After an official operation turned deadly, Jonas Crow began a new life in Grizzly Harbor with Alaska Force. But when fellow soldier Bethan Wilcox joins the group, she forces him to remember things he actively prefers to forget. That’s unforgivable enough. But now the two of them are forced together on a mission to uncover deadly secrets tied to their complicated past, and with the heat between them at a boil, forgiveness is the least of his worries...
And the only woman he needs.
Bethan Wilcox, one of the first women to make it through Army Ranger school, didn't join Alaska Force to deal with Jonas's foul temper. Or her own errant attraction to him. Thrown together in a race against the clock, they have to pretend to be a couple and play nice to throw the enemy off their scent. She knows better than to let their pretend love feel real...especially while time is running out.
Jonas has always been good at saving the world. But it’s Bethan he needs to save this time around—if she doesn’t save him first.
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The sudden explosion wasn’t the first clue that all was not as it should be in this supposedly abandoned saltpeter mining town in the Atacama Desert at high elevation west of the Chilean Andes, but it was the most emphatic.
And it almost knocked her over.
Bethan Wilcox—former Army Intelligence, psyops, technically an Army Ranger, and current member of Alaska Force—had already had the sinking feeling this particular op was heading south. That queasy little twist, down in her gut, that she’d learned to trust implicitly in a different desert long ago.
But inklings and gut feelings were one thing. A bone-rattling C‑4 blast was another.
“Who knows we’re here?” came a pissed-off growl over her comm unit. Even with her ears ringing, Bethan knew the speaker without him having to identify himself. Jonas Crow, who was a great many things—all of them complicated. But most important for her purposes at the moment, he was in charge of this operation. “Report.”
“Holding steady,” Bethan replied, easing out from the protection of the structure she’d been hunkered down behind. It was dilapidated at best and bore the evidence of misery and regime changes in its bullet holes and vandalization, but it had kept her safe.
She scanned the open, arid square ringed with empty, decrepit buildings, trying to see who had found them here so she could work on how. But there was nothing to see. Just the same old empty nitrate town that was rumored to have once been a dictator’s favorite place to stash dissidents. It had taken them three days to climb the three thousand feet from sea level, moving only under the cover of night in almost complete radio silence as they picked their way through the distant gunfire of drug lord and Mafia-controlled territories to access the town.
Bethan could have sworn they hadn’t been seen. Much less followed.
That likely meant the threat had been waiting for them here, not stalking them across the desert.
Bethan turned that over in her head as the rest of the team checked in. Rory Lockwood, former Green Beret. New Alaska Force hire August Vaz, former Army Nightstalker. And Griffin Cisneros, former marine sniper.
“Could be a coincidence,” Griffin bit out in that cold voice of his. “There are land mines all over this area.”
“Do you still have that line of sight, Bethan?” Jonas asked in that same low growl of his, though, as always, there was the way he said her name.
Bethan was a professional. She had just spent three days creeping through this bright, dry slice of elevated hell, keeping altitude sickness at bay by sheer force of will, always keenly aware that she was the only female member of Alaska Force. Meaning she always, always had more to prove.
But she was used to that. It meant she worked out harder and longer and with more intensity and determination, back in Alaska at headquarters and everywhere else. It meant she always had to be conscious that she couldn’t be only herself, she had to represent all the women who fought so hard to win coveted combat assignments, in the military and out. It meant she could never, ever lose her cool, no matter the situation.
It certainly meant that she was not about to admit to herself or anyone else that there was something about Jonas that got to her.
The way it always had.
“I can see just fine,” she replied matter-of-factly. “The question is, Was that blast for us personally, or was it a little perimeter gift for anyone dumb enough to come out here? Is it supposed to put us off our game?”
“Do you feel off your game?” Jonas asked.
Because of course he did.
He didn’t actively disapprove of her. Not Jonas. The man barely spoke of his own accord off mission, so it wasn’t as if he’d made any speeches about how he didn’t want her here. Still, he got that across. It was the distance, even when he was standing in front of her. The total silence that greeted any remark of hers that didn’t require an operational response.
“Negative,” she replied.
Bethan had been highly trained in a variety of scenarios. She’d signed up for the army right out of high school, mostly to appall her high-ranking air force general father. But then, spite enlistment or not, she’d loved basic training. She’d loved it when she got into psyops, too, and for a time, she’d greatly enjoyed her work as an interpreter, translator, and interrogator, connected to highly classified missions all over the world. It was after one of those missions—the one where she’d met Jonas, though neither one of them ever spoke of it—that she’d decided she wanted to be able to do more. To do something, on a grand scale.
That had led her to becoming one of the very few women to ever make it through Army Ranger School.
But the army hadn’t given her what she wanted, and now she was here. Using all her years of army training to stay calm in the face of provocation. Whether it was a building that shouldn’t have blown up or Jonas freaking Crow.
“Proceed,” Jonas ordered her.
“I have you covered,” Griffin said, cold and precise.
Bethan’s gut was working overtime, but courage wasn’t the absence of fear. It was using it as fuel. She eased out of her protected position, squinting past the billowing smoke from what they’d had down as a meaningless outbuilding in this creepy, abandoned place. She could feel eyes on her, no doubt friend and foe alike, and wished she were in full combat gear—but that wasn’t how they were playing this.
She quickly considered her options. The inhabited ruined building was directly across the square from where she was. The original plan had been for her to take the long way, skulking around the back of what was left of the row of houses where she’d been squatting. Then find a way in through a window that was almost certainly alarmed, if not actively guarded.
Bethan hadn’t seen any guards yet. And it was always possible that someone was blowing stuff up on the outskirts of this crumbling ruin of a mining town for reasons that had nothing to do with why she was here. Anything was possible.
But the more likely scenario was that there were guards, and those guards knew Alaska Force was here. And that they’d expressed themselves with a little C‑4 as a welcoming gift, so there was no point sneaking around anymore.
Bethan stood. Then she sauntered around the corner of the ruined house like she was out for a stroll somewhere civilized. She headed across the arid dirt square, in the kind of broad desert daylight that made her lungs hurt, to go knock on what passed for the front door opposite.
“I like it,” Rory said with a quiet laugh from his position around the far flank of the building she was approaching. “A frontal assault always confuses them.”
“Shock and awe, baby,” August agreed.
Jonas, naturally, was completely silent.
Bethan knocked. The sound echoed strangely out here, with the Andes towering in the distance and that profound, if deceptive, emptiness all around. She knew how American she was, because she wanted to see a tumbleweed roll by, or a creaking saloon door, or the beginning twangs of a Wild West theme. But there was nothing.
Bethan knocked again. Louder.
She could feel all the targets up and down her back as she stood there. As if the eyes on her were punching into the light everyday tactical gear she wore, and worse, directly into the back of her deliberately uncovered head.
Look how friendly and approachable I am, her clothes were meant to proclaim across the desert, to all the various bad guys lurking around. No need to shoot.
Every single alarm inside her body was screaming bloody murder and she wanted nothing more than to duck, cover, and hide. Instead, she stood tall. Because she knew the fact she wasn’t visibly cowed was as much of a statement as a blast of C‑4. A bigger one, maybe.
“I know you’re in there,” Bethan said through the makeshift door, leaning against the gutted wall beside it as if she felt nothing but casual, here in the middle of a creepy, abandoned desert village in a place even the few hardy locals avoided. “The trouble is, everyone knows you’re in there. And sooner or later, they’re going to come. All of them. And they won’t knock at the door, as I think you know. They’ll come right in—if they haven’t already.”
Languages had always come easily to her. This one, a specific dialect of a language very few of her own countrymen knew existed, much less could speak, had always been one of her favorites. Tongue gymnastics, she’d said, laughing with a friend, way back at Monterey’s Defense Language Institute, where she’d first started learning the kinds of languages that made her invaluable in the field.
She waited as the pitiless sun beat down on her. She had that same sort of split focus she often did in situations like this. There was a part of her that was all here, right now. She was aware of everything, from the faint sounds of life from the other falling-down structures around the square, to the wind from the far-off mountains, to that skin-crawling sensation of being in the crosshairs of too many targets. And on the other hand, she found herself thinking of her home of a year and a half now. In faraway Alaska, where a March afternoon like this one would almost certainly be gray. And wet. It might even be snowing.
For a girl who’d spent a significant part of her life in sunny Santa Barbara while her father ordered people around on Vandenberg Air Force Base, the idea that she could long for a place like Alaska should have been funny.
Some days it was.
Today it felt like a much-needed moment of centering. Reminding herself that she had a job to do here and a home to go back to, which let her focus in more sharply.
“All I want to do is ask you a question,” she said to the door. Conversationally. “What will the rest of them do, I wonder?”
Another eternity passed while the sun blazed down on her, lighting her up and giving every sniper in the village ample opportunity to take her out.
But no one did.
Far in the distance, she heard what sounded like a foot dragging. Faintly.
“There were three guards around the perimeter,” Rory said into the comm unit a few beats later. “Neutralized.”
Griffin’s voice came like a knife. “Three seems like a low number.”
Bethan knew their best sniper was up high on one of the buildings around this square, but she didn’t bother looking for him. She knew she wouldn’t be able to find him unless he wanted to be found.
“A little house-to-house turned up some more,” August said quietly. “Bringing the total to an even eight, which is still low for an asset like this.”
“I don’t like this,” Jonas said in that stern, considering way he had.
Bethan was sure he was about to recall her—order her to fall back and find a defensive position—but that was when the door cracked open.
She waited, aware that she looked relaxed when she was anything but. Her weapons were holstered, so she simply stood there with her arms loosely at her sides, looking as unobtrusive as any of them did in their tactical gear. Her cargo pants and a combat-ready shirt weren’t as dramatic as army fatigues, but she doubted very much that the slender woman who stood there in the sliver between the board masquerading as a door and the questionable wall would confuse Bethan for anything but what she was.
For a moment the two women eyed each other. Bethan smiled. The woman did not.
“Hi, Iyara,” Bethan said quietly. Warmly, as if she knew the woman personally instead of from photographs. “Do you want to tell me where your brother is?”
“How do you speak the language of my childhood?” Iyara Sowande asked softly in return. “How do you know a single word?”
“I’m only looking for your brother,” Bethan repeated in the same steady tone. “I don’t mean you any harm.”
“What is harm?” Iyara asked bitterly. “You’re too late for that.”
The door was wrenched open wider then.
And suddenly there were guns in Bethan’s face.
“What are you saying? What does she want?” a male voice was yelling in a completely different language from the one Bethan had just been speaking.
Hands grabbed her, roughly. She let them drag her inside, protesting ineffectually. Mostly so they would yell louder as they slammed the door behind her, trapping her in the boarded-up ruin of a row house. Then they shoved her roughly toward the ground.
Bethan went down on her knees and lifted her hands in the air, cowering a little while she did it. Because they expected her to cower. And likely wanted her to so they could feel big and bad. That made it an excellent opportunity for her to take a quick sweep of her surroundings.
“I don’t know what you want!” she cried out, making herself sound shrill and scared. “I’m only here to deliver a message. Why does that take three guys? With rifles? What did I do?”
“Received,” Jonas clipped out in her ear.
“Shut up,” one of the men with a rifle aimed at her face snarled. He shoved the other woman down on the ground next to Bethan, and from the corner of her eye, Bethan could see that Iyara really was cowering. “Tell me what you said to each other or I’ll start shooting.”
“I have a message for my old friend,” Bethan protested. “How could I know she wasn’t here alone, the way I expected?”
The man before her bared his teeth at her. “What is this message?”
Bethan glanced at the woman beside her, then grinned widely and incongruously at the man towering over her. “Well. It’s our high school reunion. I take my duties as a reunion chair very seriously, and insisted that someone come out this way to see if everybody’s favorite prom queen could make the trip.”
She heard someone on the comm unit laugh. The man in front of her, however, did not so much as crack a smile.
“Do you think I’m a fool?” he snarled at her. And then, less amusingly, the barrel of his rifle was there against her forehead. But that was a tactical mistake on his part. “You think I don’t know exactly why you’re here?”
“I already told you why I’m here,” Bethan argued, and the barrel of the rifle dug deeper into her forehead. Hard enough she knew it would leave a mark.
“Understand that he will hurt you,” Iyara murmured next to her, in the language the man did not understand. “Badly.”
“Tell me what she’s saying!” the man screamed at Bethan. “Tell me where her brother is!”
Bethan risked another glance at the woman kneeling beside her. Iyara was shrinking there where she knelt, but there was a certain set expression on her face.
Bethan understood in a flash that these men had gotten no information out of Iyara, sister to the scientist they were all after. And that the only reason they hadn’t shot Bethan on sight was because she appeared to speak the same language that the woman did and they figured they’d use Bethan to get what they wanted.
Too bad for them that wasn’t how this was going to go.
“Why can’t you understand her?” she asked the man with the gun at her head, and cowered a little bit more, on the off chance he might think she really was scared. “Out of the three of you, not one of you knows how to communicate with her? Why would you come all this way, then?”
“In position,” Jonas said into the comm unit.
“You have ten seconds,” the man with the rifle to her head snarled at her. “Then I’ll shoot your head off.”
“Is that smart?” Bethan asked him. “You don’t know what she told me. And it sounds like you can’t ask her.”
The barrel jammed into her forehead. Harder. “Then you both die, bitch.”
Bethan blew out a breath.
“Ten,” the man said. “Nine. Eight.”
“On his three count,” Jonas said.
Bethan had the stray thought that she liked his voice in her ear.
“Seven. Six, puta. Five.”
Beside her, Iyara began to murmur what sounded like a prayer. Or a very long curse.
Bethan shrank, there on her knees, trying to make herself as small as possible. And in so doing, angled herself even closer to the long muzzle of the gun.
“Four,” the man snarled.
“No, no, no,” she cried, the way a victim might. “Please don’t hurt me—”
“Three,” he said.
And then a lot of things happened at once.
Jonas burst in through the front door like a reckoning.
She heard shouts and loud thuds at the same time, which told her that at least two other members of her team had come in through the windows.
But there was still that gun at her head, so she handled it.
Bethan grabbed the muzzle of the rifle and wrenched it to the side Iyara wasn’t on, removing them both from the line of fire. He fired in the same instant, a deafening blast that she’d expected, but it still slammed into her like a wall of noise. The barrel was hot in her hand, but that was a lot better than a bullet in the face, so she kept going.
She controlled the weapon, yanking it so hard the man lost his balance and came down to the ground. Then she was rolling with him, over him, battering him in the face with his own weapon until he let go. She surged to her feet in a tidy little flip, taking the rifle with her. Then held it on him.
The way he was moaning and grabbing at one hand, she was pretty sure she’d broken at least one of his fingers.
“Stay down,” she told him, calmly, her ears still ringing. “I want you on your belly with your hands laced behind your head and your ankles crossed. Do it now.”