they still had to get the agent out, he moved toward the other downed man a yard away. The agent had been hit in the chest. Without the armor plate the SEALs wore in their vests, he hadn't been protected.
"Our guest? " Gunny demanded. Rip felt for a pulse. As he pressed his fingers to the base of the man's throat, a hand snaked out and grabbed his wrist with surprising strength.
In the darkness of the night, Rip could see the whites of the man's eyes staring up at him.
"Set up," the agent said, his voice nothing more than a guttural whisper. He reached up to the medallion around his neck, yanked it free and pressed it into Rip's hand. "Find out who."
"Who what?"Rip asked.
"Status on our extraction?" Gunny's voice sounded loud in Rip's ear.
"Conscious, but not good," Rip replied, stuffing the medallion into his pocket.
Shouts could be heard in the village behind them as the occupants raised the alarm. Lights blinked on and headlights lit the night. The tap, tap, tap of gunfire broke through the night's silence.
"Let's get out of here." Gunny raced back to where Sawyer and Rip were leaning over the wounded men. "I'll take the agent."
The agent gripped Rip's arm and refused to let go.
Rip straightened, bringing the man up and throwing him over his shoulder. "I've got the agent. Get Gosling. He deserves a proper burial."
Cursing, Gunny hesitated only a moment before pitching Gosling over his shoulder, muttering, "This wasn't the way this was supposed to go down, damn it."
Rip didn't wait. With the deadweight of the wounded agent bearing down on him, he took off at an awkward lope racing through the trees and vines toward the boat they'd left in the nearby river. Silence wasn't necessary. Speed was.
Montana ran ahead to get the boat engines started. Sawyer brought up the rear, covering their sixes as Rip and Gunny carried their burdens over the uneven floor of the jungle.
Shots rang out behind them. A vehicle full of angry terrorists raced toward them. Sawyer held them at bay, firing short bursts of rounds into the night. He ejected his clip and without missing a beat slammed another home while running backward to keep up with the other SEALs.
When Rip reached the boat, he jumped on board and laid his charge on the deck. He manned his position behind a grenade launcher, waiting for Sawyer to emerge from the tree line.
Gunny jumped on board, dropped Gosling on deck and took a position behind a machine gun.
As soon as Sawyer cleared the trees, Gunny opened fire on the oncoming sets of headlights.
Rip launched a grenade, aiming at the line of vehicles barreling through the underbrush.
As Sawyer leaped aboard, Montana hit the throttle, spun the craft around on the water and gunned it, sending it speeding downriver, bullets plinking off the hull and hitting the water around them.
Not until they were a good mile downstream did Rip glance down at Sawyer working over the body of the DEA agent.
Rip shook his head. The mission had gone like clockwork. They'd been out of the village, on their way back. What the hell had happened? Rip glanced at his teammate's lifeless body on the deck of the boat. Gosling was dead. Two shots were fired and then none until the terrorists had loaded up in their trucks and given chase.
Whoever had fired the first two shots could have taken out more, if not all, of the SEAL team. Why hadn't he?
When the boat reached the helicopter landing zone, Sawyer rocked back on his heels, his shoulders slumped. Gunny shot a glance back at him. " Well? " Sawyer shook his head. "He's dead."
"Hey, sweetie, would you like a drink?"
Rip blinked up at the waitress standing beside him with a tray in her hands. For a full thirty seconds he couldn't remember where he was. He'd done it again. The shrinks he'd seen in the past had said part of post-traumatic stress disorder was flashbacks to events that had an indelible impact on him.
"Excuse me?" he said, buying time for his mind to reconnect with his surroundings.
"Would you like a drink?" the waitress repeated.
He shook his head. "No, thank you."
The woman moved away to the next customer in the casino.
Rip stared around at row after row of brightly lit slot machines, pinging, ringing or plinking in the darkness. For a long moment he wondered how the hell he'd gone from a hot, humid, bug- and snake-infested jungle to an upscale casino in Mississippi.
Then he remembered all the events that had led up to this meeting. All that had happened since getting back from Honduras.
He stared around the dimly lit room.
What's keeping him?
The past six weeks since their failed mission had been a blur. Rip had been back on duty with his team, while covertly researching the odd medallion the DEA agent had shoved into his hand.
The medallion had been a clever disguise for an electronic storage device on which were stored hundreds of photos of the terrorist training camp and crates of American-made weapons and ammunition disguised as World Health Organization donations.
And based on the botched mission in Honduras, someone higher up didn't want the agent or anyone else exposing who was providing the weapons from the States. How else could a sniper have known exactly when and where they would be unless someone had tipped them off?
Rip had pilfered a copy of the after-action report, developed the pictures and was in the process of piecing things together when an assassin started stalking him. He'd found out that details of their mission had been leaked. Not only after its failure, but before it had even been launched.
Someone, possibly in a high-ranking political position, wanted that agent dead and had sent the SEALs in to get him out of the village and into the open so a sniper could take him out. It was the only answer he could come up with given the limited information he had.
Rip was in hiding, officially missing and presumed dead. The Navy still thought he'd been swallowed by the Pearl River after being shot during a live-fire training mission with Navy SEALs Special Boat Team 22. If not for the help of former SEAL James "Cowboy" Monahan and Rip's old friend FBI Agent Melissa Bradley, Rip might not still be alive. The two had persevered, and searched the river until they found him holed up in a shack in the Mississippi bayou.
Lucky me. Rip snorted.
Now, after spending the past three weeks recovering from his gunshot wound, Rip was finally able to pursue his self-appointed mission.
He'd gotten his commander and the few members of his team who'd been involved in his rescue to keep his survival on the down low until he could find the persons responsible for the death of the undercover DEA agent.
He couldn't engage his team in this mission without disclosing to the world and to whoever was responsible for the assassination of the agent that the Navy's Chief Petty Officer Cord Schafer was alive and well. In order to keep from becoming a target again, it was best if he remained "dead" until he resolved the situation.
Only, he knew he couldn't do it on his own. He needed a partner, a cover and fake passports to get him down to Honduras without raising red flags to the terrorist organization or the traitorous Americans supplying them with weapons.
Sitting in a crowded casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, with a baseball cap pulled low over his brow, he waited for his contact, not knowing who he was or what he looked like, only that Cowboy's new boss, billionaire Hank Derringer, was sending one of his operatives from Covert Cowboys, Inc.
Rip glanced up every time a man slowed near the slot machine he was only halfheartedly playing. He looked for a man in a cowboy hat and boots, but most of the men in the place were hatless, gray-haired and wearing comfortable loafers.
Glancing at his watch once again, he started getting nervous. He hadn't been out in public since the mercenary had shot him. Feeling exposed, he sat at the designated position in the selected casino, at the exact time he was supposed to meet his contact.
Where the hell was his cowboy?
Shoving another token into the machine, he punched the spin button without caring what pictures he'd land on. He was surprised when three cherries lined up on the screen and tokens plinked into the tray below.
Soft, slender hands slid over his shoulders and down the front of his chest, and a sultry voice whispered in his ear, "Getting lucky, sweetheart?"
Nerves stretched to the breaking point, Rip fought the urge to grab the arm, spin around and slam the person to the floor. Instead, he spun on the stool in such a way he had the woman sitting across his lap before she knew his intentions.
Her eyes widened briefly and then narrowed. "Wanna take your winnings and buy me a drink?" She had long dark brown hair, green eyes and a lean, athletic figure dressed in a red cotton sundress that screamed tourist.
Though he gave the appearance of being happy to see her, his hand on her wrist was tight. She wouldn't get away easily or without raising a ruckus. He smiled at her and, through his teeth, he demanded, "Who the hell are you?"
She smiled back at him, cupped his face with her other hand and patted his cheek, not so gently. "I'm your contact, so play nice and pretend you're happy to see me."
For a brief moment he frowned.
She laughed out loud. "If that's happy, you're a terrible actor. Make like we're a couple."
"Since I didn't get the memo, I'm a little slow on the uptake. Let me set the stage." Getting past the shock of his contact's gender, Rip had to admit she was a lot prettier than any cowboy he might have expected. He wrapped his arm around her waist, then slid his hand up into her dark brown hair and pressed the back of her neck, angling her face toward his.
"What are you doing?" she said, her eyes widening.
"I would think it was obvious. I'm showing you how happy I am to see you." Then he captured her mouth in a deep, lip-crushing kiss.
Apparently she was so shocked that her mouth opened. Rip slid his tongue in and caressed the length of hers.
At first her hands, trapped between them, pressed against his chest. But after a moment or two, her fingers curled into his shirt and she kissed him back.
When he finally came up for air, it took him a second or two to come back to his senses and remember where he was, yet again.
He stood so quickly, he had to steady her on her feet before he let go of her. "Let's get out of here."
"What about your winnings?" she said.
He scooped up enough tokens for two full cups, carried them over to a gray-haired senior citizen and dumped them into her slot machine tray. "Congratulations, you're a winner." He kissed the woman's cheek, grabbed his contact's hand and headed for the door.
The woman whose hand he held hurried to keep up with him in her bright red cowboy boots. "You were playing the dollar slots."
"So?" he countered.
"That was probably a couple hundred dollars."
"Then that woman will go home happy."
He tipped his baseball cap lower over his forehead, slid his arm around her waist and smiled down at her as he stepped out into the sauna-like Mississippi late afternoon sunshine. "Where's your car?"
"This way." She guided him to the parking lot and stopped beside a large black 4x4 truck with twenty-inch rims and tinted windows.
"Seriously?" Rip shook his head. "This is yours?"
"One of the perks of working for Hank Derringer. That and an arsenal of every weapon you could possibly need." When she hit the key fob, the engine started and the doors unlocked. She opened the driver's side door and nodded to the passenger seat. "Hop in."
"How do I know you really work for Hank?"
"You don't. But has anyone else shown up and told you he's your contact?"
"You have that." She raised her eyebrows, the saucy expression doing funny things to his insides. "So, do you trust me, or not?"
His lips curled upward on the ends. "I'll go with not."
"Oh, come on, sweetheart." She batted her pretty green eyes and gave him a sexy smile. "What's not to trust?"