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Chapter One Wednesday, April 3rd
She might be every man’s wet dream, but right now Kane Wright wanted to nail AJ Cooper’s beautiful ass to the wall.
A bullet slammed into the ruined wall behind him. Shards of ricocheted limestone stung his face, missing his eye by a blink. He didn’t flinch. Hell, barely noticed it in the chaos around them.
“Cooper.” He didn’t raise his voice despite the volume of firepower lighting up the early-evening sky. The lip mic would transmit the sound of a gnat fart. Exchanged bullets kicked up sand and stone in a cacophony of noise and brilliant white light. “Get your ass back here!”
In lead position, AJ lay flat on her stomach fifty feet ahead of him on a cantilevered rock peninsula high above Raazaq’s camp. She was in the ready position, but frozen like a deer in headlights, sniper rifle silent, and useless, in her hands.
“N-no,” she whispered. Her voice shook on the single word, but she dug her toes into the sand and hunched over the weapon she held with a white-fisted grip.
“Not a request. An order.” Damn it. Another bullet pockmarked the building beside him and a new shower of rock and plaster rained down on him. The only reason the bullets hadn’t struck any of his team was because the terrorist’s camp was several hundred feet downhill in the shallow, palm-groved valley below them. The minute Raazaq’s men got their hands on something more powerful than rifles, the odds would even up. This was the tangos’ terrain; they had the home team advantage.
The element of surprise was shot. Kane and his team were screwed if they didn’t wrangle their way out of this mess. Fast.
AJ’s swallow sounded loud in his ear. “I can still get him.”
“No,” he said calmly. “You cannot.” Sharpshooter First Class, my ass. She’d missed her target.
Hell. The target.
A clear shot, and she’d missed!
She’d been chosen for her uncanny marksmanship ability, and hurriedly pulled out of boot camp for this op, but clearly she wasn’t ready for fieldwork. A little late in the fucking day to find this out. Sniping was a painstaking discipline, and she didn’t have the cajônes for the job.
In the space of minutes, Cooper had gone from being Kane’s best asset to his biggest liability.
Three separate cylinders of yard-long white flame arced over their heads. A line of tracers sprang from each muzzle flash, allowing the tangos to shoot without a metal sight on their weapons. AJ’s slender shoulders went rigid as the ammo impacted close by.
“Hit the limo,” Kane ordered Struben and Escobar, as Raazaq’s stretch did a wobbly rooster tail in the sand, then sped into the desert. One of his men managed to hit the left back tire. It swerved, but kept going. Shit.
“Hold them off until I get her clear,” he told the two men. “Cooper? Take it slowly and ease back, we’ve got you covered.”
“Did you just turn off your mi—Goddamn it, woman!” Nailing her ass to a fucking wall was just the beginning.
Kane started crawling toward her. Getting on her case right now wouldn’t accomplish anything. She was scared. Fear did strange things to people. He recognized the signs. Beneath the backward black ball cap she wore, her face was a pale oval, sheened with perspiration. Her soft lips, set and grim. The sniper rifle was tucked against her shoulder, her hands in position. But those hands were clenched, and no doubt sweating to beat the band. Kane had seen the same look from other rookies over the years.
Paralyzed with terror.
On some training op, that would be no big deal.
Tonight, she’d fucked it up for all of them.
Great. Just fucking great. This was all he needed.
In a training situation he’d have felt compassion and talked the rookie through it. God only knew, been there, done that. But this op was too critical, too time sensitive to mollycoddle anyone. She had to get her shit together. And she had to do it now.
A sharpshooter terrified to discharge her weapon.
Something his superiors had conveniently omitted in the briefing when they’d convinced him, against his better judgment, that she was invaluable to this operation.
“It’s over, rookie,” he told her evenly, overriding her control of her own mic. Her breathing was fast and shallow in his ear. He felt a faint pull of sympathy, which he instantly quashed. “Surprise is shot. We’re pinned down. Pull back. Now.”
Click. “I c-can do it.”
If her hands shook as badly as her voice, they’d be lucky if her bullet hit something in the same country. “I gave an order, Cooper. The limo split. Your target’s gone. Now get the hell back here.”
More muzzle flares lit up the sky, filling the air with the thick smell of ozone and cordite. Twilight, coupled with flying stone and sand, and unpredictable brilliant bursts of light, reduced visibility to near zero. Kane wanted to race across the rubble separating them, grab the woman by the scruff of her neck, and . . . what?
Hell if he knew. Get her out of the line of fire, for one thing.
“Cooper. Pull back!” Radio silence throbbed in his ear once more. “Goddamn it, woman, turn on your mic and talk to me.” The sky lit up with another artillery round. Score one for our side. Good man, Escobar.
This was a waste of ammunition. Time to bail.
The op had gone tits up soon after the four-man team inserted two hours ago. The sun was mercifully setting, but the temp still hovered in the high nineties. He, of all people, should’ve known this break had been too easy. Too pat.
Sweat stung his eyes. His shirt clung to his skin like a shroud. And if he didn’t get Cooper fully functioning PDQ, a shroud was what they’d all be wearing. Soon.
In the distance, the night skyline of Cairo made for a strange juxtaposition between the crumbling ancient ruins where they were taking cover and the world of modern-day Egypt.
Five hundred yards below them, Raazaq’s camp was lit up like Ramadan and Christmas combined. When they’d arrived on this ruined little hilltop citadel, Kane had counted four all-terrain vehicles in the terrorist camp. Also, incongruously, the long, black stretch limo, which was now gone, and approximately thirty turbaned heads. Raazaq’s people were armed to the teeth, and well trained.
Time to get the good guys the hell outta Dodge. Kane signaled Escobar and Struben. They signaled back. Acknowledged.
AJ’s entire body was backlit as a mortar shell exploded just this side of the rise. They’d brought out the big guns.
Close. Too damn close.
What the hell was she thinking? Move, damn it! She hadn’t budged in three minutes. Even from yards back, and in the iffy light, he saw the whiteness of her knuckles as she clutched the Dragunov. What you planning to do, Cooper? Club them to death? Shoot, damn it, shoot!
“Escobar,” he muttered, and the other man’s head jerked up. “Get her.”
“Yo.” Escobar, closer to the left and above the rookie, slid down the wall and inched his way toward Cooper’s position.
Night slammed down, black and deadly. Dusk didn’t last long in the desert. Escobar inched up beside Cooper, but she didn’t acknowledge his presence. Probably didn’t even hear him with the noise all around them.
Kane’s annoyance had evolved into a serious case of pissed. She still wasn’t acknowledging his order, or even noticing that her incompetence had forced him to send another team member to grab her ass out of the fire. She was shaking hard enough to make the sand vibrate and clutching the weapon as if she still had something to offer the op. Shit! She was endangering them all. Kane discharged a volley of shots over their heads, laying down cover fire.
Escobar grabbed her shoulder. Startled, Cooper whipped round and slammed her elbow up hard into his jaw at exactly the same moment a bullet slammed into his upper arm. She’d already turned back to the action before Escobar went down like a rock—from her blow, not the bullet. His weapon bounced off a cracked wall and skittered into the dirt to land three feet away as he slumped against the ruins like a Saturday night drunk.
“Shit.” Kane started belly-crawling toward them. Fast. Why the hell had he let them talk him into bringing Cooper in on this mission? Not only was she unseasoned, she was insubordinate and un-fucking-predictable.
He crawled faster, past his injured operative—he’d live—over rocks the size of his fist, over jagged bits of broken brick, cursing under his breath every inch of the way. He grabbed Cooper’s waistband in his right fist, put his left arm up to protect his head from her instinctive jab, and hauled her backward just as the crumbling wall beside her exploded in a shower of fragments.
Burying his face against her sweaty back, he covered her head with his arms. She struggled beneath him, all sharp bones and prickly attitude. “Now I get your attention? A little goddamn late, Cooper.”
“Get off me, I told you I could do it.”
Kane pressed her flat with his hands and body until the hail of bullets moved on.
“Off.” AJ spat out a mouthful of dirt, and managed to turn her head so her cheek, instead of her nose, pressed into the ground. Her eyes stung, and her heart beat so fast she was terrified she’d hyperventilate and pass out. Nausea rose in ever-increasing waves.
She’d missed Raazaq. Missed!
It was humiliating enough her team knew she was chicken. Manny Escobar and Richard Struben might understand. . . . But Kane Wright? No way.
To fail her assignment. To fail at something she was good at . . . and then to fall apart in front of the great Kane Wright, and on their first assignment together . . . She blinked grit from her eyes.
Easy shot, Cooper. Easy. Might’ve even worked if you’d kept your eyes open! Humiliation didn’t begin to cover her sense of self-disgust. She could have done it with a second chance. He should’ve . . . No, damn it. She should’ve . . .
She’d always admired and respected his reputation. Kane Wright was a T-FLAC legend. He wouldn’t’ve needed a second chance. He’d been her role model since she’d been recruited from the Police Academy last year. She’d transferred her hero worship from her brother, Gabriel, to Kane Wright without even realizing it at the time. He was everything she wanted to be. Damn it, could be—should be.
“Let me up. I can still get him.” A lovely sentiment if either of them believed it for a second. They both knew Raazaq’s people had spirited him out of their camp at the first missed shot. Her shot.
AJ shoved at him, but she might as well have tried to shove a mountain off her back. Frustration gathered in her chest, tight as a fist, while her heart pounded hard enough to choke her.
“He’s long gone. You had your shot, Cooper. It’s over. Now we get the hell out. Fast.”
She’d jeopardized the mission and the team. The ultimate sin. “Damn it. I have to finish what I was sent to do.”
“A day late, and a bullet short. Two seconds after you killed that lantern, Raazaq was outta there. You snooze, you lose.” He was heavy, his breath hot on her cheek. “Now I see why they offered you that desk job. Accept it when you get back. Tomorrow.”
She couldn’t be tossed out of T-FLAC. She wouldn’t. She had a family tradition to uphold. “Just get off me and let me do my job. I can still get his key people.”
“Opportunity lost. No do-overs in the real world. Grab your weapons. Op over.”
Yeah, she thought, sick with a churning mix of disappointment, fear, and humiliation, op over. The sharp metallic scent of blood lingering in the hot night air impinged on her skittering thoughts.
Had Wright taken a bullet? “Were you hit?” she asked frantically. It came out as a hoarse croak.
“Not me. Escobar.”
“Manny?” She tried to scan the area to see where Escobar was. See if he needed help. Her visibility was restricted because her face was being smashed into the ground by Kane Wright’s weight, and the darkness.
“He’ll live.” His warm, moist breath fanned against the side of her face. “Grab your weapons and haul ass. Or do I have to repeat every frigging order ten times before you get it? Did you skip that part of your training?” he growled. “You’re supposed to follow orders without hesitation. Take a look at Escobar. Your hesitation is the only reason he’s got an arm full of lead.”
Thanks. Like I need your help to feel like any more of an inept schmuck.
The weight of Kane’s body was oppressive, suffocating. Just like his reputation. Her clothing was drenched in sweat, and sand clung like guilt to any exposed skin. “Kinda hard with you on top of me.”
He rolled off her and got to his feet, crouching low to keep from skylining himself for the enemy, then turned and held out his hand, presumably to help her up. AJ busied herself staggering to her feet and picked up the Dragunov where it had fallen when he grabbed her. She kicked the spring-loaded bipod back into position, then snatched up her fallen baseball cap, and crammed it, backward, on her head. Lifted the Dragunov to her shoulder . . .
Kane’s hand shot out and clamped the muzzle of the sniper rifle in a hard grip. “Quit while you’re ahead, Cooper.”
This was ahead?
She wanted to vomit.
She wanted to disappear.
Oh, God. Worse.
She wanted to cry.
He gave her a hard look that was easily translated, and released his hold on the rifle with an eloquent downward shove. “Let’s do it,” he said flatly, heading toward Manny in a low crouch.
Weapons-fire lit up the sky with a series of loud, reverberating bangs and blinding flashes.
“Grab his weapon.” Kane stooped, shouldered Escobar in a fireman’s lift, then moved crablike, backward, over rock and sand. “Get the lead out. Struben can’t hold them off forever.”
She could at least do this right. AJ got off a few covering shots, snatched up Manny’s fallen weapon, then followed Kane, throat tight, heart galloping as bullets whizzed by, missing them by a breath. She flinched with every round.
Struben covered them until they reached his position. He gave her a contemptuous glance as they came level. Blood rushed to her cheeks. No comment necessary. As one, they scrambled over half walls and obstacles and careened down the small hill behind the deserted, ancient village where they’d hidden their vehicle earlier. Machine-gun fire sounded behind them like a nightmare chasing to catch up.
“Want me to drive?” Struben reached for the handle.
“In back with Escobar.” Kane pulled open the back door, tossed Escobar on the floorboard, then vaulted over the door on the driver side.
“Aw, shit. I’d rather sit in front,” Struben complained, hefting his weapon and scowling. “People around Cooper end up getting shot, man.” He smirked. “Unless you’re a bad guy, that is.”
“Front.” Wright jabbed a finger at AJ, and to the other man, “Can the editorial. Get in or you get left behind.”
The vehicle was someone’s half-assed attempt at a convertible. The top had been removed as if by a giant can opener. A convertible wasn’t going to be a whole hell of a lot of protection. Unless it converted into an armored tank.
“Take care of his arm as best you can,” Wright told Struben without turning around. The key cranked in the ignition several times before the engine caught. “Then take position. They’ll be on our ass as soon as they notice we’ve split.”
Without comment, the other man climbed in back and got to work.
AJ threw her leg over the door and climbed in on the passenger’s side. She set the sniper rifle on the floor, switched to her AK-47, then knelt on the seat. She rested her elbows on the seat back and cradled the weapon in suddenly steady hands.
Sure. Now she was calm.
Damn it. Up there on the rise it had been a flat wind. Her rifle should’ve driven tacks.
Breathing slow, measured breaths, like they’d taught her in sniper school, AJ had felt the adrenaline rush as she’d started a slow belly crawl, following her Dragunov across exposed sand to the outcropping overlooking Raazaq’s camp.
Excitement had risen inside her like a groundswell. Like the crescendo in Beethoven’s Fifth. Like the sharp, sweet moment just before a climax.
She’d laid her cheek against the sun-heated rock slab, forcing herself to slow. Discipline, she told herself. No need to hurry. Down below they were preparing the evening meal, oblivious to the four people above them who held their lives in their hands.
Even without her optics, she’d been able to see the sentries down below, cradling blue-steel Ruger assault rifles as they manned the perimeter of the camp. Raazaq and his lieutenants gathered off to one side, drinking thick coffee and planning God only knew what kind of mayhem.
AJ had felt a swell of patriotic pride. By doing her job tonight, thousands of future lives would be spared.
She’d reached forward and flipped the spring-loaded bipod into position, giving her rifle legs. Shoving a small beanbag under the stock to support the weight of her upper body, she settled into position.
I’m here, she’d thought, jazzed beyond belief, in the field. For real. For God and country. And she’d felt the power of life and death at the pull of the trigger.
Conditioned not to reach past the safety until just the right moment to kill. Left arm folded up beneath her, elbow forward, fingers pinching the beanbag to adjust the angle, she’d watched the sentries circle the camp. Watched as Raazaq drank coffee.
Through the rifle’s scope she’d been able to see her target’s face with crystal clarity. Swarthy. Hard features. Cold eyes. Slight. Well dressed. Thousand-dollar suit.
The irony of long-range surveillance was the intimacy.
Raazaq had recently had a manicure. His china cup had little blue flowers painted on it. Small details filtered into her brain, making up the whole.
The Dragunov, a gift from her brother, was like an old friend. Certified to shoot a quarter of a mile of angle at two hundred yards. Which meant under perfect conditions, which these were, her rifle could imprint three consecutive rounds in the same hole. Say good night, Gracie.
All she had to do was estimate distance, turn the scope to the appropriate number, hold the crosshairs on the Y-shaped veins standing out on Raazaq’s forehead, and pull the trigger. Piece of cake.
Her right hand had caressed the grip. Thumb loosely opposite her index finger, squeezing just enough to feel its pebbled texture. She’d set her cheek weld against the stock, finding the eye relief necessary to center the crosshairs in the scope tube.
“Five,” Kane had said in her ear, starting the launch sequence.
She’d aligned her body with the recoil path to minimize muzzle jump when a round kicked out at thirty hundred feet per second.
She’d pressed her hips to the ground, spread her knees shoulder-width for stability.
She’d slid the first bullet into the battery with her index finger so she could feel the seating. The first shot was called a cold bore. An unpracticed leap of faith imprint on a fresh target. She’d pressed the heels of her boots flat to minimize profile.
All outside influences had faded away. Just her and her weapon. Touching. As in tune as two lovers.
God, she’d been ready. . . .
AJ bit her tongue in the here and now as their vehicle bounced over a sand dune. She snapped to, and tried to concentrate on the current situation. Time enough later to rehash what had happened back there. Or more accurately, what had not happened.
Behind them the dark desert floor stretched to infinity. Sand. Sand. And more sand. It wouldn’t be long now. . . .
“Still clear,” she told the others through her lip mic.
Struben, crouched awkwardly over the foot-well, didn’t bother to glance up as his hands moved efficiently to stem the flow of blood on his partner’s arm.
Escobar opened his eyes as Struben tied off the makeshift bandage. “Heyya, beautiful.”
Struben chuckled, since his partner was looking at him when he said it. “Asshole.”
Manny shifted his focus to look up at AJ.
“How’re you doing, bud?” AJ’s voice sounded scratchy with guilt as she made eye contact with him over the back of her seat. I’m so sorry, Manny.
Escobar gave her a goofy smile from his prone position. We’re cool. “Scratch.”
A scratch that hurt like a red-hot poker being thrust into your flesh. Over and over and over again. AJ absently rubbed the healing wound on her left shoulder. “Liar.”
“Macho.” He grinned before admitting, “Hurts like hell.” He glanced from AJ to Struben then back again. “Did we get him?”
“Ask Coop,” Struben said flatly.
Manny might not’ve heard the accusation in Struben’s voice, but AJ had. The injured man shifted his focus to look up at her again. His face was ghostly pale, sweaty, and covered with sand.
“No,” she told him flatly, envying him his ability to take pain without a flinch.
“Back to plan A, huh?”
If Kane Wright allowed her to stay in country to do what she was sent to do, then yes. She shot Wright a sideways glance. His face was as sweaty and sandy as the rest of theirs, his expression closed. The stubble on his rigid jaw made him look sinister and dangerously appealing. AJ gave herself a mental shake. She was in enough trouble without bringing her attraction to him into the mix.
“Plan A,” Kane agreed, but before AJ could relax, he added, “with modifications.”
Her cheeks flamed, and her temper rose as anger began to overtake humiliation. She pushed it back and tried for calm and rational. “I can do it.”
“Forget it.” He spoke into his lip mic, so it sounded as though he were whispering directly into her ear.
AJ shivered. “You’re good. But even the great Kane Wright can’t pull this one off. You need me.”
“Don’t bet on it, Sparky.” He downshifted and the car lunged forward like an aging tiger after prey. “Just cover the retreat. Assuming you can do that without shooting one of us.”
“Up yours,” she muttered, and glanced down to see Escobar’s wink. At least Manny wasn’t blaming her. But then, he didn’t have to. She could do that for herself. No matter what Kane might say to their superiors, it wouldn’t be enough to best what she was already telling herself. She’d failed. When it had mattered most, she’d come up short.
She’d be damned if she’d prove her family right. She was cut out for this line of work. Not only cut out for it, but capable, and good. Damn it.
She wouldn’t fail again. Right now she could do her job by protecting their backs. She’d show Kane she wasn’t just ballast. AJ braced herself as best she could as the small car shot down the incline in a cloud of dust. Kane hadn’t turned on the headlights, and the sliver of a moon was nothing more than a suggestion of cool, pale light in the ink-black sky. The tires bounced and rattled on the shaley ground. There was no road, just sand for miles around.
No one said a word. What was there to say? The fact that they’d found Raazaq’s camp was a miracle in itself. It was surprisingly close to the city, but still a ways off the beaten path. Kane had surmised Raazaq’s people were laying in supplies before they took off for Fayoum. If they could eliminate Raazaq before he traveled south it would save them a lot of headaches.
Well, thanks to her, they hadn’t succeeded. They were back to square one.
AJ wanted to breathe a sigh of relief that they’d made it out of there alive despite her screwup. But she knew damn well they weren’t safe yet.
“We’ve got company,” she and Struben said in unison as several pairs of headlights crested a rise behind them, illuminating the cloud of sand in their wake. Shots blasted at them as Raazaq’s men roared up in their sand spume. Just show. They were too far away, as yet, to make any impact. But that was about to change.
Like everything else Kane Wright did, he drove incredibly well. The car was a piece of crap, but the best they’d been able to commandeer on short notice. Yet Kane made the vehicle corner like a well-oiled machine. Still, the shocks were nonexistent, and AJ bit her tongue several times, tasting the metallic tang of blood, as they bounced over the dunes.
“Savage wouldn’t have missed,” she said. Like an abscessed tooth, AJ’s guilt throbbed relentlessly.
“Damn straight,” Wright said tightly.
There was nothing to say to that. Savage, too, was a T-FLAC legend, but the more experienced T-FLAC agent was in a leg cast and stuck in a hospital in South America. Savage would not have missed that shot. Raazaq had been right there in AJ’s crosshairs. Right there. And she’d bull’s-eyed a nearby lantern instead, setting off a small fire, and alerting them to her presence. It was FUBAR of gigantic proportions.
“Can we save the postmortem for later?” AJ shouted over the gunfire and the rattle and clang coming from what was passing as an engine. She kept her weapon trained on their trail, but Raazaq’s people hadn’t closed the gap sufficiently to waste serious firepower. Yet.
“Sure,” Wright said in her ear. “Right now, it would be nice just to stay alive. Tomorrow—damn it,” he whipped the car around a small dune, “you go home with Escobar. Struben and I will finish the mission.”
“I’m sure T-FLAC will recall me as soon as you file your incident report. Until then, I’m still part of this team.”
“I don’t need someone who’s gonna freeze.”
His voice was its usual controlled and chilly calm, tinged with just a hint of sarcasm. AJ felt as though he’d whipped her with live electrical wire. If she didn’t admire him so much, she’d hate him for being so perfect. But she did admire him. And damn it, he was right. She bit her tongue on a smart-ass comeback, and did a quick swipe of her hand down her damp cotton pants to get rid of the clammy sweat on her palm. She had plenty of experience with forceful men. She’d been around them all her life. Her father and brother were just the first of many. But Kane Wright wasn’t a man she could wrap around her little finger. Neither did she want to.
Anyway, this was neither the time nor the place to use the womanly wiles she so despised. She’d joined T-FLAC to put her brain and training to use. It was a refreshing change to have a guy not look at her as a sex object. Even if that guy happened to see her as a particularly inept field operative.
“Aw, man! I’m going back?” Manny complained on the mic. He sounded pissed.
“How bad’s the arm?” Kane demanded.
There was a long drawn-out silence. “Bad,” Manny admitted reluctantly.
“Your woman can kiss it all better when you get home,” Kane told him.
“Get your sorry butt off the floor and help cover our ass,” Kane finished for him.
Manny scuffled around, then levered himself up beside Struben to give her a clear shot. AJ winced empathetically when he readied his weapon. His arm must hurt like hell. He’d have cold sweats, be feeling light-headed, sick to his stomach . . . but he’d do what he had to do.
Not like her.
Live with it, Cooper. Live with it.
She saw a flash of light, a quick flare behind them. There. Gone, in the thick darkness. A bullet hit the dash behind her, missing her by inches. She bit her lip to keep from scream- ing. “Closing in,” she shouted, unnecessarily, blinking back fear-induced sweat from her eyes.
“Deal with it.” The engine whined in protest as Kane demanded more speed. A rooster tail of sand fanned out on either side of the wheels.
They were close.
Too damn close.
“Go. Go. GO! Rocket launcher. Incoming!” Heart in her throat, AJ identified the blast as light and heat flew over their heads and disappeared into the night.
Jesus God. A rocket launcher? This close?
They were toast.
From the Paperback edition.