Shadow of Doubt Excerpt

Chapter 1

Colombia, South America—Six Years Ago

Michelle Alger swung her leg over the back of the four-wheel ATV and rested her hands on Ignacio Ramirez’s hips.

“I’m so glad you reconsidered,” she yelled over the thrum of the loud engine. “I can’t wait to see this amazing paradise your family owns.” She shifted back to the edge of the black pleather cushion. With her legs straddling his and the vibrations coursing through the seat, she couldn’t escape the uncomfortable sexual intimacy the off-road vehicle forced on her.

Knowing Nacio’s over-inflated ego, he probably interpreted her loose grip and spread thighs clenching him as her capitulation to his constant offers to a night full of sex. Yeah, right.

“Your uncle won’t even know we’re traipsing on his land,” Michelle promised, trying not to squirm.

“You know he held out as long as he had because he basked in your begging, right?” Maria asked from the back of another red ATV, her heavy Spanish accent making it almost impossible to understand. “He laid it on thick with his adventures of growing up in the wild rainforest just to prolong your shameless pleading.”

Michelle laughed.

Nacio twisted and smiled. “Maybe. But wait until you see it for yourself. The samples out there are spectacular. We’ll ace this final.”

Luis, the fourth member of their environmental lab group, patted Maria’s hand around his waist then pointed at Nacio. “You lead the way.”

Nacio winked at Michelle and said in a low, sexy voice, “Better hold on tight.”

Michelle rolled her eyes and pushed him in the shoulder. “How many times do I have to tell you man-whores are not my type?”

Nacio’s throaty laugh did nothing for her.

He revved the engine and popped the ATV into gear. The four-wheeler jumped forward, causing her to wrap her arms around him tightly. Showoff.

As Nacio headed for a well-used dirt trail, Michelle turned to make sure the small, beat-up trailer hitched to the back rolled along with them. All of the equipment their group needed as well as their tents and provisions to camp for a few days rested on one unstable latch. Whoever had used the trailer before them must have gotten into an accident, because the whole mechanism was seriously bent.

Michelle sighed. What did she expect? The Universidad del sur Colombia wasn’t a rich school by any standards. She was lucky they supplied the off-road vehicles at all, let alone the trailers and equipment countless students used to study the Amazon rainforest over the years.

Luis quickly dropped in line behind them and within moments they were swallowed by the vegetation. Despite being in close quarters to her womanizing group member, Michelle’s stomach danced in anticipation of the discoveries that lay ahead. She counted her blessings every day at the opportunity of being an exchange student from the University of California for a semester. To study the ecosystem of the Amazon directly was a dream come true.

Her fellow budding ecologists loved hanging around her because it gave them the opportunity to practice their English and learn the latest slang. Most days Michelle could figure out what they were saying—or trying to say—but sometimes wading through the thick accents and wrong word choices made her head ache.

The deeper they trekked into the forest, the stiffer Nacio’s posture became. Where the heck were they? She couldn’t really judge the distance with the crawling pace and winding “trail.”

She glanced at her watch. 4:13 p.m. Five hours. Five looooooonnnnnng hours on the back of a four-wheeler made her butt numb and the feeling in her toes a forgotten memory.

She tapped Nacio’s rigid shoulder. “I need a break.”

He shot a glance at the surrounding area, his movement almost jerky with its tension. Finally, he called over the droning engine, “We’re almost at the bridge.”

Bridge? “What bridge?”

“You’ll see.”

Her long-sleeved shirt clung to her skin. Sweat from the dense humidity ran down her body in rivulets. She uncapped the canteen strapped across her body and took a swig. Early on in the journey she had learned to keep the swallows short. With so many ruts and twists, anything longer just spilled down her front.

Birds cawed and flapped away at their appearance. The magnificent colors of a parrot’s wings in flight never ceased to amaze her. Of course they weren’t the only birds she saw, but they were the ones she searched for the most.

They rounded another bend and the oppressive darkness of the full tree canopy fell away. Nacio stopped the ATV and Michelle blinked at the sight before her. Or rather the lack of scenery before her. A cliff. They were stopping at a cliff?

She scanned the area. The small opening was only big enough for their vehicles to pull to the side before the trail disappeared into the tree line again. Instead of a beautiful sunset in the late December sky, thick clouds threatened rain.

“We stopping for a break?” Michelle asked as Nacio hopped to the ground.

Luis and Maria pulled up beside them.

“Nah,” Nacio replied, his mouth grim and an edge of strain tinging his voice. “We’re here.”

Michelle’s stomach plunged. She swung her leg over the ATV and stepped down. Her legs almost gave out and the muscles in her thighs quivered. Great. She could imagine the jokes from the others about how straddling Nacio made her walk funny.

Pebbles and rocks scrunched under her boots as she paced to get the blood flowing.

“Oh, how pretty!” Maria exclaimed, scrabbling off the bike and scurrying to the edge. “Look!” She pointed at something below.

Michelle cautiously moved forward and craned her neck. She whirled on Nacio. “Is this a joke?”

Steps had been cut into the rock face leading down to a platform where a wood-and-rope bridge spanned the space between two rock cliffs. The bridge swayed in the strengthening wind brought on by the incoming storm and had to be a hundred feet in the air. The riverbed sped below, its whitecaps frothing against the boulders protruding from its depths.

“You expect us to carry all of our equipment and gear over that?”

Si,” Nacio barked, pausing his perusal of the landscape around him. He yanked off one of the straps holding their gear on the trailer.

Okay. Maybe the guy acted like a jerk when he was overtired. “How do you know it’s safe? That wood looks old.”

“Don’t be such a wuss,” Luis quipped, grinning at his obvious attempt at slang. “There’s webbing taller than you on both sides.”

“It’s safe,” Nacio grunted. “Now get up here and grab your stuff. We need to clear out and set up camp.”

Michelle’s heart relocated into her stomach. Warning. Warning, her instincts yelled. Not a good idea. Did she have an alternative? If she attempted to hike back by herself, she’d be lost in a half hour. She glanced again at the ominous bridge of death, then at the thick vegetation crowding the tree line. Death by tumbling off a bridge or death by wild beasts if she tried to hike back by herself? Rats on rye toast. She lagged behind Luis and Maria and grabbed as much of the gear as she could carry.

Michelle grunted, her sore muscles protesting the load. Dang. She should have been hitting the gym instead of the cantina. Not only would her large hips have thanked her, but the extra stamina she could’ve gained would’ve come in handy. She readjusted her backpack. What the heck did she pack in it? Her entire wardrobe?

Nacio scanned the area again. The deep crease marring his forehead and the set line of his mouth did nothing to help her nerves. She glanced around too. Had he seen something?

Leaves swayed and rustled in the wind and the clouds deepened to a charcoal pitch. An eerie silence hung in the air. A shot of fear stole down her spine. Were the birds and such quiet because of their group or was something else here watching them? Did it wait in the shadows like a hunter?

She swallowed and tore her eyes away from the forest, forcing an inner chuckle at her jumpiness. That’s it. No more late-night suspense fests for you.

Nacio tromped to the wooden post marking the beginning of the steps and turned. “I’ll go first. Once I’m across, then someone else can go and so on. Si?” He didn’t wait for an answer, just started down the steps.

Michelle hefted a pair of duffels and got in line behind Luis and Maria. The bridge swayed and dipped as each walked across but no one seemed to have any trouble crossing.

Her heart thundered.

My turn.

She inhaled. “Don’t look down,” she whispered, then exhaled. “It’s an experience you can tell your friends about when you get home.”

Descending the last step that led right onto the bridge, she tried one more time to bolster her nerves. “You can do this, Michelle. Everyone else crossed with no problem.” She tread forward carefully. The wooden planks were nailed closely together, barely leaving any light to shine through. That was a good thing, right?

She continued to advance. The bridge moved and shifted as she walked but the high webbing on each side helped her confidence. Thick ropes were woven through the holes and made it seem as if it were stable. Please, God, don’t let that be an illusion.

Wind whipped over her, causing the bridge to sway with it. Bugger. This was so not cool. She picked up her pace. Not exactly to a run but not a leisurely stroll either.

The wood creaked beneath her feet. She glanced down and froze. Oh God. She was directly in the center.

A hundred feet up.

Rushing water below.

Gusts of air pushing against her.

Her heart lodged in her throat.

“Come on, Michelle,” Maria yelled. “You’re almost across.”

She yanked her eyes off the rocks below and looked toward her classmates. Maria clapped and gave her a thumbs-up while Luis stood with his arms crossed behind her. Nacio . . . Wait, why was he running up the hill?

“Hey!” Michelle called, moving forward again. “Nacio, where are you going?”

Maria screamed and pointed at something behind her.

The bridge shook violently and the wooden planks protested.

Michelle whirled and her mouth went dry. Two men carrying big guns ran right for her. They were shouting something, but the blood thundering in her ears prevented her from understanding a word they said.

She dropped the duffels and ran, leaping forward off the bridge. Hard stone splintered her fingernails as she scrabbled up the thin steps cut into the cliff-face. Heavy footsteps pounded too closely behind her, making her desperate to reach the top. Her foot slipped, probably from the blood dripping from her fingers, but she managed to clear the last step.

Umpfh. A heavy weight tackled her from behind, smashing her face into to ground. Before she could ascertain if she was all right, someone yanked her up by her backpack and pressed the end of a gun against her temple.

Her eyes frantically searched the area but she could only see Luis on his knees with a pistol to his head.

Va por ahi!” someone in the woods shouted.

Michelle quickly translated: There she goes.

Oh God. Please let that be Maria escaping.

The staccato beat of machine gunfire answered her question. Michelle screamed, “NO!”

The gun lifted from her temple and slammed against her head. Her last thought before the world went dark was, Where did Nacio go?

Chapter 2

“Malone, you’ve got a visitor.”

Captain Jeremy Malone glanced up from the map of the Amazon jungle he’d been studying in his tent. As a commanding officer in the Green Berets, he normally wouldn’t be addressed so informally, but he and Captain Stacey Jackson maintained the same rank. Despite being saddled with a feminine first name, Jacks was as masculine and well-rounded as a soldier could get . . . and extremely popular with the ladies.

“Jacks, I thought you were still out reconning,” Malone answered, his voice sounding like a chainsaw compared to Jacks’ smooth intonation.

“I was,” the soldier replied, pulling a soaking wet, pathetic excuse for a man from behind him, “when our new friend, here, caught up with me.”

Malone lasered in on the man’s face. Dirt, now mud, covered the asset’s skin and his torn clothes were beyond saving. Time to find out what he was doing here. “Jose, que estas haciendo aqui?”

Jose swallowed and answered in broken English, “News, señor.”

Malone tamped down his impatience. He already figured that much out himself. He raised an eyebrow and waited.

“Osvaldos take American girl.”

Malone stiffened. “Where the hell did the cartel get an American girl?”

“She crossed their border.” Jose wrung his hands, his wide eyes bouncing between Malone and Jacks.

The sinister edge pouring into Jacks’s expression had the informant stepping back.

“Start from the beginning,” Malone’s teammate and best friend barked.

Jose swallowed. “I only heard this morning. I wo-working in field.”

“Wait. Are you telling me she’s been there for days?” Malone asked, his stomach knotting.

Si, señor. Two.” Jose held up two grubby fingers as if to make his point.

“Son of a bitch,” Jacks exploded. “That sadistic bastard Ramon could have done anything to her by now, including selling her to his twisted brother for the sex-slave trade.”

The knot constricted. Malone ignored his friend’s too-true tirade and concentrated on Jose. “What else? What have you heard about her?”

“The men, they talk. She bonita . . . pretty. Young. American. Had a—a mochila?”

“Backpack,” Malone answered automatically, stroking his chin.

Si. Si.

Jacks paused his pacing and barked, “Like how young?”

Jose shrugged.

“School girl?” Jacks lowered his palm to indicate a girl between the ages of seven to ten. “Or full grown?” He raised his hand to shoulder height.

Jose cupped his hands and held them in front to indicate full breasts. “Full grown, señor.” His face reddened. “The men”—he cleared his throat—“they, ah, describe what they do if they have chance.”

Malone’s stomach twisted. Christ. “Where was she captured?”

Jose dropped his arms. “By bridge, señor.”

Gracias, Jose.” Malone turned to his friend. “Jacks, tell Jersey to escort Jose out of camp after he compensates the man, then meet me across the way.”

“Sure.” Jacks grabbed Jose’s arm.

“Wait.” Jose fought to stay. “My family. You promise safety.”

Jacks paused and Malone answered, “Do exactly what I told you when we first met and your family will not be harmed in the raid.”

“Thank you, señor,” the asset gushed, wringing his hands.

“Keep your end of the bargain, Jose,” Malone warned, holding the smaller man’s gaze. “Not a word about our existence here or the impending strike and you will be further compensated for your aid.”

Si. Si. I not say anything.”

Jacks pulled the man into the rain.

Malone followed, then shuffled inside the second tent. Reginald “Fast Fingers” Davis sat behind his latest group of toys. Monitors were placed on top of thick, black plastic cases large enough to carry a shitload of ordnance—which they did. His M4 Carbine rifle rested against his leg as he leaned back in his makeshift chair with his feet propped up on another set of cases.

“I need your skills,” Malone announced.

Fast Fingers jerked his head up and dropped his legs to the floor, starting to rise.

“At ease and speak freely,” Malone instructed, cutting through the formalities they didn’t have time to honor.

Reginald resettled and asked, “What’s up?” The scars of bad teenage acne still pitted the man’s face, but in a way were a blessing. If the guy hadn’t been riddled with the confidence-smashing pimples he wouldn’t have spent so much time at home learning his way around a keyboard. And those skills were definitely well-honed.

Jacks ducked inside and shook his head. Rain drops flew off in every direction.

“Watch the equipment, ya mangy mutt,” Fast Fingers grumbled, hugging the keyboard against him.

“We’ve got an unexpected development,” Malone stated grimly. “The Osvaldo cartel has branched out into kidnapping.”

“Overachieving bastards, aren’t they?” Fast Fingers quipped. “Drugs and guns no longer enough to keep them busy?”

“Apparently not.” Malone shifted forward. “Before we have the final briefing with the SEALs, DEA, ATF, and that other group with no name to solidify the plans for the raid, I need to know as much as possible about the girl they took. I don’t want FUBAR stamped on our mission tonight.”

“But Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition is our specialty.” Fast Fingers laughed, then started clicking on his keyboard. “Tell me what you got.”

Malone relayed Jose’s information in less than ten seconds.

“That’s it?” Fast Fingers paused, looking up at him.

“Yeah. You’ve got one hour, fifty-five minutes to find out everything you can about her before we deploy. This may be a game changer.”

“Damn right it is,” Jacks exclaimed. “We can’t leave her with those bastards.”

“If she’s still there,” Malone replied gravely.

Jacks swore colorfully.

“Find me when you have something to report,” Malone instructed, pulling his friend out of the tent.

One hour, forty minutes later a throat cleared just beyond the flaps of Malone’s tent.

“Enter,” Malone ordered.

Fast Fingers ducked inside and started to assume the attention position but Malone waved him forward. “At ease. Bring me what you’ve found.”

Reginald loped forward and slapped a thin manila folder on the table in Malone’s tent.

“Permission to speak candidly?”

“Granted.” Malone leaned forward on the makeshift table and turned the folder toward him.

“I believe I’ve figured out who they have. I don’t have any evidence. In fact, everything’s completely circumstantial.”

“I understand what you’re saying and take full responsibility. Proceed.”

Reginald’s shoulders relaxed slightly. “Meet Michelle Alger.”

Malone opened the folder and his stomach flipped. An eight-by-ten color headshot of a smiling, happy-go-lucky young woman with twinkling bronze eyes peered up at him. Shoulder-length wavy hair, reminding him of warm chestnuts, framed a pretty face with just enough meat to tell Malone she wasn’t one of those anorexic women obsessed with dieting. A definite plus in the woman’s favor.

“Born in July.”

Fast Finger’s report yanked Malone back to reality and shamed him for imagining what the rest of her body would look like.

“She’s nineteen years old and a sophomore here as an exchange student from the University of California.”

Malone thumbed past the headshot to a single sheet of paper reducing Michelle’s life down to the basic facts. Social Security number, California dorm address, parents’ names and home address, and even the fact that she had a butterfly tattoo on her left hip.

Fast Fingers was scary good.

“Excellent work, as usual.” Malone snapped the file shut.

“I didn’t have enough time to find out her dress size—”

“No problem.” Malone cut him off, not wanting to revive the mental image of ample breasts—fueled by Jose’s visual—and spectacular ass—supplied by his imagination—in his head. “I’ve figured out which size jumpsuit to pack based on the photo.”

Reginald grinned. “She’s suh-weet. Jacks is going to flip when he sees her.”

Malone gripped the folder against an unexpected wave of anger. Mine. He blinked. Had that possessive word just run through his head? What the hell was wrong with him?

He peered at Reginald. A smarmy grin stretched across the man’s face.

Hell no. “Jacks and every other man in my unit is going to keep their damn hands to themselves,” Malone snapped, causing Reginald to do a double take.

“If you say so, sir.”

Damn. The formal “sir” let Malone know he’d gone too far in his outburst. Unable to take it back now, he glanced at his watch. “Let’s go. Briefing by the joint operations commander is in two minutes.”

***

In typical rainforest fashion, the rain that had pounded them earlier stopped, with only a few clouds lingering behind. Malone adjusted his Kevlar helmet and flipped his Night Vision Goggles down. The world was now painted in shades of green and black. “Talk to me, Jersey.”

Jersey’s mouth hardened and a flash of irritation flared in his eyes.

Not the time to find out what that shit’s about. Malone stared his subordinate down.

Jersey jerked a bulky device up to his eyes and answered coldly, “I’ve got thermal readings in that building over there.”

“You mean the one that’s supposed to be abandoned?” Jacks asked sarcastically. “How would we ever guess that’s the place? Bad guys really need to update their manuals. This is right out of the ‘How to Be Cliché’ section.”

Malone ignored the other captain and studied the non-descript wooden structure. Nothing about the building stood out among the rest other than the weary, deserted appearance. He glanced at his watch. “Jacks, time to roll out. Take the rest of the team and complete our end of the mission. Jersey and I are going to retrieve Michelle.”

“I know the General assigned this to you, but I’m going to ask one last time.” Jacks clapped him on the shoulder. “You sure you don’t want to take out the communications equipment while I grab the civilian? I mean, it’s no secret, the ladies love me.” He winked.

“No,” Malone snapped. “I’ve got it covered.”

Jacks grinned. “Right. You sure are getting desperate if you’re resorting to Colombian kidnap victims for dates. I can help coach you—”

“Move out.”

Jacks snickered along with the others in hearing range. After giving Malone a two-fingered salute, Jacks signaled to the rest of the unit to head west.

Malone and Jersey entered the building and proceeded to check each room. No cartel members lingered and there was nothing worth noting on the first floor. The place definitely hadn’t been used for a while except as a hangout for members who sampled their own product.

Malone led them silently up the stairs, pausing when he reached the top, and peered around the corner. He held up his index finger, telling Jersey there was one hostile in the hallway. Jersey tapped Malone on the back, indicating he got the message and was ready to go. Malone cleared the step, aiming his gun at the man’s chest. He didn’t hesitate to shoot the man guarding the door with his suppressed handgun before the asshole could raise his machine gun. “Hallway clear,” he whispered into his mic and proceeded down the corridor. When he reached the door the dead man had been guarding he crouched, waiting with his gun at the ready. At a tap on his shoulder he reached out and tested the door handle.

“Locked.”

Jersey maneuvered around him, pulling a rolled, prewired strip of C4 from his side pants pocket. He ripped the adhesive paper off the back and slapped the long strip against the side with the hinges. He fit the blast cap on the device and unwound the wires. They hauled ass around the corner and Jersey set off the fuse.

After the concussive boom, Malone opened his eyes and tore back up to the room. Jersey pushed the broken door out of the way and Malone ran inside.

For as long as he lived he knew he’d never forget the sight greeting his eyes. Gone was the innocent, smiling, cherubic face. In its place was a broken, bloodied, naked mess handcuffed to an iron bedframe. The goddamned bastards had worked her over good.

The woman moaned and shifted her head to stare at him through blackened, swollen slits.

He swiped his NVGs up and knelt by the paper-thin mattress. “Are you Michelle Alger?” he asked gently.

She swallowed hard and nodded, wincing at the action as tears leaked down her temples.

Jersey moved to the end of the bed and pulled out a disposable camera.

“The pictures are going to be stamped classified and are only to document the condition the Osvaldo cartel left you in. They will not be released to the public,” Malone explained when he saw Michelle wince. “I need you to state your Social Security number.” He hated prolonging her rescue but Special Ops had been fooled before. Now, no one did anything unless their victim’s identity was confirmed.

He had committed every meager detail in her file to his memory and when she haltingly repeated the same nine digits, he grinned. “Excellent job.” He reached into his vest pocket and grabbed his lock-pics. “Can you tell me the city you were born in?”

She waited until he finished unlocking her hands and met her eyes before answering, “Laurel, Delaware.”

“Excellent.”

Gunfire and explosions filled the air around them.

Michelle jolted and her pathetic scream sounded more like a gargled whisper.

The raid had started in earnest. He met her inquiring gaze with a quip. “Guess the cartel decided not to go gently into the good night.”

He prayed the rest of the units were able to fulfill their objectives so he could get Michelle out safely.

After picking the locks on the two bracelets cutting into her ankles, forcing her legs to stay spread, he had nothing else left that could put off the next part. “I’m just going to move your hip.” Figuring she had been humiliated enough, he gripped her side as gently as possible with his gloved hand and lifted. A rainbow butterfly lay underneath a coating of dried blood.

Malone nodded to Jersey, who pulled a jumpsuit out of a small bag attached to his belt.

“Your . . . name?”

Malone almost missed the scratchy, whispered questioned, her voice was so faint. He paused and connected with her eyes again. “Captain Jeremy Malone, ma’am.”

Michelle nodded and her mouth twitched. His heart broke at seeing her attempt to smile under all the swelling and bruising. “Cappy for short.”

He couldn’t stop the wide grin. “I like it, but don’t try to talk too much.” Malone patted her arm. “Save your energy so we can get you out of here and stateside just in time for Christmas.”

Jersey jerked the jumpsuit forward and Malone pointed to it. “I’m going to help you put this on, okay?”

Her eyes didn’t stray from their locked position on his as she nodded.

It took both Malone and Jersey too much time to wrestle the one-piece outfit over her maimed body, not that it was her fault. Every inch of her was covered with bruising or worse. Malone figured her whimpers were probably substitutes for the screams she so rightly deserved to cry. His admiration of her grew. She out-warriored most men who had years of training. If he guessed right, she had at least two broken ribs and countless fractures throughout her body. And he hadn’t even tried to quantify the burns and open lacerations now seeping into the olive covering.

Goddamn animals.

He opened a small duffel latched to his side and grabbed a pair of hard-bottom slippers, sliding them on her feet. Gripping the strap of his M4 Carbine, he maneuvered the weapon so it rested against his back. He picked Michelle up as gently as he could and cradled her against his bulky vest.

“Call the others,” Malone ordered to Jersey. “Tell them we’re coming out.”

Jersey cracked his neck from the left to the right, then jammed the phone to his ear and snapped, “We’re good to go.” He paused, then hung up. “They’ll meet us outside.”

Malone jerked his head in acknowledgement and followed the sergeant out the door. He hated how they had to retrace their steps instead of exiting out of an alternate location. Using the same exit made it too easy for the cartel to set up an ambush and put a bullet in his ass. But there wasn’t enough time to scout another route and Michelle’s condition prevented them from executing anything more aggressive.

Jersey shouldered his weapon and quartered the area as they progressed, his posture and steps more aggressive then warranted. What the hell is going through the sergeant’s mind?

Once they cleared the building, Malone ran for the trees. Jacks materialized from the foliage like a ghost and stopped dead. His eyes scanned Michelle’s battered face and he started cussing.

“Save it,” Malone barked. “Get us the hell to the chopper before you blow a gasket.”

They blazed a trail toward the coordinates where the Black Hawk was supposed to meet them.

Gunfire, grenades, and screams filled the air as they trekked to the rendezvous. Luckily, they didn’t encounter anyone en route, but Malone didn’t trust the peace would last long. He took a knee with the rest of his unit in the foliage and adjusted his grip.

“Hang on a little longer,” he whispered, getting caught up in Michelle’s squinted stare. He fought the urge to hug her against him, wanting to force his health and strength into her just so he wouldn’t feel like such a bastard for enjoying the intimacy of his hold. “Your taxi’s on its way,” he added gruffly.

The rest of his team aimed little infrared devices at the sky, signaling to the chopper their position. Within minutes, the sound of the Black Hawk thundered overhead, then landed.

Damn. No doubt, every piece of shit cartel member heard that racket and was now racing to their spot.

Jacks slapped three unit members on their shoulders and hauled ass to the other side of the bird while Jersey and the rest of the team spread out, surrounding the chopper. Malone climbed inside. He exchanged a quick glance with the medic, conveying just how bad Michelle was before he set her on the latched-down gurney.

Smoothing a hand over her hair, he yelled over the whirling blades, “This is the end of the line for me.”

Her body jolted and she clutched his vest, shaking her head back and forth weakly. “No,” she whispered.

“Don’t worry, you’re in excellent hands. They’ll get you patched up and to a hospital in no time.” He tried to clamp down on his racing pulse that had nothing to do with the firefight outside. “I’m sure some government official will be in to check on you and help figure out what comes next.”

Machine-gun reports raged closer and he caught a glimpse of his men running, returning fire to keep the perimeter secure.

She clung to his uniform. “Cappy, don’t leave me.”

Ah God. If that just didn’t rip his heart out.

“Sir, I need to get her hooked up to an IV,” the medic stated urgently.

“And I gotta go, now,” the pilot yelled. “Either strap in or jump off, Captain.”

Shit. This sucked. He peeled her fingers off, reaching into his vest pocket at the same time and pulled out a small piece of paper and pen. After scribbling his name and phone number, he clasped her hands together and slid the paper between her palms. Leaning forward, he whispered into her ear, “If you ever get into trouble again, contact me. I promise I’ll come running, no questions asked.” He brushed a light kiss below her lobe and sat up. In a full voice, he said, “Hang in there, Michelle. You’re a survivor. Don’t let his hold you back.”

He made it as far as the edge of the chopper before he couldn’t stop himself from turning and searing her battered image into his brain. That son of a bitch Ramon was going to pay for this.

He hopped to the ground and the medic wasted no time slamming the side door shut as the pilot lifted off.

“We finally ready to enter the fight, sir?” Jersey asked, turning his NVG-hidden eyes toward Malone while fiddling with the flap on his vest pocket.

Malone unlocked his clenched jaw. “Yeah. Let’s finish this.”