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By Veronica Forand, Candace Havens
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Veronica Forand
All rights reserved.
A beat-up Land Cruiser, bald tires, and a dirt road complete with potholes and gullies made for one shitty way to travel to San Stefano, a tiny nothing of a village in the far reaches of nowhere in Columbia. Drug cartels and rogue militias ruled these mountains. Dane O'Brien, however, had a mission to complete — retrieve Jenny Bloom and send her back home to the States — so he'd snagged the first transportation available to get the job done. The mission was as close to impossible as any Dane had been on in the past. This woman, full of crazy intelligence and insane compassion for the poor and underserved communities of the world, preferred living in war zones to the suburbs of Maryland.
When he'd discovered where she was, he'd called and tried to convince her to leave. The pain in the ass do-gooder, however, refused to stop risking her life for people she didn't know. He played a similar game and absorbed the risk as a means to an end, but Jenny's situation was different.
She was his baby sister.
He drove into the small, colorful village expecting the slow rhythms of a mountain farm community. The tension across the crowded marketplace put him on instant alert. Something foul had soiled the atmosphere. A crowd of people milled about in the town square. Several men stood together wearing stress and fear as part of their wardrobe. A group of women conversed with arms waving and eyes blazing.
He parked at the schoolhouse, a new two-floor building made through contributions from the international organization that had hired Jenny. The few villagers outside the school quieted as heads turned to watch the stranger arrive. He showed his empty hands in a gesture of good faith, nodded briefly, and headed into the building.
"Jenny?" he called into the large empty classroom on the first floor.
A door opened and closed above him, and footsteps pattered down the stairs. Jenny flew around the corner and jumped into his arms, looking like the freckle-faced teenager of their youth. Her hair was still short and flyaway with no recognizable style to it, and her face was red and blotchy as though she'd been crying all night. His happiness in seeing her faded to a deep concern. Jenny was not the type to whine, complain, or cry without major cause.
"You made it. Thank God." She hugged him tighter.
"What's wrong?" His hands automatically moved across her shoulders and down her back to check for injuries. She'd sounded happy when he'd spoken to her the day before.
"I'm fine." She shook him off and paced to the window, looking into the marketplace. Her breathing slowed and mixed with an occasional sob. "Rebels came here last night and killed the barkeeper. They took Trista, my roommate. She hasn't returned."
Rebels? This wasn't a FARC controlled area. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, otherwise known as the People's Army, had moved out of this area years ago, and the major leftist groups had relocated closer to the coal mines. "Which group?"
"The Red Hawks. They're a small rebel faction more interested in making money than causing government reform. Once or twice a month, a few men come down from their base to buy supplies. These two were barely out of their teenage years. Their uniforms and guns gave them the confidence to do anything."
"And they kidnapped her?"
Jenny looked at her feet. "They were kidnapping Natalia, but she wouldn't have stood a chance, so Trista said she would take her place."
"She volunteered to leave with them?" Is the woman crazy?
"Natalia, the barkeeper's daughter, is only fourteen. She'd just watched her father gunned down. She was crying uncontrollably and the murderers decided why not completely blacken their souls by raping and possibly killing their victim's daughter. They pulled her out of the bar to their Jeep. They would have destroyed her. I wish I'd had the guts to do something, but I honestly had no idea how to handle it. Trista's different. She works with the rehabilitation arm of the ICPF."
"The International Children's Protection Fund. The group that set me up here. As a rehabilitation specialist, Trista has helped hundreds of children leave military groups. She's also rescued girls forced into marriage. She must have thought she could talk to the rebels and escape. At least, that's what I think she'd intended."
Did Jenny realize that Trista's job would invite death threats and retaliation?
"She wanted to negotiate with horny adolescents with guns, drunk on their power? Shit. She may never return."
"No. I don't believe that. She's smart and prepared and has been in a bunch of war zones." Jenny paced around the room and told him everything that had occurred in the bar. Her friend Trista sounded like a martyr. Dane was grateful Jenny didn't have that same heroic instinct. He'd take down entire countries if something ever happened to her.
"And no one stood up to stop them?"
Jenny shook her head. "The Red Hawks burned a nearby village about five years ago. Most people died. Everyone here is terrified."
The more she told him, the grimmer Trista's future appeared. Even if she escaped, she'd be stranded in the middle of the jungle with no food or clean water.
Part of the crowd gathering outside the school had circled his SUV and were peering in the windows of the schoolhouse. They had reason to be cautious, although from Jenny's descriptions, the whole village was more fearful than confrontational.
"Can we go somewhere more private?"
"Come upstairs." She grasped him by the hand and led him to her apartment on the second floor. The apartment had a kitchenette, a couch, and two chairs, with a bunch of doors probably leading to bedrooms and a bathroom. The only color came from the bright blue curtains. Not much of a living space, but probably larger than many of the homes in this area. A collage of photos lined the corkboard on the wall. A picture of him as a new college graduate ready to conquer the world sat among ones of a smiling Jenny in various countries around the world.
He focused on the photos of Trista. She had an athletic body, with feminine curves, and she wore her brown hair long. A wayward strand partially covered her hazel eyes. Her eyebrows remained low in every photo, as though she was waiting for rain or a zombie apocalypse. To a man who read faces and body language as part of his job, she appeared not to trust most people. Her smoldering eyes had probably seen the worst life could offer.
He guided Jenny to the couch. "We have to get you out of here. It'll only get worse if the soldiers come back."
"Leave?" Jenny stared at him with wide, wet eyes. "I can't leave the children. They won't have a teacher if I run away. Three of them live with us and have no one else in their lives. And what about Trista? I can't take off without her. She risked her life to help Natalia. I owe her. The whole village owes her a debt."
"The Columbian army won't protect you in this inkblot of a town. Even if they did, it would take two days to travel here."
Jenny stood in her jeans and gray T-shirt with her hands on her hips, ready to fight her older brother, as she'd done again and again in the past. "I have responsibilities. Erika is only five, and little Juan and Sergio depend on me. Hell, Natalia lost her father last night — she needs someone to care for her. ICPF support should be here in a few days. They're bringing supplies and a few extra people." After Jenny's husband, a Peace Corps volunteer, died a few years ago while building a bridge in Madagascar, she poured her heartache into her assignments. A tribute to the late Fred Bloom. Only Fred would probably not have been so supportive of her trekking to the most remote and dangerous areas of the world.
"I only have two days, and then I have to return to San Francisco." He'd wanted to spend the time convincing his sister to come home, but her roommate dominated his thoughts. Is she going to make it back? He shouldn't get involved, but those damn hazel eyes were embedded in his brain, and her bravado in saving that girl made him curious about her and ... shit. He couldn't leave a woman alone with a bunch of punks.
"You can take a longer vacation. You're a salesman. Who cares if you don't show up for work?"
He wasn't exactly a salesman. He was a CIA operative who monitored arms deals throughout the world. His access to the major players in the field came from being embedded with a California drone technology company. Jenny didn't know his real employer, and he preferred to keep it that way for her own protection.
He glanced at the photos of Trista again. Staying here was stupid and a risk to both him and Jenny, but after seeing Trista and feeling the inevitable pull of his conscience, he wanted her safe as much as Jenny did. Work would have to wait.
He must have looked at the photos for a second too long. The tension in Jenny's face and neck had disappeared, replaced by her "I know how to reel you in" smile.
"We can drive up the mountain and search for her," she said.
"We? You're staying in the village. I'll take a drive. I'm limiting my search to thirty miles, and then I turn around." Dane had his own doubts about the safety of the village as well, but alone he could move faster, and old skills he'd tried to bury could be resurrected to pull Trista out safely, if she was still alive.
"Why can't I go with you?"
"You're safer here." Whoever took Trista wouldn't let her go so easily, and Jenny was not going to head into a potential shoot out. On this, he wouldn't budge.
His biggest concern centered on finding Trista in an unfamiliar and dangerous jungle he knew nothing about. He couldn't call for backup, because the CIA wouldn't acknowledge his employment. If he was discovered, his cover could be blown, and Pelican would go into a media frenzy, accusing the government of inserting government informants into corporations. Not exactly the public relations the intelligence community needed right now.
His current assignment required him to gain access to corporations to steal information, and wine and dine presidents of small countries in order to locate holes in their defense systems. In the past, however, he infiltrated countries and took out individuals hostile to American interests. He preferred his expense account to his rifle. And yet he kept falling back into situations where his old skills were necessary. Perhaps this wouldn't be one of those times. The increased tension in the back of his neck told him otherwise. He sure as hell wouldn't be smoking cigars and drinking Scotch on this rescue mission.
Four hours later, he'd changed from corporate flunky in khaki pants and a button down shirt into a lost tourist in worn jeans and a T-shirt. After talking with a few of the villagers, he located enough supplies for a brief drive into the jungle. His only weapon, a Glock he carried on him at all times, rested in his shoulder holster, covered by a worn flannel shirt he'd bought off one of the local farmers.
Leaving the village, he followed the dirt road into the higher elevations of the mountains. Remote didn't begin to describe this place. Little to no electricity, and the only gas station around was in the back of his SUV in the form of a twenty-gallon red plastic jug. The density of the jungle encroaching on each side of the road made him wish he had access to a team of Navy SEALs. Those badasses would extricate Trista in under an hour and still have time for a drink at the local bar. He'd have to go it alone.
The road forked in several locations, but the few sets of new tire tracks in the mud all followed the same route. He spotted a rutted pull-out next to an old broken down hut. He drove past the hut and parked his car about a mile down an old walking path, wide enough to fit the SUV and far enough away from the road to avoid detection if anyone returned, and used a small shovel to shift the mud across his tracks at the entrance to the path.
No sound came from the building, but there was evidence of recent activity that indicated something had gone down at that spot within the past twelve hours. Gun in hand, he pushed the door open with his foot.
The stench hit him first. Blood pooled across the ground in large brown stains, exposing a recent, probably fatal, injury. Was it from Trista? The thought made his chest hurt. She'd risked her life for someone else. A stupid but brave action.
He searched for a sign she'd been there, hoping he didn't find her body. A few sets of heavy footprints going to and from the road dug into the ground. Dane was no tracker, but those were made by combat boots. He'd bet his life on it.
Every bird that flew near the hut added three more gray hairs to Dane's mostly brown-haired head. He had solid instincts in the field, but in today's technological world, the smallest camera could be beaming his location and description to anyone, and he'd be none the wiser. He headed to the door and noticed a lighter and smaller set of footprints in the dirt leading to the jungle. Sneakers?
He followed the tracks to the edge of the clearing. Thick vegetation hid from view anything farther than fifty yards into the jungle. If she was in there, she could stay hidden forever.
"Trista?" he called out through the trees.
"I'm Jenny's brother. It's safe."
He called to her several more times and then started back to his car to gather supplies to hike a mile or two farther to try to find more evidence of her presence. The swish of a branch behind him caught his attention. Whoever was hiding had emerged.
Relief turned to caution as Trista walked out of the jungle with a layer of mud covering her and a handgun aimed at his head.
She didn't speak. Her eyes remained focused on him, and her legs seemed poised to take off at the slightest threat.
"Are you hurt?" he asked.
Hovering in the area between the road and the forest, she shook her head. "You're Jenny's brother?"
Her voice sounded stronger than her faltering body appeared. Some of the mud that covered her looked more like blood that had dried on her shirtsleeves and part of her pants.
"Yes. I'm Dane O'Brien."
"What's Jenny's middle name?" Her eyebrows furrowed as they had in the pictures.
"She doesn't have one."
She took a tentative step forward. She observed Dane's movements and fixed her eyes on his like a panther ready to pounce. "What's her favorite drink?"
"Chocolate milkshakes. Or a margarita if the bar carries fresh limes."
The tension in her face melted away. She pointed the gun to the ground and walked over to him. His arms opened automatically — after all, the woman had been through hell. She probably needed a hug or a shoulder to cry on.
She crossed her arms over her chest, the gun dangling from her hand. Her breathing pattern switched from a heavy sigh to a shivery exhale. He put his arms down and observed her.
"Are you okay?"
She nodded. "I'll survive."
"Let me rephrase. Do you need medical attention?"
"Where are the men who took you from the village?"
"You killed them?"
She nodded. Her gaze dropped to the ground. Most people never recovered from such a nightmare. Yet she'd not only lived through the ordeal, she emerged from the jungle healthy and armed.
He'd placed the odds against her, but now that he saw her in person, he'd have changed his bet. He approached her with caution. Her finger rested just outside the trigger, in a position a skilled shooter would feel comfortable with.
She peered up at him. "I'm glad you're here. I didn't know how I'd get down from the mountain. Is Jenny all right?"
"Worried about you."
"What about Natalia?"
"I don't know anything about her, except she's probably alive thanks to you. Did they hurt you?" He placed a calming hand on her shoulder and slipped the gun out of her hand.
"No." She eyed the weapon, but didn't reach for it. Not that she'd be capable of taking it back from him.
"I've been listening to the group's radio all night. They're coming back. For me." A tear rolled down her cheek. She ignored it and looked toward the hut. "I didn't mean to kill them."
Excerpted from True Peril by Veronica Forand, Candace Havens. Copyright © 2016 Veronica Forand. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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