Out of Time

Out of Time

by Monica McCarty
Out of Time

Out of Time

by Monica McCarty

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A hunt for dangerous secrets leads to explosive chemistry in this exhilarating romantic suspense novel from the New York Times bestselling author of Off the Grid.

A team of Navy SEALs go on a mission and disappear without a trace—they are The Lost Platoon. 

With his men scattered to all corners of the globe after a disastrous secret op in Russia, Lieutenant Commander Scott Taylor is trying to find out who was responsible for leaking the information that killed half his platoon. Were it not for Natalie Andersson, the woman he'd been secretly dating in the Pentagon who'd warned him of the danger, he knows they'd all be dead. Scott is devastated when he hears that the woman he loved and hoped to marry has been killed for helping him—until he learns that Natalie was the spy who betrayed them. But when his search to clear his name brings him face-to-face with a very much alive Natalie, Scott realizes that justice and vengeance might not be as clear-cut as he thought. 

Natalie Andersson, or as she was born Natalya Petrova, has put the memories of her early childhood in Russia behind her. She never dreamed that she would be at the center of an elaborate "sleeper" espionage program. Even when she learns the truth, she refuses to spy for the country of her birth, until the Russians threaten the lives of the only family she's ever known. But Natalie is the worst spy in the history of spying, falling for her target. When her attempt at misdirection leads to irreversible consequences, she's forced to run for her life, with her lover hot on her tail.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399587740
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/31/2018
Series: The Lost Platoon , #3
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 244,255
Product dimensions: 4.10(w) x 6.60(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Monica McCarty is the bestselling author of The Arrow, The Raider, The Hunter, the Highlander trilogy, the Campbell trilogy, and more. Her interest in the Scottish clan system began in the most unlikely of places: a comparative legal history course at Stanford Law School. After a short but enjoyable stint as an attorney, she realized that her career as a lawyer paired with her husband’s transitory life as a professional baseball player was not the best match. So she traded in her legal briefs for Scottish historical romances with sexy alpha hero's. She now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and their two children.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2018 Monica McCarty



Vorkuta, Russia

May 28th, 1500 hours

“What are we gonna do now, sir?”

It was Travis Hart who posed the question, but there were five gazes pinned on Scott, waiting for his response. Scott was the officer in charge. The leader. The one who was going to get them out of this shit creek without the proverbial paddle. FUBAR, the age-old military acronym for “fucked up beyond all recognition,” was putting it mildly.

They were lucky to be alive. Even if it didn’t feel that way. Instinctively, his hand went to the circle of metal in the chest pocket of the high-tech tactical black uniform they wore for clandestine missions. He didn’t even know why he’d brought it with him. An engagement ring wasn’t exactly something you carried on a mission, like a blowout kit or extra ammo. A good luck charm, maybe? If so, it had worked.

For six of them.

The platoon had been on a highly covert, no footprint, recon mission to Russia in search of doomsday weapons that broke God-knew-how-many laws and treaties. It had seen over half their team killed in a missile strike that would have killed all of them if the girlfriend Scott wasn’t supposed to have hadn’t warned them of the trap. Six of them had survived the missile strike with little more than the clothes on their backs. Now they had to find their way out of BF Russia without letting anyone know they were alive—good guys or bad—because they didn’t know whom to trust.

Just another day at the office for SEAL Team Nine.

After fifteen years in service, Scott should have been ready for something like this. First he’d had four years as a midshipman at the Naval Academy—his last year as brigade commander. That had been followed by twenty-four of the most miserable weeks of his life in BUD/S, three weeks of jump school, and twenty-six more slightly less hellish weeks of SEAL Qualification Training. Add another two years of training, workups, and overseas deployments with Team One as a JG (lieutenant junior grade), six months of sniper school, and finally, after another two-year tour, he’d had the brutal six-month selection process that had gotten him into the tier-one (aka highest level Special Mission Unit) SEAL team.

Scott had jumped from airplanes at high altitudes too many times to count, run until his feet were bloody stumps, swum in icy-cold water until he thought his fingers and other more important appendages might fall off, gone without sleep and food for too many hours to remember, been deployed to more shit hole corners of this world than anyone in their right mind would want to see, and led hundreds of successful missions in the past five years as lieutenant (as of a few months ago as lieutenant commander) of one of America’s most elite special operations units. He’d been shot at, stabbed, ambushed—he’d even gone down in a helicopter once. Along the way he’d picked up two Bronze Stars for valor, a Purple Heart, and enough ribbons and commendation medals to fill out the jacket pocket of his dress blues.

But none of his qualifications or years of training and experience had prepared him for how to get six military-aged men—who even with longer hair and beards weren’t going to pass for locals—from an isolated coal-mining city north of the Arctic Circle to safety a few thousand miles away, without travel documents, supplies, or anyone to call for help. Hell, they didn’t even have phones to make that call right now. They’d tossed everything electronic they had into the fiery explosion that had killed their eight teammates. Ghosts couldn’t leave electronic footprints, and they didn’t want anyone to be able to track them.

It was almost axiomatic that SEAL commanders always had a plan. They had backup plans for their backup plans. But possibly being betrayed by someone on the inside wasn’t exactly covered in SEAL Officer 101, and Scott was in full-on improvise mode here.

As he was pretty sure “no fucking clue” was not what these guys needed or wanted to hear right now, Scott knew he’d better figure it out fast. He’d gotten them this far, through two days of some of what had to be the most inhospitable, bug-infested countryside known to man. He’d get them through the rest. Challenge was what he excelled at. It was what had drawn him to be a SEAL, and then to the elite echelons of the tier-one Team Nine.

They all had a love of challenge in common—officer and enlisted. These guys could handle anything he threw at them. They were the best. He ought to know. With blood, sweat, and a few tears of pain, he’d honed the operators of Team Nine into the finest unit in all of US Special Operations. They were the president’s go-to force when mistakes and failure weren’t an option. Even shell-shocked, suffering various levels of injury, hungry, exhausted, and mourning the deaths of their teammates, Scott knew if anyone had what it took to get out of a goat fuck like this, it was Senior Chief Dean Baylor and Special Warfare Operators Michael Ruiz, John Donovan, Steve Spivak, and Travis Hart.

The special warfare operators of Team Nine knew how to do their jobs. And he knew how to do his. He made life-and-death decisions all the time; it came with the job. But losing eight men didn’t, and Scott was still reeling. They all were. But right now he had to focus on keeping the rest of his men alive. That meant projecting confidence and acting as if this weren’t pretty much worst-possible-scenario, one-wrong-move-and-we’re-dead territory.

“We hold tight for the time being,” Scott said. They were safe enough in this apartment building. They’d had their pick of abandoned buildings in the old center of town, which was now essentially a ghost town located across the river from the current city center. Although from the looks of it, the new city center wasn’t going to be far behind the old. Vorkuta had definitely seen better days. The once-thriving city had dwindled in the past decades from over two hundred thousand people to about seventy thousand.

But in this remote corner of the world, even among seventy thousand, six strangers were going to stick out—especially non-Russian-looking-and-speaking strangers. Well, except for one. Thank God, they had Spivak, whose grandparents were Ukrainian and had passed on their language. Spivak’s lineage also gave him a good cover story. He was a Ukrainian sent to Vorkuta to work as a diver on the Nord Stream gas pipeline.

“We’ll send Spivak back out for more food and supplies,” Scott said. Then cutting off Donovan before he could renew an earlier joking request, he added, “And sushi is off the menu. Keep it simple and preferably cheap, Spivak.”

They all carried cash on missions—both US dollars and a small amount of local currency. The latter was a precaution that Scott had insisted upon but they’d never needed. But precaution was another way of saying “damned glad of it” when you did. It was going to save them from having to “borrow” everything.

“Try to make it something I can pronounce, Dolph,” Donovan said, using Spivak’s call sign. The big blond-haired operator who served as the team’s breacher bore a resemblance to the actor Dolph Lundgren, who’d played Sylvester Stallone’s Russian foe in Rocky IV. “And I hope fresh clothes are on tonight’s menu. Jim Bob here smells like a freaking animal.”

“Fuck you, Donovan,” Travis responded with his heavy Southern accent. The young sniper was from Mississippi and country through and through. Thus, the Jim Bob call sign. “You aren’t exactly smelling like a rose.”

“See what you can do,” Scott said to Spivak, ignoring the giving-each-other-shit banter between the guys as he normally did. With John Donovan around it was constant. “We’re also going to need a phone at some point—and pick up a newspaper.”

The other horrible consequence of their failed mission was war. For all they knew, WWIII was already under way.

Spivak nodded. “I saw a couple places that sold phones when I was looking around earlier. But if it seems too iffy, I’ll figure out something else.”

Meaning he’d pick one up in a way that didn’t involve questions. Scott nodded. He didn’t need to tell Spivak to be careful. The situation was painfully clear to all of them.

Well, mostly clear. The guys didn’t know exactly who had warned Scott and why he trusted her. They just knew that he’d received a text right before the first missile hit that had saved their lives, and they trusted him.

But he knew they had questions. Questions that he didn’t want to answer. How did he tell his men—men to whom he was supposed to be above reproach—that he’d been hiding something from them? That for the last six months he’d had a girlfriend who worked in the Pentagon. That it was serious. That for the first time he’d met someone who meant as much—more—to him than the job. That he had a ring in his pocket that proved it. That he should have said something to them and command months ago.

Scott had been well aware of the rules of Team Nine when he’d joined. No family, no wives, no girlfriends. No one to wonder where he was or when he’d be back. No one to cause problems if he didn’t come back.

He should have come forward when it had gotten serious, even if it meant having to leave Nine. But he’d allowed himself to be talked out of it by Natalie, who was just as worried about losing her own job as he was about losing the team he’d helped build.

Breaking the rules wasn’t like him. Even for an officer, he had a reputation for being by the book. Rules. Honor. Integrity. Standards. Discipline. It might be old-fashioned, but those things mattered to him.

None of which explained Natalie Andersson. Although nothing about Natalie had ever made any sense. She’d confused and confounded him from the first moment he’d seen her in that bar in DC. Maybe that was part of her appeal. He couldn’t figure her out. On the outside she projected this sophisticated, confident career woman, but beneath the surface he detected a sweet vulnerability that roused protective instincts in him that he’d never experienced before. She was like two sides of a coin that had different faces.

But one thing he did know. Without her warning, he wouldn’t be sitting here within spitting distance of Siberia in this run-down, abandoned apartment building that looked more like a cellblock. He’d be dead.

All six of them owed her their lives. They’d been betrayed, and Natalie’s message suggested that it had come from someone on the inside. The text that he’d seen by chance was burned into his memory, though it had chilled him to the bone when he’d first read it.

Leak. Russians know you are coming. No one is supposed to survive. Go dark and don’t try to contact me. Both our lives might be at stake. And then the last three words that she’d never said before. I love you. A declaration that under normal circumstances would have made him the happiest man in the world. Instead it made him the most terrified.

This wasn’t a joke; she was deadly serious. That realization, and the fact that she knew about the mission that only a handful of people were supposed to know about, convinced him to call back the platoon—or half the platoon. Lieutenant White’s squad was already inside one of the gulag buildings, and the comms were out. There’d been no way to warn them.

The rock that had been crushing his chest since that moment got a little heavier.

Against his orders, the senior chief and Brian Murphy, their newest teammate, had tried to reach them. Murphy had been killed when the first missile struck, and the senior chief had barely escaped the explosion. Scott didn’t know how Baylor had made it across almost seventy miles of hell with his injuries. But the senior chief epitomized the BTF—aka the Big Tough Frogman. You couldn’t knock him down. He’d keep popping back up and coming at you.

And Scott knew that as soon as the shock wore off and they were out of this, Baylor was going to have questions for him, and he wasn’t going to be content with We’ll talk about it later.

Feeling the senior chief’s questioning gaze on him now, Scott pulled out his coated paper map that he was damned glad of right now—another precaution when going to places with likely spotty communications—and started to consider options. There weren’t a lot of them. They had to get out of the area as quickly as possible, which basically meant a plane, train, or automobile. Of the three, a train seemed the least risky.

“What are you thinking, Ace?” Ruiz asked, using Scott’s call sign.

The guys said Scott always had an ace up his sleeve. Well, he sure as hell hoped they were right. They were going to need a full deck of them.

With Spivak gone, the four remaining men gathered round his position on a metal bed frame and mattress, which had both been left behind for a reason. “I’m thinking a freight train to Moscow.” He moved his finger diagonally in a southwest direction. “From there we can connect with lines that go to Europe in the west or the Trans-Siberian line in the east.”

“The Trans-Siberian Railway?” Donovan repeated. “You gotta be shitting me? That’s on my bucket list, LC.”

“Glad to accommodate, Dynomite,” Scott replied dryly. “Although you might not like the facilities. This is freight or baggage class only.”

Without papers they’d have to stay out of sight.

“It’s a week to Beijing,” the senior chief pointed out. “Not counting the two days to Moscow.”

“Sounds about right,” Scott agreed. “Or you can stay on until the end of the line in Russia and cross the Bering Sea to Alaska.”

“Isn’t that just a little over fifty miles, LC?” Travis asked. “I can practically swim that.”

They all laughed. “At its narrowest point,” Scott said. “But unfortunately where the train lets off”—he pointed to Vladivostok—“you’ll have to find a ship to take you.”

“My vote is for London,” Donovan said.

“I think what the LC is suggesting,” Baylor said, eyeing Scott, “is that we all head out from Moscow in different directions.”

There was a long silence, which Scott confirmed with a nod. If they really were going to go dark, it was safer to separate. “We scatter and lay low until I can figure out what happened out there.”

“What did happen out there, LC?” Miggy asked.

Scott answered truthfully. “I don’t know, but someone tipped off the Russians, and none of us were supposed to make it out of there alive.”

“Someone sent you a warning,” the senior chief said. It wasn’t a question.

Scott nodded. “But that’s all I can say right now.”

Baylor held his gaze for a moment. Clearly, the senior chief didn’t like Scott’s response, but just as clearly the senior chief realized he didn’t need to like it. Scott didn’t have to tell him anything. Eventually Baylor nodded, but Scott knew that rank and the chain of command wouldn’t keep the other man silent for long. Baylor was a pain in his ass, but the senior chief was one of the best operators he’d ever worked with. Scott respected the hell out of him, even if he and the platoon’s most senior enlisted SEAL didn’t always see eye to eye.

Once Scott found out what the hell had happened out there and made sure Natalie was all right, he would come clean about the girlfriend at the Pentagon who had warned them.

Spivak returned a short while later after securing a phone, some clothing that wasn’t going to win them any fashion awards, and most important to all of them right now, a couple of pizzas. Most of the toppings were unrecognizable, but they were so hungry no one cared what they were.

“No salad or Parmesan cheese?” Donovan said. “Shit, Dolph, next time I’m coming with you.”

Before Scott could grab a slice, Spivak handed him a newspaper. “You aren’t going to believe this.”

As Scott couldn’t read Russian, all he could see were the picture of the Russian president Dmitri Ivanov, a map of the eastern side of the Ural Mountains where they’d been reconnoitering the gulag, and a satellite image of a massive explosion.

But that was enough.

He swore. “It’s out, then. I can only imagine what Ivanov is saying. A team of Navy SEALs sent in to ‘invade’ a sovereign nation? He must be calling for blood.”

And war. After an American fighter plane accidentally strayed into Russian airspace and was shot down, Ivanov vowed the next incursion—accident or not—would be considered an act of war for which Russia would retaliate.

“That’s just it,” Spivak said. “He isn’t. There isn’t a damned thing in here about us. They’re claiming the explosion was just a missile test.”

The room was dead silent; Scott wasn’t the only one taking a few seconds to process what this meant.

“Then we aren’t going to war?” Travis asked.

“Not for this,” Spivak said. “And there isn’t anything in the world news, either.”

Which meant that the US hadn’t gone public about their missing SEAL platoon.

Retiarius had been effectively ghosted, with neither side wanting to fess up that the platoon had been there.

It made horrible sense. Despite his belligerent threats and big words, Ivanov must have known that he would be seriously outmatched in a war with the US. By not acknowledging their presence, he could save face and avoid a war that no one wanted—not to mention savor the personal satisfaction of wiping out an entire platoon of Navy SEALs without the US being able to retaliate.

There were plenty of hawks in President Clara Cartwright’s administration who were eager for war and the chance to put Ivanov in his place. The most vocal among them was General Thomas Murray, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the father of the pilot shot down by the Russians a few months ago. But the president had proved more cautious than her advisors, and Scott knew she would stay quiet to cover up their illegal operation and avoid a war in a situation that was already teetering too close to the edge.

Which made any survivors inconvenient, to say the least—to both sides.

Scott stayed up most of the night planning their exfil and searching for any news from Washington. He didn’t need much sleep, and even with the lack of rest the past few days, he slept only a few hours.

By dawn he’d taken over watch from Miggy and was sitting by the window overlooking the footbridge to town, eating a piece of leftover pizza and surfing the web again for anything new. He would kill for a cup of coffee right now. Coffee and this time of day reminded him of Nat. Those lazy mornings when they could sit on her tiny balcony in the early-morning hours while the city was quiet, drinking coffee and talking. . . . He’d never guessed that something so small and seemingly simple could make him so happy. That was how he knew he wanted to grow old with her. God, he missed her. He needed to hear her voice and make sure that she was all right.

Knowing that Russia censored media and the Internet, he was careful about search terms, but none of the big European news agencies or Al Jazeera was reporting anything. He decided to take a chance and try a few US newspapers. He doubted the Russian surveillance was that broad, but he’d be getting rid of the phone soon anyway.

New York Times, nada. Washington Post, same. DC Chronicle . . . his stomach dropped and all the blood slid from his face.

No . . . oh God, no!

He wanted to turn away and pretend he’d never seen it. If he didn’t see it, it couldn’t be true.

But there was the headline in cold black-and-white: DC Staffer Killed in Fiery Car Crash That Shuts Down Freeway for Hours. The story didn’t add much, except the name and what she did: Natalie Andersson, executive assistant to the deputy secretary of defense, was killed in a car crash last night when her car careened into the cement underpass of the Southeast Freeway on 4th Street SE in the Capitol Hill neighborhood where she lived. Excessive speed is believed to have caused her car to explode. Ms. Andersson was killed instantly.

Scott put down the phone, unable to breathe. His chest was on fire. His eyes burned. The ring that he’d had in his pocket for the past month because he hadn’t found the “right” time to give it to her, felt like an unbearable weight dragging him under. After losing eight men, he thought he was numb, but the pain eviscerated him with excruciating savagery.

Oh God, Natalie, baby. I’m so sorry. I’m so fucking sorry. Her words rang in his head. Both our lives . . .

He had no doubt she’d been killed because of him. Because she’d warned him.

And he’d never even told her he loved her. He didn’t even know why.

That wasn’t true. He hadn’t told her because he wasn’t sure she felt the same way. And now . . . now it was too late to hear her tell him that she did.

For the first time in his life, Scott wanted to put his face in his hands and bawl like a baby. But he wasn’t going to do that. He was going to get his men the hell out of here and find whoever was responsible for this. There wasn’t a place they could hide where he wouldn’t hunt them down.

And then he’d make them pay.




McLean, Virginia

August 17th

He’d been honey-trapped.

Scott sat at his recently acknowledged sister’s dining room table, feeling as if he had the word “sucker” tattooed across his forehead. No one was saying it, but he knew that was what they were all thinking.

Kate, the aforementioned sister, was looking at him worryingly, her ex-husband and his ex-chief, Colt Wesson, wouldn’t meet his eye (although Colt was probably grappling with his own demons right now), the recently arrived senior chief Dean Baylor was looking pissed off (which admittedly wasn’t unusual), and the always-ready-with-a-wisecrack John Donovan had fallen into a rare contemplative silence. Brittany Blake, after being kidnapped and nearly killed, was resting in one of Kate’s guest rooms, or she’d likely be thinking it as well.

How could they not? It was true. Scott had just had it confirmed from her compatriot’s—or should he say comrade’s—mouth right before he’d been killed. His girlfriend, Natalie Andersson, aka Natalya Petrova, had been a Russian spy who’d passed on the information that had gotten eight of Scott’s men killed. For almost three months he’d been mourning her and thinking of her as their savior, and all along she’d been the one responsible for their mission being compromised.

It didn’t matter that she’d warned him and been killed. She’d been lying to him. Using him. Fucking him for information.

Shit, that hurt. Betrayal curdled in his gut like acid, eating away at him mercilessly.

He’d had no clue. She’d deceived him and betrayed him in the worst possible way, and he’d been ready to put a ring on her finger. A ring that would have taken him away from the team that had been his life. If Scott had that damned ring with him right now, he’d throw it as far as he could into the Potomac, which ran outside Kate’s swanky town house.

When he thought of how he’d held on to it like some sort of precious talisman, refusing to sell the Easter egg–sized diamond even when he desperately needed cash as he made his way out of Russia . . . it made him want to slam his fist through the table and turn the fine mahogany into kindling. Scott was an expert at controlling his emotions, but right now they’d been pulled too close to the surface and stretched taut to the snapping point. His pride hurt worse than the patched-up shoulder where he’d taken a bullet a few hours ago.

For the first time in his life a woman had made a fool of him, and Scott didn’t know how to handle it. It was a bitter pill for any guy to swallow. For a SEAL officer whose job it was to see things like this coming a mile away, who was supposed to be smarter and savvier than everyone else, it was the worst kind of humiliation.

Kate had tried to warn him, but Scott hadn’t wanted to believe it. He’d defended Natalie, even when the coincidences piled up. Russian birth and adoption that she’d kept secret? So what? There were thousands of kids adopted from Russia—were all of them suddenly suspected spies? Phone contact with the same guy who’d targeted the reporter writing stories about “The Lost Platoon,” and who also happened to be born in Russia and came to America via the same adoption agency as Natalie? Not enough.

But when that same guy, Mikhail “Mick” Evans, kidnapped Brittany in an attempt to capture and kill John Donovan, all Scott’s doubts had been put to rest. Brutally.

He could still hear the bastard’s taunts as Scott tried to question him. “She played you like a fool. How long did it take for her to get in your bed? A few hours? And you never suspected a thing. Man, it was almost too easy.”

Scott had wanted to kill him. But Donovan had done it for him after Scott had been shot, and Mick had turned a gun on Kate.

For almost three months, Scott had been busting his ass trying to figure out what had happened out there and how their mission had been compromised, while his men had been forced to scatter across the globe and go dark. He’d looked into everyone who could have known about the mission, followed leads that went nowhere, and searched for motive or anything suspicious that could lead him to figuring out who was responsible for the deaths of eight of his men and the woman he’d loved.

But the person responsible for feeding the information to Russia about their mission had been right there in front of him the whole time. One of their own hadn’t betrayed them; the leak had come from a Russian mole. His Natalie. No, Natalya—and definitely not his.

Maybe he should be relieved. He had an answer. The Russians were responsible. There wasn’t anyone on the inside waiting to take them out. His men could come out of hiding.

But nothing could lessen the bitter sting of betrayal that filled him with anger and shame.


“If you won’t go to the hospital, at least let me call my doctor,” Kate said. “I’m sure he will be discreet.” She paused, staring at him in earnest. “You don’t look good, Scott.”

Not surprising since he felt like shit. But the pain from the gunshot wound was the least of it.

He and Kate had known they were brother and sister for almost three years, but it was still strange having someone worry about him. Scott had been alone for a long time. His parents had been killed in a boating accident when he was in his first year at the Naval Academy. Actually his father had survived for a few days, which was how Scott had learned that he wasn’t his biological father. He’d needed blood and their blood types had been incompatible.

Scott’s seemingly idyllic family and happy childhood had been built on a bed of lies. The man whom Scott had loved and admired more than anyone in the world—who’d left Scott the family fortune—hadn’t been his biological father. The discovery had devastated him. Scott had been angry at everyone—at everything—but especially at his recently deceased mother. How could she have betrayed his father, her husband, like that?

He’d never given much thought to the man she’d cheated on his father with or the fact that Scott might have half siblings somewhere. He never would have known if Kate’s ex-husband’s jealousy hadn’t led them to the truth.

“I’m fine,” Scott assured her. “This isn’t the first time Colt has had to patch me up.”

But rather than reassure her, the mention of her ex-husband’s doctoring made Kate look even more upset. But she didn’t need to worry about Colt using his old corpsman’s skills for bad. Whatever reason Colt might have had to want to kill Scott was gone. The only person Colt looked like he wanted to kill right now was himself. Which was good. After what he’d done to Kate, the bastard deserved to suffer.

Colt had thought Scott and Kate’s unusual closeness was because they were having an affair, and he’d only just learned that they were actually brother and sister. For years Colt had hated Scott—blaming him for the destruction of his marriage—but now Colt was facing the truth. There was only one man responsible for the mess Colt had made of their lives, and it wasn’t Scott.

“What now, LC?” Baylor looked at him, asking the question that was foremost on all of their minds.

The six survivors had been in hiding since their mission had gone bad, and Scott knew how anxious the guys were to get back to the land of the living and the frogman work that they all loved.

“Now that we know where the leak came from and who was behind it”—i.e., Russia and not someone inside—“we don’t have to play dead. I will contact command and explain what happened. They can decide how they want to handle our sudden reappearance.”

In an attempt to quiet the public interest roused by Brittany’s “Lost Platoon” articles, equating the missing platoon of Navy SEALs from a secret team with the famous Lost Legion of Rome, the navy had recently announced that a platoon of SEALs had been killed in a training exercise.

Baylor and Donovan looked relieved by Scott’s pronouncement.

Colt not so much.

“You sure that’s a good idea, Ace?” Colt asked with that lazy drawl that belied the savvy operator whose mind was always working every angle. Colt wasn’t a part of their team anymore, but he still worked for the military in some kind of clandestine unit that Scott didn’t know much about—didn’t want to know much about, as he was sure it was of questionable legality.

It was the first time Colt had used Scott’s call sign in over three years. But if his former friend thought Scott was going to forgive and forget all that had passed between them, he was out of his mind.

Colt had been the senior enlisted man in Team Nine when Scott had joined as a young lieutenant. Colt had showed him the ropes and taught Scott everything he knew about being a SEAL. To most people their friendship didn’t make any sense. Scott was by the book and believed in rules. Colt didn’t. But somehow they’d jelled. Scott had looked up to him as an older brother, which made Colt’s accusations and turning on him even more unforgivable. How could Colt think he would ever do that to a teammate and a friend?

Scott and Kate hadn’t betrayed Colt; Colt had betrayed them.

“We don’t have a choice,” Scott said. “Technically we’ve been AWOL since the explosion. Without a good reason to not come forward, we could have a hard time explaining ourselves.”

Or defending themselves against a court-martial.

“I wouldn’t be so ready to make a reappearance,” Colt said. “Not until you learn the extent of the damage done by Mick and Natalie. We don’t know what Mick was able to pass on to his superiors before he was killed. We also don’t know the extent of their cell here in Washington. I suspect it was a small one since the guys Mick had with him when he took Brittany were more hired thugs than professionals. But that isn’t to say there isn’t someone else out there. Who else knows there were survivors? Mick found out about Donovan, but what about the rest of you? You guys are safer dead than alive.”

“You think they might come after us again?” Donovan asked.

Colt shrugged. “I don’t know. I just think it will be easier to find out why they went after you in the first place if you all stay dead.”

“They went after him to shut him up,” Baylor said. “The Russians don’t want any survivors showing up to ruin their nice little story about what happened out there. Ivanov won’t want to appear to be avoiding the war that he vowed to start if there were any more ‘incursions.’”

But if that was true, coming out would be the safest thing for them.

Scott watched Colt’s face. His expression didn’t give anything away, but Scott could guess what he was thinking. “You think there’s more to it?”

Colt met his gaze for the first time since learning that he was Kate’s brother. “I think it’s worth not jumping to any conclusions too quickly. Not until we know all the facts.”

Ironic advice coming from Colt, given his conclusions about Kate and Scott.

“Which could be easier to find out with help from the inside,” Scott pointed out. He was close to his direct superior in the chain of command, the commander of SEAL Team Nine, Mark Ryan. Scott wasn’t looking forward to explaining why they hadn’t come to him right away.

Colt guessed the direction of his thoughts. He didn’t have much regard for the brass in general. “Ryan might be your friend, but he’s an officer first, and he’ll do his duty even if he doesn’t like it.”

The same thing could be said about Scott. Once. But look at him now: scruffy, AWOL, and definitely not by the book, unless it was called How to Look Like a Lowlife. He didn’t even recognize himself.

“What are you getting at, Colt?” Kate asked.

“The government is going to be looking for someone to blame, and right now that’s Taylor. They’ll want to know exactly what and how much he told her.”

Scott felt his spine go ramrod stiff and his shoulders turn just as rigid. Blood surged through his veins at a boil. “It sounds as if you are accusing me of something, Wesson.” Colt didn’t shy away from Scott’s fury. Scott looked around the table at the other blank faces staring at him. “Is that what you all think?” He swore. “I didn’t tell her a damned thing!”

The sound of his voice reverberated in the oval room, shaking the floor-to-ceiling windows, which were there to take advantage of the river view.

Suddenly memories came back to him. Images. Snippets of conversation and clumsy questions when they were lying naked and twisted in the sheets after she’d just brought him to his knees for the God-knew-how-many-eth time.

When he was at his weakest.

“I heard there is trouble brewing in Syria again. . . .”

When all of his defenses had been shattered.

“You’ll tell me when you have to leave . . . and when you’ll be back?”

When she’d fucked every ounce of sense from his head—both of them. The one he was supposed to think with, and the one that had been at her mercy from the first moment he’d seen her at that Capitol Hill bar.

Unlike most Teamguys, bars weren’t stomping grounds for him. He didn’t do drunken hookups or one-night stands.

But he’d made an exception that night. An accidental bump—at least he’d thought it was accidental—that led to a drink, a flirty conversation that had gotten closer and closer until somehow their lips were touching, and a scorching kiss that had lit his blood on fire. They’d barely made it out of the cab and into his hotel room before her legs were wrapped around his waist, and he was sinking into her for the first time. The first of many times that night.

His face heated with some of that pounding blood. How could he have been so stupid? How could he not have seen it?

He’d been too damned bewitched by tilted green cat eyes, long fluttery lashes, pouty red lips, high, sharp cheekbones, long, tousled blond hair, and a body that could have sold sexy lingerie to a Mennonite.

But it hadn’t just been her beauty that had attracted him. She was smart and knew it. She’d walked into the bar with the cool confidence of a woman who knew she could handle anyone in the room—man or woman—and that had been freaking irresistible.

Which, of course, was the point. She’d been chosen to deceive and entrance. And like a damned glutton he’d taken a dive right into the honey.

Over and over. He hadn’t been able to get enough of her. He’d been utterly captivated, out of his mind with lust, and for the first time in his life, head over heels in love.

As much as he hated to admit any of that, it was the damned truth. And he’d own it, even if it made him the world’s biggest sucker.

But he wasn’t a complete fool. He’d never forgotten his job or what that meant. He hadn’t told her a damned thing about what he did or where he went. He’d never told her anything that could be considered confidential or secret. His job was everything to him; he’d be damned if he’d let her take that from him, too.

Whatever information she’d passed on, it hadn’t come from him, and he dared anyone at the table to suggest otherwise.

Colt didn’t seem inclined to argue—a rarity for him. Instead he shrugged. “They won’t believe you even if it is true, and you’ll spend the next few weeks in some small room trying to convince them otherwise.”

Scott cursed; Colt was right. Scott would be the scapegoat, and proving that he hadn’t told her anything would take some time. Assuming he could persuade them, that is.

“Wesson is right,” the senior chief agreed. “The way it looks now, they’ll hang you from the nearest rafter first and worry about right or wrong later.”

“Maybe,” Scott admitted. “But I’m not going to let you and the rest of the team face AWOL or desertion charges just to save my own skin.”

“I never try to second-guess better minds than mine,” Donovan said sarcastically, referring to command. “But I’d wager that charges against the rest of us will be the last thing on their mind. There’s going to be all kinds of spin going on, but trying to punish us for not coming out right away, given everything that happened?” He shook his head. “No way.”

“Dynomite is right,” Baylor said. “They won’t be looking at us when they have a nice fat target to aim at.” Aka Scott. “We’re safe. But if you want to avoid time in that small room, you’re better off getting your facts lined up first. Besides,” the grim-faced Texan reminded him, “we’re a team. We do this together, and you aren’t going to be much help to us if you are locked up somewhere or spending all your time defending yourself.”

“What difference is a few days going to make?” Colt pointed out.

But Scott still wasn’t convinced. They might be right, but he had a duty as an officer not only to come forward but also to protect his men.

It was Kate who came up with the solution.

“How about a compromise?” she said. “My godfather is already involved. We could go to him and get his take. You’ll have technically reported in to someone in the chain of command”—Kate’s godfather, General Thomas Murray, was the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and was one of the handful of people who’d been in the loop about their mission—“but we minimize who knows for a little longer.”

It was a great suggestion. Two birds with one stone. Scott looked around the table, and the three men nodded their approval.

Kate made the call.

She returned a short time later. “He was shocked, but when I explained everything, he agreed with Colt.” She said it in a way that suggested that didn’t happen often. “He thinks you should lay low a little longer. Your survival is miraculous but inconvenient as it makes a delicate political situation with Russia even more precarious. The US is already on the brink of war, and if this comes out it will only get worse. You aren’t going to be popular with those in the administration who don’t want war. Some in the White House will wish that you’d just stayed buried, and the secret of your mission along with you.”

They all knew that, but somehow hearing it from someone in the general’s position made it much more sobering. Nothing like having your life being inconvenient.

“He offered to help in any way he can,” Kate added apologetically, understanding the downer cast by her relayed message. “I told him I would keep him in the loop.”

Scott nodded. He might take the general up on it. He was determined to do whatever he needed to do to clear his name. He might have fallen in love with the wrong woman, but he hadn’t betrayed his country or his men.

He stood up.

“Where are you going?” Colt asked.

“To make some calls. I need to tell Spivak, Miggy, and Travis to hang tight.”

But not for much longer. One way or another this was going to end soon.

Scott had no intention of letting Natalie rest in peace. He could kill her for what she’d done. Too bad someone else had gotten to her first.



Kensington, Vermont, near the Canadian border

This wasn’t good for her paranoia, which admittedly was running on all cylinders already.

Natalie—no Jennifer, she reminded herself—pulled the old Yankees ball cap down lower over her brow. But she couldn’t hide completely from the curious glances cast in her direction as she moved around the town center doing her errands.

She’d known this would happen, which is why she had so many things to do. She’d put off coming to town for as long as she could, but she’d needed supplies from the hardware store, fresh food, and more imperatively, almond milk for her coffee.

Done in by millennial taste buds. Wouldn’t that be the height of ridiculousness after everything that had happened the past few months? But Natalie couldn’t hide out at the farm forever, and the stuff in a jar just wasn’t cutting it. Her morning coffee was one of the few small pleasures she had left in life. She was miserable enough without suffering powdered creamer.

If there was ever a made-for-TV movie about her life—and it certainly cried out for one—she could just see it now:

Why did you leave the safety of the farm to go into town?

I needed almond milk for my coffee.

And the wisecracking handsome detective—they were always handsome—would of course add with just the right hint of sarcasm: And did you pick up avocado for your toast as well?

Ugh. She’d probably be played by some airhead reality TV blonde, despite the fact that Natalie’s hair was more golden brown now.

Well, she’d worry about that injustice later. Right now she needed to focus on not doing anything to draw attention to herself. Check that. More attention to herself.

She’d grown up in a small farming community like this one so she understood the interest. New blood always drew attention. But attention was the one thing she couldn’t afford right now. She needed to keep her head down and blend in until it was time to move on to the next town. This was her fourth in three months, and she wanted it to last longer than a few weeks.

Natalie finished paying for her groceries, holding her breath as she did every time when the credit card went into the machine. But a few minutes later, she exhaled as the approval came through.

You are safe. No one is looking for you.

But three months wasn’t long enough to reassure her that she’d gotten away with it. That she’d gotten away at all.

She left the store, bags in hand, and sighed with relief. It was amazing how a few errands could feel like a major accomplishment. But they did, and now she could return to her rented farmhouse and avoid the prying, questioning gazes until the next time she needed milk. She’d been able to order most of her supplies online, but fresh grocery delivery hadn’t made its way to this part of Vermont yet.

Natalie crossed the street to where she’d parked. The market was located in the town’s main shopping mall, which, like many malls in rural communities, had seen better days about thirty years ago. Along with a grocery store and pharmacy (Kensington wasn’t big enough to have a Walmart), there were a couple of restaurants—the ubiquitous pizza place and what appeared to be a Chinese buffet—a gym, and a duty-free shop as the town border to the north was Canada—Quebec, to be specific. The only evidence of the town’s dairy farming base was the small ice cream shop, boasting “made from local Kensington cows.” Maple and apples, the town’s other traditional industries, had been left off the poster.

The mall was situated right off Main Street, where she’d found the hardware store and, interestingly, a craft brewery and a small coffee shop that roasted its own beans. These last two businesses hinted at the small organic-and-sustainability-focused businesses that were moving into many of Vermont’s traditional farm communities. Some people disparagingly called the young people who ran them “hipsters,” but she thought that was unfair. Probably because a business along those lines had always been her dream.

One day, she told herself. In a town just like this. When she was sure no one was looking for her, and she had an identity that no one could connect to Natalie Andersson.

Rounding out Main Street were the post office and the town’s municipal building, which presumably served as the headquarters for the local government. There wasn’t a police station in town—a bonus, as far as she was concerned—but the volunteer firehouse was at the end of the block.

Natalie had just finished putting her grocery bags in the trunk of Jennifer’s ten-year-old BMW convertible that she’d retrieved from New Jersey—a car Natalie never would have purchased even if she lived in California, and in Vermont it was just plain silly—when she heard the first notes of a Tchaikovsky waltz that would stop her in her tracks anywhere. It reminded her of her childhood. Her Minnesota childhood. Although Natalie knew now that it probably went deeper than that. Blood deep.

Not long after she and her sister had come to live in America, her adoptive father had taken her to see The Nutcracker in the city. Not Mankato, which was the biggest city close to where they lived, but to the real big city: Minneapolis.

Her father had worn his Sunday best and had even put on a tie for the occasion. She’d had a new plaid dress that her adoptive mother had had to coax her into putting on. She’d never had anything so beautiful before, and she couldn’t believe it was for her. The white tights and black patent leather shoes made her feel like a princess.

But the real magic had begun when she’d heard those first few notes of the overture. When the ballerinas had twirled onto the stage, she’d been absolutely transfixed.

Only years later did she understand why.

She’d been just five at the time, but the memory stuck with her because it was the first time she could remember being happy. She’d had so many good memories afterward, but that had been the first. It had seemed to be a demarcation; a line separating the sad past that she wanted to forget and the happy future that she could look forward to. And it had been happy. Perfectly boring, normal, and wonderful. Until four years ago, when another demarcation had sent her life into a tailspin.

She shook off the memory and let the music take her back. She and her father went to Minneapolis to see the ballet every December until a few years ago when his heart attack and worsening diabetes had put an end to car trips. When her sister, Lana, was old enough she and their mother sometimes joined them, too, but the tradition had always been with her father, and they’d never thought of going without him.

Her heart squeezed as she thought of her family. God, how she missed them. She wondered how Lana was doing. They’d never been apart for this long. But this was how it had to be. She was keeping them safe the only way she could. By being dead.

Moving toward the source of the music, Natalie realized there was a small glass-front studio a couple of doors down from the hardware store. She smiled, watching the half dozen or so young dancers, ranging in age from about five to sixteen, execute the ballet steps in their classic pink tights and black leotards.

Their dance teacher was young but obviously a traditionalist. The diminutive brunette with her hair in a bun and also wearing dance clothes barked out corrections with the authority of an old general as the girls moved around the room with varying levels of success.

The teacher looked at the door impatiently and caught Natalie’s gaze, causing her to start.

Frowning, the teacher headed toward her at the same moment as Natalie turned to leave, realizing what she was doing. Staring at young girls through a window was probably not the best way for a stranger to go unnoticed.

Natalie took one step toward her car when she heard a door slam and a car drive off. A moment later, she saw a flash of pink and black as a young girl who was obviously late for class came racing around the corner toward her. She took the curb with a graceful, well-executed leap that was only ruined when she landed on a wet pack of leaves (it rained a lot in Vermont, with August being the wettest month) and her ballet slipper–clad feet slid out from under her.

The girl would have landed hard on her backside if Natalie hadn’t reacted quickly. She heard a cry that she assumed came from the teacher as Natalie lurched forward and caught the girl in her arms. Or mostly caught the girl in her arms as Natalie came down hard herself on the sidewalk.

“Oh my God,” the teacher said, helping the girl off her. “Are you okay?”

Natalie peeled her skinned forearms and knees off the sidewalk and came to her feet with only a slight wobble. “I’m fine.”

Mostly. The scrapes on her arms and knees—of course she had to be wearing shorts (in addition to rainy, August was also warm)—weren’t going to feel too good later. But they weren’t bleeding too heavily. Just lots of rocks and dirt with a few spiderweb lines of red.

“Samantha, apologize to this poor woman!”

The girl who was slight and older than Natalie initially thought at about eleven or twelve if the braces were any indication, turned to her with wide eyes. She looked stunned and on the verge of tears. “I’m sorry. I was practicing my dance in my head and didn’t see the leaves.”

“You should have been practicing the dance in the studio,” the teacher said sternly. “You are late again. What did I warn you about last week?”

The glimmer of tears in the girl’s big brown eyes grew thicker. “But it wasn’t my fault. My dad got a call on the way and we had to stop and check on Miss Mabel’s barn. The lock she put on it was cut off, and she found beer cans again.”

“Partying teenagers is a job for the county sheriff? If this were the first time, it would be one thing, but you’ve been late to class the past three weeks in a row.”

“My dad is busy,” the girl protested.

“But it isn’t always your dad, is it?” the teacher said more kindly. “Didn’t you say you forgot what day it was last time you were late?”

With obvious reluctance, the girl nodded.

“I thought you wanted this part?” the teacher asked in a gentle voice that showed she was not immune to the burgeoning crocodile tears.

“I do, I do!” the little girl protested. “The Sugar Plum Fairy has the best dance. Please, I promise to get to class on time next week.”

The teacher nodded and the girl ran off before she could change her mind. But right as she got to the door, the young girl stopped and flashed Natalie with a brilliant smile that gave no hint of the tears looming a few moments ago. “Thank you again for catching me. I would have broken my butt.”

Natalie laughed and smiled. “No problem.”

When Samantha was gone, the teacher turned to Natalie with a sigh. “Thank you from me as well. Sammie’s mother died when she was young, and she’s been raised by her father. She’s our best dancer. A real natural talent. But she doesn’t take it very seriously. I think she prefers hockey over ballet,” she added with a dramatic shiver.

Feeling the same way about hockey herself, Natalie could commiserate. “She’s young. Maybe she’ll change her mind.”

The teacher shrugged as if she didn’t think that very likely. “You’re new around here?”

Natalie tensed defensively, the instinct to cut the conversation short with the question—even an innocuous one—strong. But she knew that in a small town like this it would only provoke more comment if she appeared to be hiding something.

She’d grown up in a town about this size where everyone knew everything about everyone else. Although they hadn’t known everything about her. How could they? Not even she had known everything.

It was common knowledge that she and Lana had been adopted from Russia, but who could have imagined that they were the daughters of Soviet “traitors,” who had been put in some sort of secret program as punishment for their parents’ sins.

Her parents had been ballet dancers in the old USSR who’d tried to defect to the West after a performance but had been forced to abandon their plans when the woman who was watching Natalie and her sister fell asleep in front of the TV and failed to bring the girls backstage after the show as she was supposed to have. Natalie’s parents had been arrested, thrown into a Russian prison to die, and the lives of their two children destroyed because of a boring TV show.

Ironically, the Soviet Union dissolved later that same year. But it was too late for her parents, and the former KGB members who emerged in the new government as SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation) agents had not forgotten the children of the former traitors. They were unknowing and unwitting “sleepers,” sent to America as children via an adoption program and ready to be “awakened” if the relations between Russia and the US where to chill again.

If it sounded like something that could happen only in a book or movie, that is exactly what Natalie had thought, too. Until hockey player Mick Evans walked into her perfectly wonderful, boring, and normal life four years ago and made her believe it.

She’d never been able to watch hockey again without a shudder, which, coming from Minnesota—or the USSR for that matter—was something akin to sacrilege.

Mick can’t find you, she reminded herself. Relax.

Natalie forced herself to return the broad smile of the other woman, who she could see was just being friendly; the ballet teacher wasn’t a hit man sent to kill her. Again.

“I am new to town,” Natalie said. “I’m renting the old Lewis farm and moved in a couple weeks ago.”

The other woman’s brows shot up. “I’m surprised that place is habitable. It hasn’t been lived in full-time since Mrs. Lewis died a few years back.”

More like five. And she was right. The place was horribly run-down. But Natalie had agreed to fix it up in exchange for a minuscule rent. The four children who’d inherited it had no desire to be farmers, but they hadn’t been able to sell it. They were just happy to have someone living in it so its value didn’t depreciate further.

Natalie’s chest squeezed. She loved the place. It was perfect—or would be if she had the chance to do everything she wanted. But she knew she probably wouldn’t have the opportunity. She couldn’t stay long. She had to keep moving.

But maybe one day she would find a place just like it to continue the artisanal cheese business that she’d just been getting started when her father had been forced to sell the family farm. That was when she’d made the fateful decision to go to Washington and the nightmare had begun.

If only she could go back. She would be safe and secure in her nice boring and ordinary life, instead of feeling as if she’d woken up in some sort of bad James Bond movie.

And the man she loved would still be alive. They might never have met, but at least he would be alive. The squeezing in her heart turned to the familiar ache that she suspected she would carry with her forever.

Realizing the other woman was waiting for her reply, she said, “I’m doing some work on it—fixing it up a little.”

“A little? I’m surprised the place even has water.”

Natalie smiled, which felt odd from disuse. She hadn’t had much to smile about in months. “It was a little rusty at first, but once I got the water heater going again, I’ve even been able to manage hot showers.”

“Wow! You know how to fix a water heater? I’m impressed. But you might not want to let Joe Randall hear you say that. He’s the town’s plumber, and he’s protective of his territory.” The woman smiled again, her eyes crinkling. She was older than Natalie had thought—probably a few years past Natalie’s twenty-nine—but her diminutive figure and tidy build coupled with delicate, dark features made her appear much younger. “I’m sorry. I haven’t introduced myself.” She held out her hand. “I’m Becky Randall.” Her grin deepened at Natalie’s reaction to the last name. “Yep, the plumber’s daughter who can’t even fix a leaky toilet.”

In the face of such overt friendliness, there was nothing else Natalie could do but return the shake. “Jennifer,” she said. “Jennifer Wilson.”

“Welcome to Kensington,” Becky said. “Are you a dancer or just a ballet fan?”

Natalie tried not to startle, but the question hit too close to home. “Uh,” she stumbled awkwardly, “just a fan.”

“Too bad. I’m looking for help with our annual Christmas Nutcracker production.” Natalie wanted to bite but forced herself not to say anything. “Well, if you are looking for work, the diner needs a new waitress, the hotel a bookkeeper, and the middle school a new psychologist.”

Natalie gave a sharp bark of relieved laughter. “Are you the town’s job recruiter?”

Becky grinned back at her. “Nope, just its manager.”

Natalie couldn’t hide her shock. She took in the pink tights, black leotard, toe shoes, and the thin, short black dancer’s sweater that crossed in the front. “You’re the mayor?”

“Town manager in these parts, but the job is essentially the same. You aren’t the only one who is surprised. I didn’t sign up for it, but no one else would agree to step up after our previous manager was caught dipping into the community fund to take his girlfriend on fancy vacations. They moved to the city before anyone figured it out.”

Natalie assumed she meant Burlington, which was Vermont’s most populous city at forty-five thousand. Tiny by most American comparisons, but big compared to the six thousand in Kensington. Burlington was about forty miles to the south from Kensington, which was on the Vermont-Canada border. Her picking a town so close to the border hadn’t been a coincidence.

“What do you do?” the other woman asked. “Other than fix water heaters and put my inheritance in jeopardy?”

Natalie laughed. It felt good. Unfamiliar, but good. Despite her initial reserve, she found herself liking the ballet teacher/mayor—manager, she corrected herself—and responded truthfully. “I guess you could say I get things done.” My Girl Friday. That was what the deputy secretary had called her. The wistful smile fell from her face. Her handle-everything reliability had been her downfall. If she’d been less sure of herself, less the starry-eyed millennial who thought she could change the world, maybe they would have left her alone.

She shook off the what-ifs that didn’t help, and explained, “I was a legal assistant for a law office in New Jersey the past five years.”

It wasn’t a complete lie. That’s what Jennifer had been doing before . . .

Natalie forced away the memory of her best friend before the tears in her throat rose to her eyes.

Becky’s eyes gleamed as if she’d just won the lottery. “I could use exactly that kind of help if you’re interested. You should see the mess the former manager left of the files.”

Natalie’s defenses were up again. A friendly conversation on the street was one thing, but she sensed it would be hard to keep her barriers up against someone as easy to talk to as Becky Randall. Ballet teacher, town manager, and plumber’s daughter.

“I’m pretty busy at the farm right now, but I will keep it in mind. Thanks for thinking of me.” Natalie glanced at the window, glad to see the girls were standing there staring at them. “I think they’re waiting for you, and I better get back to the farm. I still have some work to do before dark.”

The afternoon had gotten away from her.

“You okay out there by yourself? It’s pretty remote. I can call the county sheriff—Samantha’s dad—and have him check in on you if you’d like. I have to talk to him anyway.” She didn’t seem to relish the conversation.

Those flared instincts turned into full-on alarm bells. Natalie should have cut and run earlier. “No, please,” she said with what she hoped was not as much panic in her voice as she felt. “Don’t trouble him. I like the quiet, and I’m used to being alone.”

“In New Jersey?” Becky said with a healthy dose of skepticism.

This was turning out to be a disaster. Natalie had never been very good at lying, which was ironic given what she’d had to do the past few years. “I grew up on a farm.” Before she could ask where, Natalie added, “I better go. See you around.”

She got into her car as fast as she dared, waving when she saw that Becky was still standing there looking at her.

So much for not acting suspicious. Natalie’s hands were shaking as she started the five-mile drive down long county roads to her farm. No, not her farm. She couldn’t think of it like that. Her temporary place to live.

Her eyes kept darting to the rearview mirror, half expecting someone to be following her.

She had to calm down and stop imagining Russian hit men behind every corner.

The early-evening skies had darkened with clouds by the time she turned onto the long driveway, and even the shadows were making her jumpy.

Anxious to get inside, she pulled around back into the barn that served as a garage and pulled the groceries out of the trunk. She’d get the rest of the stuff in the morning.

She was about to turn around when a shadow fell across her from behind. The tall, powerfully built shadow of a man.

Her heart jumped to her throat as panic and fear turned every drop of blood inside her to ice. Oh God, they’d found her!

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