Read an Excerpt
"One more week in this hellhole."
Kneeling on the ground, Sabine O'Clery finished winding a water-level indicator reel from inside a borehole before looking up at her unhappy field partner. Samuel Barry scowled across the grayish-brown landscape of Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley. Sabine followed his gaze, a dry, hot breeze rustling the loose strands of hair that had escaped her ponytail. High, desolate mountains surrounded them under a clear blue sky, and yellow patches of grass covered the ground where they worked. She found immense satisfaction putting her hydrogeology degree to good use in places like this, but she couldn't argue with Samuel's sentiment.
"It's pretty here," she quipped.
Samuel grunted in disgust. "Yeah, if you like dirt and no amenities."
"Everyone needs clean drinking water," she said. She'd grown attached to some of the villagers, too.
Samuel grumbled as he put a portable reader on the ground next to the borehole. He was a big man who always talked about his wife.
"I can't wait to taste Lisandra's homemade orange juice," he said, as if on cue.
Sabine smiled. Would she ever find a man who made her feel like talking sweet nonsense about him? Ha! She wasn't going to hold her breath.
"She makes a killer crème brûlée, too."
"And her cheese soufflés?" she teased.
Samuel laughed. "My mouth is watering already." He looked at her. "Sorry. I just miss her."
"Really? I couldn't tell."
"Just wait 'til you get married. Then you'll know what it's like."
Marriage seemed so foreign to her. "Not everyone falls madly in love and lives happily ever after."
"Maybe not out here." He gestured to the dry landscape. The pages of the field book he held flapped with the movement, his thumb keeping the ones against the cover flat.
Maybe not ever. She didn't want to end up like her mother, loving a man who came around only when it suited him, always leaving for his next thrill. Nothing irritated her more than being treated like a thrill.
"You have to stop comparing every man to your dad," Samuel said.
She set the indicator reel aside and reached for the borehole reader, wishing she'd never mentioned her father to him. "I don't." Not every man.
He sent her an unconvinced frown from above the field book but didn't argue.
"I haven't seen him since he showed up at my college graduation and ruined what should have been my best accomplishment. Why would I compare anyone to him?"
Samuel raised a brow, telling her without words that the emotional response had just answered her own question.
Okay, so he was right. Her father epitomized the kind of man she never wanted to marry. She remembered the way she had felt when he'd shown up at her graduation. Unchecked hope that he'd come for the right reason flashed before a too-familiar self-doubt. Did he know about that B she got her freshman year? Never mind the honors. Maybe hydrogeology wasn't scientifically challenging enough. If she'd become the first female president of the United States, her father probably still wouldn't have been impressed.
So why waste any energy thinking of him at all? It wasn't supposed to bother her anymore. She'd overcome her insecurities and childish hopes the moment she left him standing in that college auditorium.
Connecting the reader to the piezometer inside the borehole harder than necessary, Sabine waited for the measurement to appear on the display. Samuel wrote the number down in his field book, eyeing her dubiously.
She'd never seen what real happiness looked like until she met her field partner. Maybe that's what had her thinking about her father so much lately. Happiness was not a word she'd learned from his example.
She straightened from the borehole. They were finished for the day.
"Let's go see if our supply helicopter brought us some cold beer." Samuel closed his field book.
"If Aden came with it, there'll be beer." As CEO of Envirotech and the one who had contracted them to do the groundwater analysis, Aden Archer always made room in the supply helicopter for good beer.
"He sure does come here a lot. Have you noticed that?"
"He doesn't come here that much."
"He doesn't need to be here at all."
She didn't think it was that unusual. "I saw him meet with one of the locals once. Maybe it's business related."
Samuel's brow creased as he looked at her. "Who'd he meet?"
She shrugged. "I didn't recognize him. All I saw was the back of his head."
It took him a moment to respond. "Don't you think that's a little weird? Why would he need to meet with any of the locals?"
"Who knows." Was Samuel as concerned as he seemed? Why? "He isn't hurting anyone."
Samuel looked at her a moment longer before he smiled, convincing her she'd misread him. "Especially if he brings beer. Come on, let's go." He started to walk toward the Jeep.
Sabine followed. She didn't feel like drinking beer. What she'd really like was a long, hot bath. With bubbles. And a good fantasy of a man who cherished her more than anything else in his life.
She breathed a laugh. Samuel's daydreaming was starting to rub off on her, apparently.
The sound of a vehicle made her stop and turn with a rush of alertness. No one ever came to see them out here. A pickup truck with the cab cut off bounced along the terrain. Several dark-skinned men were inside. Her heart slammed into a wild beat. They all held automatic weapons.
Samuel swore and dropped his field book before taking her hand to pull her ahead of him. She tripped as she started to run, her hand slipping free of his. Get to the Jeep. That was her only thought as she pumped her legs as hard as she could. But she could already see that the Jeep was too far away.
They weren't going to make it.
Oh God, please no.
She heard Samuel's heavy footfalls behind her. Hard breathing. More swearing.
"Run faster!" he yelled.
She didn't have to be told. If they were caught
She couldn't think it.
Gunfire exploded. Sabine screamed and scrambled to dodge the spitting dirt where bullets struck the ground. The truck skidded to a halt between them and the Jeep. More bullets sprayed at their feet, forcing them to stop running.
Several men jumped off the open truck, shouting in Farsi, "Don't move! Don't move!"
Samuel grabbed Sabine's arm and pulled her behind him. She wanted to keep running. Instinct urged her to get away. But they'd shoot her if she tried. Shaking, she peered around Samuel's big arm and watched in horror as rebels surrounded them.
After a stuffy flight from Washington, D.C., Cullen McQueen left Miami's sweltering heat and entered Executive Indemnity Corporation. A security guard behind a reception desk looked up and smiled.
"I'm here to see Noah Page," Cullen said. "He's expecting me."
"Henrietta," Cullen answered.
The man nodded his understanding and stood. He led Cullen to a locked door and let him through. Cullen entered a sprawling office area surrounded by closed doors. He spotted a woman standing near one of them.
She smiled. "You can go right in, Mr. "
"Thanks." He smiled back at her and went into the conference room. Only one person knew his name here, and he was going to keep it that way.
Noah Page stood with his arms behind his back, staring out a panel of tinted windows on the far side of the room. He turned as Cullen shut the door. His face was lined and pale. Dark circles matched the grave worry in his blue eyes and his gray hair looked as if he'd run his fingers through it several times.
Cullen walked the length of the long conference room table and stopped before Noah, shaking his hand.
"Thank you for coming on such short notice," Noah said.
"You said it was urgent. Something about your daughter?"
Noah swallowed, a scared reflex. The notion of a man like Noah Page being scared piqued Cullen's curiosity. And a heap of foreboding.
"She's been kidnapped."
Cullen went still. "Do you know where she is?"
"Yes Afghanistan. The Panjshir Valley."
That was in the mountains. The Hindu Kush. There weren't many worse places Noah's daughter could have been captured. "What's she doing there?"
"She's a contractor for Envirotech. She and another contractor were assessing groundwater conditions near one of the villages in the valley when they were abducted. I need you to get her out of there, Cullen. You're the only one I know who can do it."
Cullen laughed without humor. "You must have me confused with God."
"No." Noah sounded certain. "You know the terrain. You've done this kind of mission before. You do it all the time."
Not suicide missions, Cullen thought. He curbed his instinct to flat-out refuse Noah. "I know you're worried about your daughter, but you have to realize how difficult it will be to get her out of there. Not only is Afghanistan unstable, it's landlocked. You'd have to cross Indian and Pakistani ground defenses to get there." That didn't even begin to address U.S. forces inside the border.
"I've already met with the Minister of the Interior in Pakistan. He's agreed to clear you a flight plan into Afghanistan. There are regularly scheduled flights we can use as cover."
Cullen just stared at him.
"I've also procured two armed Mi-8 transport helicopters capable of flying high altitudes, one for backup and to carry extra fuel," Noah continued. "You'll have a DeHavilland Twin Otter equipped with a special jamming pod. It's been modified to fly long distances, too. I spared no expense on the equipment."
Rising tension tightened Cullen's jaw. He could not agree to this. But it was Noah asking.
"She's all I have left," Noah said in the silence, a pleading sound that didn't match the man. "I wouldn't ask if I had any other option." He leaned over the conference room table and pushed a newspaper toward Cullen.
Slowly, Cullen lowered his gaze. The page covering the kidnapping of two American contractors was exposed. Cullen had read about the kidnapping and seen it all over the news, but he'd never connected the name Sabina O'Clery with Noah Page. The media had stirred huge public interest in the female contractor who'd been taken by terrorists along with her partner, Samuel Barry.
He looked at the photo of Sabine. She smiled wide and bright, green eyes dancing with life, red hair long and thick. She was a beautiful woman. He'd thought so the first time he'd seen the photo. He'd also thought with regret that she would probably be killed before anyone could do anything.
Cullen raised only his eyes to look at Noah. Why did it have to be Afghanistan?
"You're my only hope of seeing my daughter alive again," Noah said quietly, urgently. "I've made mistakes in my life, but this one will kill me if she dies over there. Before I have a chance to make things right with her."
Cullen wanted to groan out loud. How could he say no? To Noah. Any other man, he'd already have been walking out the door. But Noah
He couldn't say no. He had to do it. He owed Noah too much.
"It's going to take time to plan," he heard himself say.
Noah closed his eyes, a sign that he recognized Cullen's indirect agreement. "How much time?"
"A week. Maybe less. I have to be careful." And wasn't that just the understatement of the year.
Noah nodded. "I know you'll do the best you can."
Even his best might not keep him alive, but he held that thought to himself. "What kind of intelligence do you have?" Cullen looked down at the table and saw a map and several satellite images.
"Before we talk strategy, there's something you need to understand about my daughter."
Cullen looked back at Noah and waited. What could possibly matter when her life was on the line?
"She despises me."
Cullen couldn't stop his brow from rising.
"She has for years," Noah continued. "Ever since she was old enough to think on her own."
"I'm sure she'll change her mind once she sets foot on American soil again, compliments of you."
Noah shook his head. "You don't understand. You can't tell her I sent you."
"What do you want me to"
"If you tell her I sent you, she'll find her own way home as soon as you get her out of Afghanistan. I know her. She won't stay with you."
"What am I supposed to say to her? I can't tell her who I am, either." What he did for his government privately had to stay private. No official could admit to asking him to do the things he did in the name of the United States. He couldn't risk telling Noah's daughter anything, especially knowing she was estranged from her father. And then there was the media hype to consider.
"Tell her whatever you want," Noah said. "Hell, lie to her if you have to. Just get her to me. I'll explain everything to her then."
What was that? Had she imagined the sound? Sabine felt every heartbeat in her chest as she lifted her head from where her aching body lay curled on a hard cement floor. She tried to see across the small cell that had been her prison for more than two weeks. Blackness stared back at her. None of this was real, was it? So much horror couldn't be real.
The rapid staccato of a man shouting something in Farsi convinced her well enough that she wasn't dreaming. She pushed herself to a sitting position, her body trembling from lack of water and food and, more than anything, from fear, as she scooted to the wall behind her, away from the door. Strands of her long, dirty red hair hung in front of her face, shivering with the tremors that rippled through her.
The door creaked open and one of her captors stepped in, holding a paraffin lamp. Beady eyes leered at her above an unkempt, hairy face. The others called him Asad. He wasn't their leader, but he frightened her nearly as much.
Glancing behind him, he closed the door. Sabine pressed her back harder against the cement wall as he approached, wishing it would miraculously give way and provide an escape.
Asad crouched close to her and put the lamp down beside him. He reached to touch her hair. Many of the other men seemed taken with the color, too.
Had Asad managed to slip away tonight? His presence this late and the look in his dark eyes said as much. Where was Isma'il? Would he stop him as he had all the other times?
She pulled away from Asad's hand and scrambled along the wall until the corner stopped her.
Anger brought Asad's brow crowding together. "Move when you are told," he said in Farsi.
If she lived, Sabine promised herself she'd never speak the language again and forget she'd ever studied it in college.