FRIDAY, 4.42 am
The hot wind blew strands of hair across her face. Kara Bryan lay on the burning sand, a canopy of stars overhead. She lifted the binoculars to her face and counted—for the fourth time—the rotation of armed guards.
Six… Seven… and turn…
If she couldn’t get inside the compound to rescue her partner, she may as well die trying. Alex had been captured two days ago on the road. She hadn’t been there for that. Nothing would stop her being here for this.
Mission success had always been her highest priority.
These days, it was everything.
She dumped the binoculars and sprinted over the dune. Her boots sank into the sand until she waded shin-deep, long plodding steps down the hill. She grasped the handles of her backpack, took measured breaths, and quickened her pace.
Finally her feet hit solid ground. She crouched and drew the pistol with the built-in suppressor. Pushed off the ground and ran across the road to the break in the fence line a sympathetic local had ensured her would be here. Thank you. Money well spent as far as she was concerned.
Kara put every ounce of strength she had into her legs. The tang of truck exhaust and standing wastewater pricked at her nose. Muted conversation reached her ears. She didn’t speak that local dialect, so she couldn’t tell what they said to each other.
Kara took cover at the back corner of a truck and scanned the parking area and the squat adobe building long enough to plan a route.
Inside. Down the hall. Follow the sound. Her mind refused to contemplate the noises. She needed to get them both out, alive and in one piece.
Which meant utilizing a distraction.
Kara found a storage closet. The fact she was desperate enough to pray wasn’t lost on her. It had been a long time since she drew on her childhood of VBS in summer. Or sitting in the front pew in a dress on Sundays beside her brother Ethan, who’d passed her gummy candies from his pocket to keep her entertained.
She ignored the smell of spilled chemicals and swung the backpack from her shoulders long enough to pull out what she needed. She set the timer for ten seconds, shut the door, and ran down the hall as fast as she could.
The explosion rattled the building. Beside her shoulder, the wall shook. Dust fell from the ceiling. Smoke with a layer of singed floor cleaner caught in her throat.
At the end of the hall, the door flung open so hard it hit the wall and bounced off. Four men poured out, racing toward the explosion.
Kara looked in the room first, then stepped inside. The words caught in her throat as she looked at him in the chair. Pants, bare feet, and no shirt. What did they do to you?
Why was it easier to break into a facility full of enemy combatants than to admit she’d been wrong? She raced to cut him free, one eye on the doorway.
“Hold this.” She put the gun in his hand and used a knife to slit the bonds. So tight the skin around his wrists had swollen red.
“You came.” Alex pulled his arms forward, grunting as he rotated his shoulders.
“Can you walk?”
He stood up.
Guess that answers my question. Kara bit her lip and glanced at the doorway. “We need to move fast.” She pulled a second pistol from the backpack. “There’s a truck over the hill.”
Alex wrapped his free hand around her waist and tugged her in front of him. She grabbed his belt so she didn’t touch any injuries on his bare torso. He rested his forearm on her shoulder. The gun behind her back would be pointed at the door.
“That’s all you’re going to say to me? We need to move?”
His voice rumbled through her chest. The way it always did. Fine. “I’m sorry for what I said about your mother.”
“You were hungry.” He touched his lips to hers, such a brief light connection, and yet it surged through her.
She’d done it. She’d breached the facility, and now she had him back.
“We need to move fast. They’ll be coming.” He tugged her to the door.
Kara rolled her eyes.
“Stevens is here.”
Kara caught herself before she face-planted on the door frame. The faceless man they’d been hunting for a month was here. “Command gave me a flash drive. They want access to his computer network. If we have a shot at getting ears in his system, we need to do that before we leave.”
Alex gripped her hand and propelled her faster down the hallway than she’d have thought he could go.
The sweat on her skin chilled. “Every second longer we’re inside increases how hard it will be to fight our way out of here.”
He stopped at an intersection in the hallway, looking around the corner before he dragged her on. “So it’s basically a repeat of our first date.”
Kara snorted, watching their backs while they ran, and her mind replayed the day they’d met in basic training. They’d been on the same squad, fighting side by side, trying to deny what they felt. Someone had told someone, who told someone. Backroom conversations between uniformed politicians with stars on their shoulders and suited faceless men who occupied undesignated offices.
They’d been ordered to report to such an office a few months before their stint with the Army ended.
Mr. Alvarez had offered them a choice. Get out of military life and be civilians—or work for him.
Your greatest weakness can also be your greatest strength.
In one weekend they left the Army, had a quiet wedding in a Nebraska country chapel, and spent some time at a bed and breakfast they went back to every year on the anniversary. Two years later they’d successfully completed twenty-seven missions as a team.
“You good?” Alex didn’t look at her or slow down. Still, she had his attention.
Kara pushed out a long breath. “We need an office. A computer.”
A man rounded the hall behind them.
Kara squeezed off three shots. “Go.”
Alex tugged her into a small room and propelled her past him. “Go.”
Sweat rolled down the sides of his face. He would collapse soon, and she’d have to carry him, but they’d trained for it. She knew how far and how fast she could get him out of a situation.
Kara pulled the flash drive from her pocket and jabbed it into the tower under the desk. She hammered the enter key on the keyboard until the monitor flickered to life. “Come on.”
Her phone buzzed in her pocket. Kara connected the call and slid one earbud in.
“Insert successful. Please stand by.”
“Make it fast.”
Whoever it was on the other end, they sounded like a robot. Or a computer program. “Stand by.”
Alex shifted. “Incoming.”
Kara’s stomach clenched. She tapped the floor with the toe of her boot. Sweat rolled down the small of her back. Come on. Come on.
Alex flinched and took a step back.
The man who entered had dark hair and wore a T-shirt and jeans. Burn scars on the side of his neck. But that wasn’t what caught her attention. He couldn’t be…
The man’s expression darkened but gave nothing away. “It’s Stevens now. Ethan died a long time ago.”
Alex glanced at her.
She didn’t need him to speak aloud. The question in his expression spoke loudly enough.
“This is my brother.”
Alex didn’t lower his weapon.
“I think your husband doesn’t like me, Kara.”
She stared at the brother she hadn’t seen in sixteen years. Maybe he was right, and Ethan was dead. This man was a stranger.
“You should both leave now.” Their enemy didn’t give them time to ask questions. “Get back to Virginia and give Mr. Alvarez what is now on the drive. Tell him I want to come in.”
“Go with us.” Alex motioned to her. “Leave now. You can do exactly that.”
Stevens—Ethan—shook his head. “I need three days to get my affairs in order. Then I’ll turn myself in.”
“You expect me to believe you will?” Kara stared at her brother while tears burned in her eyes.
“I’ll be there.” She saw her brother in his brown eyes. For just a second. “Pinky swear.”
Kara backed up and retrieved the flash drive.
“Take this, too.” Ethan tossed her a bag.
Alex caught it before she could and said, “Candy?”
The exact gummy candies he’d passed her during church. A lump built in Kara’s throat.
Ethan headed for the door. “I’ll draw them away, but you’ve got to move fast.”
And then he was gone.
Alex tugged her hand and pulled her to the door. “At least he knows to feed you. Otherwise this might’ve gotten ugly.”