Release Date: May 30, 2023
Between one blink and the next, Sandra Walsh’s world turns from mission to horror.
As a lethal sniper for SweetBriar Group, a covert agency with assassins for hire, Sandra Walsh has no room for error. Accidentally killing a young girl she’s supposed to save, Sandra knows she has to retire. Unable to leave without consequences, she fakes her death and establishes a new identity in North Carolina. Her vows to never pull another trigger or have contact with her former life again have been no problem…until her past threatens Casper Grady.
Grady has retired from the Marines. He’s gone from protecting the nation to establishing a safe haven for local children and families. With his pained past, he has a debt to settle and his entertainment center is where he can find redemption. When Sandra Walsh applies for a position, his instincts say she’s not what she seems. Drawn to the mysterious woman, he can’t deny her qualifications and hires her for the position. As time goes by, he doesn’t regret the decision, then her past brings trouble through his front doors. Determined to help Sandra, he refuses to back down even when her secrets become dark and dangerous.
The danger escalates and their attraction intensifies. Will their newfound love survive when they’re forced to choose between each other and the people they’ve sworn to protect? They have to stay alive long enough to find out…
Note: This book was digitally released by Penguin/Berkley in 2014. I have made extensive edits to upgrade the technology and match my current writing style (which hopefully has improved.)
Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains, Mexico
Wraith placed her eye next to the rifle’s scope. She activated her throat mic with her left hand and whispered, “Cappy, two guards talking by the front entrance smoking cigarettes.”
“Check,” a tinny male voice said in her earpiece. “Talon and Romeo are almost in position.”
Wraith lifted her head slightly and scanned the scene with her own eyes. From her vantage point on top of this shithole building, life in the Mexican village seemed to go on as usual.
The sun roasted everything in the late afternoon sky while two children played with a partially deflated soccer ball between rusted trucks parked on the dirt road. Poverty ran rampant throughout the area, but she didn’t feel sorry for the villagers. They knew what went on inside the squat cement building and turned a blind eye. She didn’t see any of her teammates, but really didn’t expect to.
“Magician’s beacon shows her vitals are still registering,” Cappy announced from his position high enough in the mountains surrounding the town to see the entire scenario.
Wraith let out a breath as a series of clicks sounded in her ear. Three or more clicks rang in her earpiece meant affirmation or celebration. In this case, indicating celebration from Talon and Romeo as they seemed just as relieved to hear their teammate was still alive.
The scent of fried onions, meat, and something doughy lingered in the air, making her empty stomach rumble. Pushing the discomfort aside, Wraith used her scope to scan the area. Men in sweat-stained T-shirts and jeans lounged on rickety chairs outside ramshackle structures up and down the street, their hats lazily tilted to shade them from the sun. As if that rouse fooled anyone. They were all lookouts—not that they were very good at it. Anyone with half a brain could deduce the men were more preoccupied with watching the road than relaxing in the sun. Walkie-talkies clipped to their belts also didn’t help them blend in.
The two men on the rooftops were another matter. They made no secret about who they were as they toted bulky shotguns while scanning the area. Positioned at the opposite ends of the village (not a great distance across the town’s ten buildings), they were more vigilant.
At go time, it was her job to take them out first.
She resisted swiping away the lines of sweat rolling down her face and ultimately pooling between her breasts. Blech. Lying in a puddle of perspiration sucked, but she had long ago seasoned herself to deal with it.
After the team had set up their encampment in the mountains two days ago, she had spent the first day with her spotting scope, studying the guards’ patterns and configuring how she’d remain hidden among them. Camouflaging her custom-made Remington M24E1/XM2010 sniper rifle hadn’t been difficult. Scaling the wall with the already constructed, fifteen-pound weapon while staying concealed proved more of a challenge. The only way she had managed it was to wake up at three-thirty a.m. and climb the back wall while the rooftop sentries were gone and the few guards present were at their laziest. Most likely lulled into a false sense of security by the repetition of nothing happening day in and day out. Surprise!
A rare breeze flitted over the tarp covering the construction supplies she now hid beneath. Taking advantage of the snapping plastic sound, she shifted her leg muscles to ease a cramp. Luckily, the building’s edge sported a ledge, giving her rifle a place to rest while helping her to remain hidden. Wraith inhaled. The restless nap she had caught since settling in this spot was beginning to wear off.
“Heads up, people, we’ve got movement,” Cappy announced, his voice tight in her earpiece. “Truck coming in from the east. Romeo, confirm if this is our delivery.”
Three clicks. Romeo’s silent way of acknowledging the order.
Wraith swept her scope over the windows of the cement building again. They weren’t the cleanest panes, but she could see enough to find that the warehouse was still empty. If their intel was correct, it wouldn’t remain that way for long. Another shipment of girls was due to arrive, and they had to be “processed.”
For six months, they had been trying to take this ring down. Only after Magician allowed herself to be captured were they able to follow the movements from Ohio to this godforsaken place—Wraith and the rest of the team had barely eaten or slept, knowing Magician relied on them to extract her safely. Bile burned in the back of Wraith’s throat at the thought of what Magician went through, what she sacrificed so they could end this sex-slave ring for good. Just imagining these creeps stripping her teammate and friend to “inventory” her features for their sick catalog inflamed her.
“Car coming in from the west,” Cappy announced. “Sanchez is in the car. Repeat. Sanchez in car.”
Wraith’s adrenaline spiked. One-half of the ruling heads of the Osvaldo Cartel had finally arrived. The brother must have stayed in Miami. Both men were equally responsible for building the sex-slavery ring into a mini-empire.
“Delivery confirmed,” Romeo whispered. “It’s the same pair who took Magician.”
Wraith grinned. Those sons of bitches didn’t realize they were now on borrowed time.
“Remember, the mission is to capture Sanchez, Romeo,”
Cappy warned, but Wraith could hear his smile. “Don’t take too long sending the abductors back to Hell.”
Two clicks—meaning yes. Wraith inwardly chuckled.
Romeo got the message, but would he heed it or work off his rage on the men who dared touch his partner?
“Talon, you have a location on Magician yet?” Cappy asked.
Wraith followed the truck’s progress as it meandered up the street until it finally stopped with its back end lined up to the front door.
“Talon,” Cappy barked. “Running out of time. Report.”
“Sorry,” Talon’s gruff voice whispered. “Had to dispense a nosy guard.”
“Check,” Talon responded, affronted. “Magician’s in the basement. Hold on.”
Ten tense seconds later: “I’m back. Another guard down.”
A shiver stole down Wraith’s spine. Talon’s codename was born from his deadly skill with a knife.
What that man could do with a blade was astounding and downright scary.
“She’s locked in a cage with three other women, and I use that term loosely. Some of them appear to be as young as fourteen.”
“Bastards,” Romeo cut in.
“Agreed. I counted three cages total, but only two are filled.”
A Mercedes-Benz parked, and the car rocked heavily as the driver clambered to get out. He was a hulk of a man who was all fat, no muscle, and Sanchez’s nephew.
The doughboy’s beady eyes began sweeping the area. Wraith stilled. When his gaze slid over her without a flicker, she almost laughed. He sucked at discovering potential nooks and threats for surveillance.
“Sounds like they reserved the third cage for this shipment,”
Cappy replied. “Heads up, Talon. Sanchez’s nephew is out and talking to Sanchez through a rolled-down window in the back of a Mercedes.”
“I’d estimate you have only minutes to take care of the guards and locate the best exit for the victims,” Cappy continued. “You have a chance to assess their condition yet?”
Talon audibly swallowed. Cold anger filled his voice as he replied, “First look: It’s bad. The abductors beat them all, and some have broken bones.”
Ice shot through Wraith’s veins.
“Magician?” Romeo asked, his tone a mixture of fear and fury.
Movement below caught Wraith’s attention. The delivery driver and his partner jumped down from the truck’s cab and headed toward the back. Doughboy opened the Mercedes’ door for his uncle to climb out.
Criminy, Sanchez was ugly. No amount of suave clothes improved his looks either—though he tried.
Giorgio Armani should demand his suit back and give the bastard a refund.
“Two more guards down,” Talon calmly announced.
“Magician?” Romeo asked again tightly.
“Fuck,” Talon muttered. “She’s alive, but they beat her too. Cappy, bring the duffel. All the women are naked and dirty as hell.”
Wraith silently snarled. Bastards.
A door sliding up metal tracks cut into her visions of ripping Sanchez’s balls off. “Driver opening the back,” Wraith murmured.
“That means it’s go time, people,” Cappy said, tension tingeing his voice. “Just like we planned. Meet you at the rally point.”
Wraith readjusted her scope. Instead of watching the perimeter, both rooftop sentinels were focused on the young girls staggering out of the truck. Idiots. Their lack of professionalism made her job much easier. Exhaling, she aimed for the farthest guard. As soon as he stepped back from the edge, she lined his head in her crosshairs and pulled the trigger. A soft cough emitted from her suppressed rifle nanoseconds before the man jerked and flopped to the roof. The second guard had no chance to react. She had him in her sights and took him out.
Thwump. His body dropped hard onto the concrete roof.
Two of the guards sitting nearby looked up.
Shit. The bastard’s foot hung over the edge.
The guards jolted to their feet and stepped into the street for a better view.
“Be advised,” Wraith announced. “Rooftop guard landed wrong. Two on the ground now alert. Kids still playing at the opposite end of the street.”
“I’ve got the guards,” Romeo answered.
Thirty feet down, a shadow separated from the rest and crept along the edge of the building. Romeo emerged into the sunlight in front of the guards. One started to shout, but Romeo gripped him around the neck and twisted. He then raised his silenced Glock and shot the second guard in the chest. Romeo dragged the men into the alley’s shadows.
Switching her focus, Wraith found the girls herded together in the empty warehouse. Sanchez stood inside along the perimeter, stroking his chin next to the delivery men.
Doughboy yelled at the driver. The delivery man yelled a derogatory comment, causing his partner to laugh uproariously.
Two girls, who couldn’t be older than fourteen, cowered in the center of the ample space, hugging each other. Another girl, about eighteen, and the fourth, about mid-twenties, stood tall with bruises and torn clothes.
Outside, Romeo slid back into the shadows and continued toward the front entrance. An alarmed shout echoed off the buildings.
All the men pretending to have a siesta jumped to their feet. The kids playing soccer scrambled, disappearing into the closest alley while their ball rolled unbidden down the street.
Romeo engaged the two guards at the front entrance while more raced his way. Wraith picked off guards while keeping her eye on Sanchez inside. Bullets pinged off the cement around her, but she wasn’t worried. She was buried deep enough to avoid a hit.
In the warehouse’s corner, Doughboy wrestled to free his gun from his 4XL shirt covering the holster. The deliverymen raced outside, right into Romeo’s waiting arms. Her teammate unleashed his anger on the two men while using their bodies to fend off the other guards.
Inside, the young girls continued screaming while the older ones tried to form a barrier in front of them. Sanchez slinked toward them. Wraith calmed her heavy breathing and kept her scope trained on the bastard. She was taking the shot. Damn her superiors’ directive. He could not escape capture again.
She blocked out everything and focused on the weasel. The fighting in the street receded, and she could faintly hear a voice in her earpiece yelling for her to back down. She tuned it all out, slowed her heart, and regulated her breaths.
Sanchez appeared aware of the windows, not allowing her a shot. Damn him. He crept closer to the girls. The oldest captive kicked out. Sanchez caught her foot and yanked it to him. The girl lost her balance and landed on the concrete, her head bobbing twice from the impact. One of the younger girls wrapped her arms around the eighteen-year-old while the other stood frozen with her screams continuously echoing off the walls. Sanchez grinned and moved forward.
Exposure! Wraith led him with the rifle and fired. Time slowed as the pffft sounded, and the gun gently rocked back into her shoulder. Between one blink and the next, her world went from mission to horror. She never factored in Doughboy. In his haste to reach his uncle, the stupid bastard knocked into the group of girls. They stumbled and pushed the screaming girl forward . . . straight into the path of the bullet. The bullet meant for a monster, not an innocent.
Wraith would never forget the look of terror and confusion on the little girl’s face as her petite body jerked back into Sanchez. Blood burst across her chest as she knocked the mastermind to the ground.
Chaos ensued, but Wraith shut down. Nothing happening below registered in her brain.
"The author has crafted an excellent suspense thriller, with many unpredictable twists and turns. This is a fun and valuable addition to any thriller fan’s bookshelf." Kirkus Reviews
“Exchange of Fire is a steamy, exciting, and suspenseful opening offering in the new “SBG” series by DePaul. If you enjoy military action, suspense, steamy romance, and a little danger, this is the series for you.” Library Journal
5 out of 5 STARS and TOP PICK! “I will say straight up that Sandra, code name Wraith, is a badass. Not only is she skilled as a sniper but she can kick some major butt when it comes to it.” “I really enjoyed reading this book. It was action packed and a love story all in one. It may not be a love story you’re used to reading but it is one.” Night Owl Reviews
“[Exchange of Fire] is fast-paced and riveting, with surprises at every turn of the plot. This is a great read,and I look forward to reading more titles in [DePaul’s] SBG Novel series.” Fresh Fiction
“…this book kept me up until 4:00 AM because I just couldn’t put it down.” Cocktails & Books