**An Amazon bestseller in Romance and Romantic Suspense in 2010! An espionage and Military Romance bestseller!
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ “Lawson Vaughn is now my fantasy boyfriend.” ~ Reader review
The betrayal began at four-o-three a.m. in an abandoned two-story farmhouse ten kilometers southwest of Paris.
Betrayal was an old friend of Zara Morgan’s. Her mother betrayed her talent and prima-ballerina status to marry a millionaire. Her father, in turn, betrayed her mother by having an affair with the stock market as well as another woman. At fourteen years of age, Zara’s own body betrayed her youth, training, and determination, leaving her with a ruptured Achilles tendon and the shattered dream of restoring her mother’s honor in the world of dance.
So when the guileless tone of Alexandrov Dmitri’s voice raised the hair on the back of her neck, the foreign intelligence officer recognized the sound of betrayal, the feel of it in her bones, even before her brain processed his words coming through the small speaker of her laptop. Tim Owens, her friend and fellow CIA operative, had been betrayed by the most-wanted criminal in Europe.
Zara knew you couldn’t defeat betrayal by wishing on a star, praying to God or pretending it didn’t exist, and as the next few minutes ticked by, her pulse throbbed in a synchronized dance with fear. She could sit in the specially equipped gray van hidden alongside a row of trees and let the coming hours play out like a mise en scène inside the farmhouse, or she could place a call for help.
At four-o-five, she called Langley.
An hour later as she waited in the airless van for the cavalry to arrive, she speculated at the reason for her racing pulse. It wasn’t just Dmitri. When Commander Lawson Vaughn arrived with his rescue team, betrayal would again be her friend. She could feel that in her bones too.
Vaughn was all the things she wasn’t. Older, experienced, solid as granite and tempered like fine steel. Disciplined. Intense. Deadly.
The first time she’d seen him at the Agency’s training camp in Virginia, she was two days from graduating from the Farm. He was between rescue missions. He’d seen her watching him as he practiced hand-to-hand combat with another man on his team. The piercing assessment in his return gaze left a cellular imprint in Zara’s body she couldn’t shake. Didn’t want to. His intense eyes haunted her even now, months later, a thousand miles away from that moment.
From the speaker Dmitri’s bored voice turned sharper, more demanding. He tired of the game he himself had initiated. “Tell me where my merchandise is, Agent Owens, or I will break the bones in each and every finger you have.”
Zara gripped the console bolted to the floor and leaned toward the small speaker. A ball of fear pinged around her stomach.
“Your porn library?” Tim’s voice held measured sarcasm. Sarcasm Zara appreciated. It told her Tim was still mentally strong enough to fight. “Or your collection of feather boas?”
The sucking sound of a fist hitting soft flesh rang in the van and she flinched. Tim’s groan filled her ears and she resisted the urge to throw her hands over them like she had done as a child when her parents’ raised voices had sent her running to her room. How could this happen? How could this simple, straightforward field assignment go so horribly wrong?
Power, greed, lust…the basic motivators of betrayal were the same for fathers, mothers, and criminals alike.
Dmitri chuckled. “Your agents stole my missiles.” He paused, and in Zara’s mind, she saw him taking a draw off the ever-present Dutch cigarette between his lips. She could hear him exhale. “I want them back and you know where they are.”
No, he doesn’t. Zara knew a rich Saudi prince expected Dmitri to deliver the cache of smart missiles and the technology to build more in less than six hours. Dmitri was under the gun, and now so was Tim, but Tim didn’t know the whereabouts of the missiles.
He and Zara had been hunting down a turncoat spy in the Paris Embassy. An asset had led them to the farmhouse with the promise of evidence. Instead of finding the informant waiting for him, however, Tim had found Dmitri, a black market arms dealer the U.S. had been trying to arrest for months.
Trying and failing.
In the van, sweat soaked the back of Zara’s white shirt. Her boss didn’t want the French involved in Tim’s rescue for reasons beyond her clearance level, so he’d called in Pegasus, the CIA’s paramilitary team. Although the five-man squad had been on assignment in Germany, Vaughn had assured her Pegasus would arrive before sunrise.
Zara checked her watch. Sunrise was less than fifteen minutes away.
The speaker popped as Dmitri snapped his fingers. “Break his fingers.” Another draw on his cigarette. “Slowly.”
Zara dug her fingernails into the console’s cheap laminate as the sounds of a scuffle and the clear ring of popping bone echoed through the receiver. Tim’s cry of pain froze her blood and the ball of fear in Zara’s stomach grew. As a young girl, her mother’s sobs on the other side of her bedroom wall had triggered the same feeling. Helplessness.
She stared at the speaker, her heart in her throat. Where was Team Pegasus? Where was Lawson?
Sitting in the cramped van beside Zara, Annette Newton reached across the mess of wires and gadgets and squeezed Zara’s arm. “There’s nothing we can do, Zara.”
An FBI analyst who worked with the CIA’s counterterrorism team on European operations, Annette had come along to record the informant’s information for French Intelligence as well as the CIA. Now she was recording Tim’s torture.
Zara rubbed her stomach and motioned at Annette’s matching laptop. “Call Pegasus again. Hurry.”
As Annette placed the secure call, Zara looked at the picture of Dmitri taped to the side of her computer screen. The ice-blue eyes stared back at her, mocking her inexperience. Even before Tim had walked into the trap, Dmitri had garnered the Number One wanted position on Zara’s personal list of international bad guys. His criminal network inside Paris and throughout Europe was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent people and yet he was as elusive as the smoke from his cigarette. While Tim had kept Zara in the background learning to cultivate assets, she’d become obsessed with the terrorist no one could catch.
Now Dmitri had fallen into her lap, but she would gladly let him walk away if she could save Tim.
You won’t get away with this, she challenged his image. I won’t let you.
Annette caught Zara’s eye. “No answer. They must be out of range.”
Another cracking noise issued from the speaker. Another scream of pain.
“Out of range?” Zara’s heart beat like a bird trapped inside her chest. “They should be in the field by now. How they can be out of range?”
Annette remained calm in the face of Zara’s frustration. “The satellite might be down due to the storms throughout Europe or the signal is being blocked by the French.”
French Intelligence wanted Dmitri as bad as the U.S. did. Or so they claimed. “FI okayed our presence. Why would they block our communications?”
“Maybe it’s not FI. Could be the National Police or gendarmerie. French agencies are a lot like ours. They don’t always play well together and they certainly don’t play with us. It happens.”
Zara rubbed her stomach again as she heard another of Tim’s fingers pop. She wanted to scream along with him. “I shouldn’t be letting this happen. I should do something to stop Dmitri. Flynn would.”
Conrad Flynn, the new Director of Operations, was a god in the international spy world. A god always on her case, drilling her to be assertive but not too aggressive. It was a tightrope every spook danced on. A rope strung hair-trigger-tight for spooks like Zara in Flynn’s secret army.
Annette fingered the keys on her laptop. “Director Flynn has years of fieldwork and experience with guys like Dmitri. You don’t.”
Flynn had plucked Zara from the other Farm graduates and put her through several weeks of his own special training program. She was one of Flynn’s new army of spies. An army few people, including Annette, knew anything about due to the delicacy of the job. “Flynn trained me. I should know how to get Tim out of this situation…”
Dmitri’s voice hissed from the speaker and both women fell quiet. “If you do not tell me what I need to know, I will shoot you and leave you for the rats to eat. They start with your eyeballs and your testicles…” His voice trailed off and amused laughter of the men in the room filtered through. “Think about it, Agent Owens. You have five minutes before you become rat meat.”
Five minutes? Zara glanced at her watch. Ten agonizing minutes to sunrise. Dmitri now planned to kill Tim, not just torture him.
In five minutes.
Closing her eyes, she offered up a prayer to her god of a boss back at Langley. She needed to channel Flynn and she needed to do it now. Move, his voice commanded in her head. Take control.
But how? What would he do in this situation? The three point triangle he always preached appeared in Zara’s mind—delude, deceive, distract. Her eyes flew open.
The only way to defeat betrayal was to meet it head on. She would have to distract Dmitri until Vaughn arrived. Glancing at her watch, she set the timer. Then she reached behind her for the gun in the waistband of her pants.
Annette raised an eyebrow and Zara pointed at the satellite phone. “Keep trying Vaughn.”
As she checked the clip in the compact SIG Sauer 9 millimeter, she scrambled to the end of the van, grabbing a bug bot—one of the tiny microphones the CIA’s geek squad handed out like candy—from a cache of electronic equipment by the door.
Annette swiveled her chair to follow Zara’s path. “Where are you going?”
“Vaughn said he’d be in position by sunrise, but Tim doesn’t have that long. I’m going to distract Dmitri until Pegasus gets here.”
Annette’s forehead creased in a frown. “And get yourself and Agent Owens killed in the process?”
“You got a better idea?”
“Yeah, wait for Vaughn.”
Zara shook her head. “Tim’s as good as dead right now if I wait. We don’t even know for sure Vaughn and his group are in the field. I won’t risk Tim’s life because of a nonfunctioning satellite dish or a pissing match between Sûreté Nationale and French Intelligence.” She pushed open the van door. “I have to do something and I have to do it now.”
Closing the door on Annette’s high-strung voice, she slipped out into the shadowed countryside.
The manic bird continued to beat against her rib cage. She leaned her back against the van for a moment, trying to draw in a deep breath. Was she about to make matters worse?
How could they get any worse?
Ignoring her jack-hammering heart, she secured the bug bot in the lining of her bra and buttoned the top two buttons of her shirt. A storm moving in from the west buffeted her with wind. Strands of hair whipped around her face as the air cooled her back where the sweat-soaked shirt clung to her skin. Shoving the stray hair behind her ear, she scanned the horizon and wondered if this was her first and last mission for the CIA. Wondered if she could save Tim or if they’d both end up rat meat.
Zara secured her gun back in her waistband before swinging her leg over her motorcycle sitting next to the van. She kick-started the engine and shot out of the woods headed for the farmhouse. It was time for a personal face off with betrayal.
At five fifty-six a.m. Lieutenant Commander Lawson Vaughn pulled himself forward another inch on the ground and listened to a dove welcome the approaching sunrise with a low call. The night was not yet in full retreat, and in five minutes—technically four minutes and ten seconds—Lawson and his four-man squad were going to use the fading darkness and the approaching storm to take the terrorists in the rambling white farmhouse by surprise.
Rescuing a hostage was delicate work done with a sledgehammer. Time-consuming preparation for split-second decision making. Careful, deliberate negotiations laying a trail for guns and brute force.
In his career, Lawson had saved fourteen men, six women, three children and half a dozen bystanders. He kept track of those he lost too. Some people couldn’t be rescued, couldn’t be saved, no matter how hard he tried. The towers fell before his plane touched down. The cancer spread during the third course of treatment. The person had a death wish.
Every rescue op contained variables. Some were controllable and he could plan for those. Relentless training covered the rest. What delicacy couldn’t handle, the sledgehammer would.
Team Pegasus had already completed the delicate part of this mission, moving through the field south of the house with deliberate care. Each man had become a shadow in the night as they covered a half mile of dense trees, checking every inch for tripwires and infrared alarms. Now within a few yards of the house, they had found nothing except a one-man security patrol walking the grounds.
Careless of you, Dmitri. A spot between Lawson’s shoulder blades twitched. Alexandrov Dmitri was nothing if not paranoid. The terrorist did not make mistakes when it came to security. So why had he seemingly failed to do so this time? Why pick an abandoned farmhouse in the middle of rolling hills to take a spy hostage instead of driving thirty miles farther south to his compound?
The cricket chorus was dwindling, and the first streak of sunrise broke the horizon even as the storm moved in. Dark clouds hung just above the horizon and the wind had kicked up hard enough to bend the trees over Lawson’s head. At this point, it was a waste of time to analyze Alexandrov Dmitri’s poor decision-making skills. The plan was straightforward. The suits in the States and here on the ground in France had concurred on all the important facts. Pegasus was activated.
In four minutes, Lawson had to get his men into the farmhouse, cover the CIA asset and arrest Dmitri. Agent Morgan’s intel report stated there were four terrorists inside with Owens. Now one was out doing guard duty, leaving Dmitri, his lieutenant and another man inside. Even if Dmitri had something up his sleeve, Team Pegasus was skilled and experienced. Neutralizing four terrorists would be a simple takedown.
In his peripheral vision, Lawson saw his point man, Johnny Quick, retreat several feet and tuck his body into the shadows of the barn as Dmitri’s security patrol sat on the porch step and lit a cigarette. The barn’s floodlight illuminated the drive and a portion of the house. After a moment, Johnny gave him the clear sign. Lawson’s other men, Teddy, Rooster and C.J., waited impatiently for his command. Like him, they were raring to go, even though the last mission was only hours behind them. Every dove call, every blip of his digital watch, fine-tuned Lawson’s attention.
Above the rustling tree leaves, he heard the drum of a motorcycle engine. The guard on the porch heard it too, rising to his feet as the cigarette dangled from his mouth and his rifle came up. Ten seconds later, a finely tuned Ducati shot up the road with a woman driving it. Strands of long blonde hair blew out behind her as she ignored the driveway, hopped the ditch and jerked the bike into an abrupt skid ten feet from the cigarette-smoking terrorist’s feet.
The cigarette fell and the rifle locked into place.
“Dmitri!” Her voice echoed off the house and into the woods as she killed the bike. She dropped the kickstand and raised her hands in the air.
Zara. The sledgehammer landed right between Lawson’s shoulder blades.
Zara had no time to think or plan what was coming. The guard’s gun was trained on her. She ignored him and his command to fall to her knees as she kept her focus on the living room picture window and yelled again. “Dmitri! I know where your missiles are. I’ll take you to them.”
The guard grabbed her by the back of her shirt and pulled her away from the bike. She let him push her to her knees, the end of his AK-47 digging painfully into her back. He yanked her gun from her waistband and ejected the clip. It bounced on the ground to her left.
A second later, the door to the farmhouse opened and Dmitri stood in its frame, his face in shadows.
Cold fear ran over Zara’s skin like gooseflesh. He said nothing, nor did his lieutenant behind him. For several heartbeats, she knelt rigid, willing him to take her bait.
A modicum of guarded relief flooded through her when he ambled down the porch steps in his expensive Italian loafers. But the relief changed course as he crossed the yard to stand in front of her, the paleness of his eyes evident even in the half-gray light of the approaching sunrise. His gaze cut to the road behind her, to her Ducati and back to her face.
Through the years, Zara had perfected a myriad of personas to deal with her family, the press, the public at large. Like the different ringtones on her cell phone, she had one for her father, one for the coworker who made a pass at her in the halls of Langley, one for the psychiatrist who administered lie detector tests. It was a crucial skill in her line of work.
Dialing up her impersonal, model-spy face, she willed her voice to stay calm, sound cool. “I know where your weapons are. I’ll take you to the cache myself.” She paused before offering him the key to success. “If we leave now, you can make your deadline to your buyer.”
Dmitri said nothing, only cocked his head a millimeter to the side, studying her as if she were a curious oddity. Strands of his dark hair rose and fell on the wind. His gaze flickered over her, lingering for the briefest of seconds on the gold chain around her neck before lazily climbing back to her face. Another slight nod and the guard hauled her to her feet.
“Are you a complete fool?” he said in French.
It wasn’t the question she was expecting, but she didn’t miss a beat. Seconds were passing. “Non,” she answered him face-to-face. She switched to English. They would do this negotiation on her terms. “And neither are you. Accept my offer and let’s get out of here. Prince Abkhahar will not wait one minute past the deadline.”
Dmitri’s gaze bore into hers. He switched to English as well. “Do you know how much I hate Americans? American women. American spies.” He spit on the ground at her feet.
Thunder boomed in the distance and Zara jumped. A flicker of amusement danced in the madman’s eyes. She used the gall it ignited in her stomach to stay focused. “Business is business. Abkhahar needs those missiles to funnel to Hezbollah. You fail to deliver them and he’ll kill you. If you’re ever going to be the ruling tycoon in the international world of black arms dealers, you need this deal to go down smoothly and on time.” She met his gaze without flinching. “I can make it happen.”
“Tell me where the cache is, and you can go free with your comrade.”
She didn’t actually know where the cache was. Even if she had, Dmitri would never let her and Tim go once he had the location. “I take you to it or there’s no deal.”
He stepped forward, his face far too close for comfort. He was handsome in that French bad-boy way. Many women found the combination of devilish looks and cruelty appealing. Zara found it repulsive. “Do you know who I am, spook?”
Terrorist. Assassin. Certifiable nutcase. A ruthless businessman who enjoyed the sport of killing whether it was to further his political agenda, his philosophical views or just for the act itself. He loved cat-and-mouse games, toying with his prey until it was exhausted mentally and physically before he lost interest and finally had it killed. Rarely did he pull the trigger himself unless it was to purge one of his own men. He didn’t trust many people and occasionally, even those in his inner circle were eliminated without hesitation.
Yes, Zara thought, I know exactly who you are.
But she also knew who she was.
She raised her chin a notch. “You’re wasting time. Deal or no deal?”
The corner of his mouth lifted in a comma at the challenge. Seconds ticked by in unison with the beat of her heart, but this time when the thunder boomed again, closer, she didn’t move a muscle.
Dmitri snapped his fingers at his gun-toting guard. “Bring the car around.”
“Let’s take my bike. It’s faster.” She motioned at the others. “Your men can follow in the car.”
Dmitri glanced at her bike and did an abrupt nod of his head, but her success was again short-lived. “Bring me Owens,” he said to his lieutenant. The man left the doorway.
The hair on the back of her neck stood up again. Her bones vibrated. “Why?”
This time Dmitri smiled fully. He reached out a finger and touched the chain at her neck. “A little game I like to play.”
Tim staggered down the porch stairs in front of Dmitri’s lieutenant and another guard. His hands were tied behind his back. His face was bruised, haggard. When his eyes met hers, she saw a spark of admiration mixed with surprise but he shook his head at her in disbelief.
He doesn’t believe I can pull this off.
Glancing at Dmitri, Zara could see he was thinking the same thing. He pulled a heavy black gun out of his shoulder holster and held it out to her, butt-end. “Kill him,” he ordered.
The model-agent persona faltered. Dmitri was demanding she exterminate his witness. He was ordering her to kill her senior case officer. As a wave of panic threatened to undo her, her Farm training kicked in. If I can just grab his gun…
Dmitri’s guard cleared his throat, reminding Zara his rifle was locked on her chest. Her gaze flew to Tim’s and true panic squeezed itself like a python around her heart.
Her mouth dry, she forced her attention back to Dmitri. Flynn’s advice rang in her head. Don’t let him make this personal. Stay detached. “I don’t play games.”
With swift movements, Dmitri grabbed her hand and smacked the gun into it. Then he twisted her around, wrapping his left arm around her rib cage and slamming her back against his chest. He turned their bodies in unison, pulling the gun up to aim at Tim.
The contact was brutal and she jerked hard, but Dmitri’s arm was a vise. He rested his head next to hers as lightning cracked above them. The smell of cigarettes, expensive cologne, and male sweat mixed in her nose. His hand closed around hers, forcing the gun to point at Tim’s head.
“Let me help you,” he murmured in her ear, seductive as a lover. “Ready?” He trapped her finger on the trigger. “One, two—”
Beep. Beep. Beep. The timer on Zara’s watch went off.
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