Authors: Lynn Raye Harris
Soon they were on the road, and Lucky turned her head to look at the endless buildings and land. That was one thing about living on an island—you got used to seeing ocean just about everywhere you looked. To see land—endless land—was strange after the last few months.
“Where are you taking me?” she asked after they’d passed several miles in silence.
“My orders are to bring you to HOT HQ. After that, I don’t know.”
“And where is HQ?”
She hugged herself and sniffed. “HOT has come up in the world.”
He shrugged. “You know that Mendez has been trying for years. He finally got someone to say yes.”
Lucky scrubbed a hand through her hair and yawned. She never slept well on a plane, and last night had been no exception. “I don’t think anyone could say no to that man for long.”
Even her, apparently. It hadn’t escaped her attention that she’d pretty much caved in to precisely what Mendez wanted within hours of being told.
“Don’t beat yourself up,” Kev said quietly. “He was bringing you back one way or another. This way, you have more control.”
She snorted softly. “Some control. Yesterday I was surfing and contemplating my day, and now I’m here. The power of Mendez.”
Kev’s fingers tightened on the wheel. “We’re gonna get Al Ahmad. This time, we’re getting him.”
“I sure hope so. Because I won’t come back again.”
Kev glanced over at her, his expression fierce. “You won’t have to. Believe me. If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll make sure that bastard is good and dead this time.”
Her heart skipped a beat. And then a current of anger whipped through her. “Don’t you do anything stupid, Kevin MacDonald. I buried one of you already. I won’t do it again.”
His eyes flashed with some emotion she couldn’t read, and then he was staring straight ahead again, his knuckles white on the wheel. Lucky closed her eyes and leaned her head back. She didn’t know why she’d said that, but Marco and Kev had been inseparable when she’d first met them. They were like brothers instead of best friends, their pasts so similar it was spooky. They both had deadbeat dads, both had drunk mothers. Neither of them was in contact with their family.
She’d thought they would always be tight, but then she’d entered the picture and everything changed. Marco tried to pretend it hadn’t, but he’d known it too. Kev pulled away from them both after they married, though he still accepted invitations and then showed up with wildly inappropriate women. He never stayed long, always slipping his arm around whatever trashy babe he was with and saying something about how he had to get her home. Lucky had hated thinking of him taking those women home and undressing them, caressing them in ways that made her throat dry. It hadn’t been any of her business, and yet it had bothered her anyway.
“I’m not going to do anything stupid.” His voice broke into her thoughts and she opened her eyes. His profile always caused that little hitch in her heart. Strong lines, handsome lines. She wanted to press her mouth to his jaw and work her way around to his lips.
It was a disconcerting thought to have, and she shifted in her seat, uncomfortable.
“I’m glad to hear it.”
“What happened out there with Marco… He didn’t do anything stupid. He was just the one who got picked. None of us knew what would happen to him and Jim.”
Her throat ached. She’d spent so much time blaming herself. What if she’d caused Marco to screw up? What if he’d been preoccupied with her and the things that had being going on between them?
Matt Girard had told her everything that happened, but she’d still vacillated between helpless fury and self-blame.
She cleared her throat. “I talked to Karen Matuzaki a few times after… She moved back to California, you know. She and the kids moved in with her parents so she could go back to school and finish her degree.”
Karen had gotten Jim’s Servicemen’s Group Life Insurance, same as she’d gotten Marco’s. It was a substantial amount of money, but not enough to live on for the rest of your life. She’d talked to Karen a few times, and then over the last couple of months they’d only e-mailed once in a while. She’d taken it as a sign that Karen was moving on and coping with her new reality.
“I’m glad to hear she’s all right.”
“As all right as anyone can be after losing her husband and the father of her children.”
Kev sighed. “Yeah,” he said softly.
They lapsed into silence. Lucky closed her eyes. She was so tired. She hadn’t slept on the plane, and her gut was churning with stress. She had no idea what Mendez expected from her, and while the prospect of getting anywhere near Al Ahmad was ulcer inducing, she was determined to do the job and get out quickly. Yeah, she’d wanted to run at first—but all night long all she’d thought about was that evil, slimy bastard and the things he’d done to her. The way he’d affected every day of her life since.
He had to die. And she would do whatever it took to make that happen.
Her eyes snapped open, and she looked up to find Kev gently shaking her. Her first instinct was to recoil; her second was to burrow her head into his chest and sob.
She sat up, rubbing her eyes, and Kev straightened. “Sorry,” she said.
“No problem. It’s been a long night for you.”
She glanced at her phone to check the time. “It’s six hours earlier in Hawaii. I’d be in bed right now.”
“Yeah, that time-zone shift is always a bitch.”
She blinked at their surroundings. The truck was parked in a lot near a compound that would have looked nondescript were it not for the razor wire, antennas, and satellite dishes.
“Whoa, are these the new digs?”
Kev slid his hands over the top of the steering wheel. “This is it. The Church of Mendez.”
She laughed in spite of herself. “You guys don’t call it that to his face do you?”
Kev grinned. “No. But we do call it the playground. He seems to like that.”
He reached behind her seat and dug into the backpack he’d set there. Then he came out with a manila envelope and handed it to her.
She turned the envelope in her hands before ripping it open. A HOT restricted-access badge fell out, along with an ID and some other papers.
“Just when I’m sure nothing can surprise me.” She turned the badge over. “You knew I’d come.”
He shrugged. “Mendez was getting you back one way or the other. And you’ll need these to get inside.”
“I’m not active anymore.”
“Doesn’t matter. We operate our own access now. We’re deep black.”
“HOT was always deep black.”
He shook his head. “Not like this.” He popped open his door. “Come on. Mendez is waiting.”
“Wow, I don’t even get a shower first, huh?” She knew better, but it was still irritating to be called onto the carpet and expected to obey when she’d left that kind of life behind. No one ordered her to do anything these days, and she liked it that way.
But it seemed HOT could always drag you back in.
“He wants to see you. After that, I have no idea. But I’ll do what he tells me.”
“Apparently, we all will,” she said bitterly. And then she opened the door, looped the badge around her neck, and started for the gate. They passed through several layers of security and into the bowels of the building.
“It still smells new,” she grumbled as they passed through yet another door controlled by a cipher.
“We’re working on it.”
This building was prime, nothing like the facility at Fort Bragg. If she didn’t know better, she’d think she’d just stepped into the NSA. There were lasers, huge monitors, infrared cameras, ciphers, eye and fingerprint scanners, and a computer that spoke to them as they walked through the mantrap.
The doors were thick steel that thudded shut as they went deeper into the facility. Finally, they came to a room with two guards stationed on either side.
Kev took her badge and handed it to the closest guy. “We’re here to see the colonel. This is Lucky San Ramos. She’s HOT cleared, level three.”
The guard turned and picked up a phone. A few moments later, he dropped it and entered a code into the door. It swung open and Kev led her through. Lucky ground to a halt. Around her, giant screens ringed the room. Computer banks sat in the center of the room, men and women busy at each as colored dots moved on the screen.
HOT squads out in the field. The dots lit up across several continents, and Lucky swallowed. It was surreal to be back on the inside after so long away.
And after the way she’d lost Marco.
“You all right?”
She glanced up at Kev. He was watching her closely, and she told herself not to read too much into it. “It’s a little intense, but I’m okay. It’s been a while.”
He smiled as if to reassure her. “I know. But it’ll be fine.”
“So where’s the old man?” Because she wanted to get this over with now that she was here.
“The old man isn’t that damn old,” a voice boomed behind her. Lucky spun to find Colonel Mendez, looking intense as always as he sized her up. He wasn’t a bad-looking man, though she had no intention of ever telling him that. He was tough, tall and wiry, and had that same high-and-tight, salt-and-pepper hair he’d always had.
While the other guys grew their hair out of regs for missions, Mendez never did.
“Hello, sir,” she said, her old training snapping to the fore of her brain. No, she wasn’t in anymore, and she could probably get away with leaving the sir off. But why antagonize the guy?
“So you gonna help us out, huh? Damn patriotic of you, Lucky.”
Anger cracked through the veneer of her calm. “It has nothing to do with patriotism, I assure you.”
His eyes raked her face. “No, I guess not.” He held out his arm suddenly, as if he were a courtier at a ball. “Why don’t we go to the ready room and discuss everything?”
After a moment’s hesitation, she slipped her arm in his. No one here was going to hurt her. She’d worked hard to get over her phobias, and she was going to have to work even harder now. Besides, if he wanted to play it that way, she could go along. For now.
“Let’s get it over with.”
“Sergeant,” Mendez said, jerking his head at Kev. Kev preceded them through the operations center and into another room. Lucky blinked at the sight of Marco’s old teammates sitting at a table. They stood almost as one, a rippling wave of muscle and danger.
“Hey there, Lucky,” Matt Girard said, looking as handsome as ever. “Good to see you,
“I’d say the same, but, well, I think you guys probably know I’d prefer to be anywhere but here.”
His gray eyes were somber. “I don’t doubt it.”
She let her gaze wander around the table, said hello to everyone in turn. There was Billy “The Kid” Blake, the computer whiz; Jack “Hawk” Hunter, the sniper; Nick “Brandy” Brandon, the spotter; Chase “Fidler” Daniels and Ryan “Flash” Gordon, the intel guys—and two guys she didn’t know at all. It hit her with a sickening thump that they were Jim and Marco’s replacements.
She glanced over at Kev, found him watching her, his gaze sharp. The other guys introduced themselves, and then they all sat down at a table.
Mendez wasted no time. “Al Ahmad’s been to France and Switzerland according to our sources.” He pushed a dossier toward her and called up a slide show on the screen at one end of the room.
Lucky scanned the documents. It was nothing much, but Al Ahmad’s name had shown up in some intercepted cables. That wouldn’t have meant much, except that it was ibn-Rashad who seemed to be breaking the silence.
A power struggle in the Freedom Force? Anything was possible. With friends like ibn-Rashad, who needed enemies?
“Someone is accessing Al Ahmad’s accounts here in Zurich,” Mendez said, his cursor hovering over the name of a bank on a map.
“Weren’t those accounts closed when he died?”
“They were. But the NSA followed the money through various pipelines until it showed up again. New accounts, same bank. Al Ahmad is a bit superstitious, it seems.”
Yes, he was certainly that. As well as a psycho.
“So where does HOT come in?”
Mendez fixed his fierce gaze on her. “You’re the only one who has ever seen him. The only one on our side, that is. We need you to ID him in real time so we can grab him.”
Her heart thumped hard. Sweat pooled between her breasts, though she’d been cold since she’d stepped off the plane into the middle of winter. “I don’t know that I can. I only saw his face once. He always wore a keffiyeh and tucked part of it around the lower half of his face. But it fell away one day…”
She tried not to let her fear show. She could feel Kev’s eyes on her, feel him trying to imbue her with strength. Well, dammit, she didn’t need his strength. Didn’t need anyone’s. She had her own. She’d worked long and hard on finding it.