★★★★★ “…the perfect mix of romance and suspense…” ~ Reader review
Man Hunt, SEALs of Shadow Force, Spy Division, Book 1
© 2018 Misty Evans
Australian outback, Twenty-four hours later
Jaeger was sick. Ryker checked the Jeep’s oil, the itch under his breastbone now a full blown burn. He’d already delayed their departure to look for a new place to live long enough, but it wasn’t fair to the boy to make him travel when he was running a fever and throwing up. Their pace would be slow because of that anyway, and they could end up in a worse situation than if they stayed.
But staying could be dangerous as well. Just that morning, in the early dawn light, Ryker had heard the sounds of a helicopter overhead. The blades beating the air had made him sit upright from his makeshift bed on the floor of Jaeger’s room. He’d barely gotten any sleep as he tended to the boy, and at the sound of the helo he’d panicked, grabbing Jaeger and hauling him out to the Jeep. It was a knee-jerk reaction, his fears of being discovered keeping constant tension below the surface, ready to explode at the slightest threat.
The helo had disappeared to the east, probably one of the local companies taking a tourist on a safari. Occasionally they did fly over this area. If he hadn’t already been nervous about the length of their stay, he probably wouldn’t have given it more than a brief thought.
Poor Jaeger had cried at the rough handling and then thrown up, leaving Ryker feeling guilty and having to clean up the Jeep once he had the boy tucked back into his bed.
Now in the bright light of day, his instincts were on high alert, the warning bells in his head going off with fervor. There was a cave ten miles west. He could load up and get them there in no time, create a temporary place for Jaeger to get better, and allow them to get out of here.
Ten miles wasn’t much; if someone came looking for them and knew the territory, the cave would be the first place they checked after discovering the empty house. Even if he took precautions to remove their fingerprints and DNA, a skilled tracker would know someone had been living there recently. Ryker had explored the cave several months before and left a small cache of supplies, including cash, energy bars, water, survival gear, two guns, and some ammunition in case he and Jaeger ever needed to bug out fast. It was more of a hunker down site, rather than a safe one.
He checked the spark plugs, needing something to do, and took his frustration out on the truck. Jaeger was sleeping, but Ryker would check on him again in a minute to see if his fever had broken. Up until now, the boy had shown remarkable resilience, never falling sick, and it was a bloody good thing, since Ryker sucked at being a nurse.
After that he’d load the Jeep. Hopefully by morning they could take off and get to the cave at least. From there he wanted to head toward Staaten River, maybe eventually hop over to the Wellesley Islands.
Mite watched him from a patch of grass near the cabin, panting in the late afternoon heat. His eyes were sleepy, hooded, as he sunned his bones. There seemed to be more gray around his face today, his ribs showing more than usual as his chest rose and fell.
Damn dog wasn’t helping. Ryker didn’t need extra guilt for leaving the mutt behind, and yet, he knew there was no easy way to ditch him. Jaeger would be stoic about it, never shedding a tear in front of Ryker, but the kid would never forgive him. Another thing to feel guilty about.
He slammed the hood shut and Mite’s head came up. Nap time was over and he now kept a wary eye on Ryker as he headed for the back of the cabin to grab some extra cans of oil from the nearby shed.
Beat it to fit, paint it to match. The ideology his former SEAL commander had insisted they live by. You did the best you could with whatever you had.
Inside, he grabbed a machete for clearing brush, a tactical vest, the pockets filled with miscellaneous first aid items and an extra pocketknife. The Jeep had one spare tire on the back and room for a tent and camping gear. After he packed all of that, he threw in the duffels filled with food, extra clothing, and a few of Jaeger’s personal items. The boy didn’t have traditional toys, or any particular creature comforts outside of his blanket and a couple of wooden soldiers Ryker had carved for him.
Grabbing a plastic gas can to strap on to the Jeep, Ryker scanned the rest of the tools hanging on the shed’s wall. Determining which to take, what possible situations they might encounter, kept his mind off Jaeger’s illness, but he needed to get inside and check on the boy.
With his stash of supplies, he climbed back out of the shed into the daylight. Mite was on his feet, pacing the cabin, his ears pricked. “Shit.” Ryker sprinted past the dog, dropped the gas can next to the Jeep, and half tossed the oil cans into the open backseat. He was three feet from the porch swing when the front door opened.
Jaeger stood in the doorway, his hair a crumbled mess, his tan cheeks no longer a bright pink with fever. He squinted at Ryker. “Papa, I’m hungry.”
Relief swamped him and he grinned. “That’s good. What do you fancy? Some tea and toast or maybe a biscuit?”
“The lady brought popsicles.” He rubbed the sleep from one eye with his fist. “I’d like an orange and a red.”
“The lady…?” Was the boy hallucinating? “It was just a dream, mate. Which is a shame, because it sounds like a good one, but that’s all it was. Let’s get you that toast.”
“Wasn’t a dream, Papa.” Jaeger looked over his shoulder into the cabin.
In the same instant, Mite growled.
The hair on the back of Ryker’s neck stood up, the warning bells clanging so loudly he felt like he was inside a bell tower. With one hand he motioned for the boy to come to him. With the other, he drew his weapon from his waistband. “Jaeger, come to me. Quick now.”
Get him! His pulse hammered in his ears, his highly trained mind playing out a dozen possible scenarios. A woman, popsicles.
Jaeger saw the gun but did as instructed, leaving the porch and coming down to Ryker. He pulled the boy behind him, his gun trained on the doorway. “Get to the Jeep. Go.”
“But the lady said— “
There had been no sound of a vehicle, no alarm raised. Even as Jaeger walked away, Ryker stalked to the cabin. A tiny part of him prayed the boy was simply confused, that his fever had created a very vivid dream of a woman with popsicles.
But what were the odds it was real? That somehow a woman had gotten inside without him knowing it? She would’ve had to pass through three layers of his security warning system, past the dog even. And before that, trekked through miles and miles of National Park wilderness. There was no actual road here, only a rough, rugged trail through dense forest and craggy outcroppings.
There’s no way. Only a diehard survivalist or one of the aborigines who knew the land like the back of his hand could make it there on foot.
The interior of the cabin was a few degrees cooler than outside and deep in shadows, thanks to the trees surrounding it that blocked the hot afternoon sun. The main floor was less than one thousand square feet, but on first inspection, Ryker couldn’t see anyone inside.
What he did see was a small red and white cooler in the center of the kitchen table.
He quietly cocked the gun and scanned the areas he could see once more. The rooms were small; he had a direct line of sight into the living room, the couch where he slept, the central piece of furniture.
He saw no one.
Staying to the right, he slowly made his way past the table to the living room. There he pulled up short.
In the corner shadows blanketed a rocking chair near the fireplace, a woman dressed in khakis, a single dark braid falling over her shoulder, raised both hands in a show of surrender. “Hello, Ryker.”
Maybe he’d been in the Outback too long, too many days and nights alone, because instead of shooting her where she sat, he caught his breath and took in her beautiful porcelain skin and big green eyes.
The warning bells in his head gave way to a chastising voice. You hesitated. Hesitation will get you killed.
“Who the hell are you and how did you get into my home?”
She rocked forward, coming to her feet, but froze when he aimed the gun at her forehead. Straightening slowly, she studied him with the same scrutiny he was giving her. “As I live and breathe, it really is you.”
That voice. I know that voice, but…
His grip tightened. “Whoever you are, you made a dangerous mistake coming here.”
“Really wasn’t my first choice either, you know. I don’t do”—she waved one hand around the general area of the cabin— “hiking, camping, bugs, snakes.” She gave a hard shudder. “I guess the military training you had before you joined the CIA really paid off.”
His brain was still trying to connect the dots. She was American from the sound of her voice, knew about his past, and had to be CIA, but he knew he’d never seen her before. “You need to leave. Now. And forget you ever found me.”
Her eyes narrowed slightly, the green orbs darkening. “You have the balls to stand there, point a gun at me, and threaten me after I’ve lived for the past nine months believing you were dead?” She took a step toward him, jabbing her chest with a thumb. “I thought I killed you. I lost my job over you. I can’t sleep at night because of the nightmares. Before you toss me out, you owe it to me to listen to my proposition. Barring that, you at least owe me an apology, Gaspard.”
His breath caught again, and a flood of memories came rushing back. Her sexy voice over the phone, strained, begging him to leave Petra and the boy and get out before Kaiser killed him. Arguing, haunting him like his nightmares. “You…”
Her hands went to her hips, defiant. Her full lips pursed. “We never officially met face-to-face. Thought it was about time.”
“Mia Shaine. How the hell did you find me?”
“You weren’t even on my radar until yesterday. Or two days ago. The time zone change has me all mixed up.”
If she had found him, others would too. “I don’t want to kill you, Mia, but I will if I have to. If you came here to force me back to Langley, you wasted your time.”
“The last thing I would do is take you back to the Agency. They can go screw themselves for all I care, although dammit, I miss my job and will get it back and kick some ass when I do. We have bigger things to worry about at the moment, and better people to work for. A friend of yours sent me. She said to tell you she was calling in her marker. Something about her saving your ass in Tel Aviv ten years ago?”
Christ Almighty. His grip on the gun eased. He felt like he’d been hit by a train. “Bianca?”
“She changed her name to Beatrice. Long story. I’ll bring you up to speed once we’re in the air. We’re kind of on a tight schedule.”
Tel Aviv? Man, that was light-years away. It should’ve been an easy mission—get in, grab the target, get out—but a long-time asset on the ground suddenly turned double agent and he’d ended up in an off-the-books prison, his cover blown, and looking at a slow, torturous death in the desert. And people thought Israel was an ally to the United States. Not always.
Bianca had saved him. Somehow, someway, the NSA agent had walked right into that prison, presented papers for his release, and took him out of there like she owned the place. The papers were bogus, of course, but there was something about her that made them cooperate without checking. She had that ability, intelligence, and total confidence. It was almost as if she could hypnotize people into doing what she wanted. “Is she all right?”
“Beatrice?” Mia flapped a dismissive hand. “She’s got it made. New name, running her own business—that’s how I got here, by the way. A team of former SEALs who work for her brought me, we hiked through what I can only describe as hell, and they got me past all your security measures.” She smiled cockily and it lit up her face. A beautiful face, for sure. “Even they were impressed with all the Indiana Jones Temple of Doom shit you put around this cabin.”
SEALs. Great. Brothers-in-arms, only those days were long behind him. Some of his former teammates considered him a traitor to the cause, leaving the teams and joining the CIA.
He should’ve known she hadn’t come alone. “Tell Bianca I’m sorry, I can’t do…whatever it is she sent you here to get me to do. I’m out of the game and not going back. No matter what.”
Mia turned serious. “It’s Kaiser, Ryker. He’s back and more dangerous than ever. He’s been on a tear since Petra and his son—the one I’m guessing is in the Jeep—were supposedly killed. He has a new enterprise and he’s not dealing solely in black market arms any more. He’s dealing in black market kids. Babies. He’s made a lot of contacts in illegal adoptions and child trafficking. Beatrice believes it’s his way of searching for Jaeger in case the boy is still alive. We have to stop him.”
A sick sensation crawled in his gut. He didn’t want to know the details—he really didn’t, but if the bastard was back and now going after kids… damn it. “You stop him. My job is to protect Jaeger. I made a promise to his mother and I can’t go back on it. I won’t. She was trying to leave Kaiser because she didn’t want Jaeger growing up in that environment, becoming a man like his father.”
Mia nodded, seeming to understand. “If you work with me to destroy him and his empire, you won’t have to run from him anymore, and Beatrice has the means and resources to build you and Jaeger completely new identities. Or you can use any of her safe houses—they’re scattered all over the world, many completely off-grid.” She put a pleading hand out. “This is your get-out-of-jail-free card, Ryker. You can keep Jaeger safe and build a new life for both of you.”
Ryker lowered the gun. His mind and heart warring with each other. Destroying Kaiser, giving Jaeger a chance to be a normal kid, fulfilling his promise to Petra…
And wiping his ledger clean with Beatrice.
Could it all work out so perfectly?
Hell no. But did he have a better alternative?
Ditto on the hell no.
Running around here wasn’t the worst life for a kid, but it wasn’t the best either. Being on guard all the time, picking up on Ryker’s paranoia. Never having a decent holiday or birthday.
He motioned Mia back into the chair. “Let me grab Jaeger.” He started for the front door. “Then we’ll talk.”
★★★★★ “Evans knows how to pull at a reader’s heartstrings, even when she writes big bad spies and SEALs. Just add in an adorable little boy and a dog who wants to be loved.” ~ Reader review
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