eira O'Shay flexed and released her fingers around the grip of her Colt AR-15 assault rifle, her mind on the little boy inside the religious-cult compound. The boy she'd been tracking for over a year now.
She squinted through the hundred-and-twelve-degree heat rippling off the hard, dry Nevada landscape. The ranch house and barns of the property danced in watery distortion, shifting like reflections in a house of mirrors.
Fitting. From the very beginning this situation had taunted Keira with reflections of her own twisted past.
Her commander, FBI Senior Special Agent Angus West, leaned his hip against the bed of an agency pickup ten feet away, arguing logistics with the incident commander from ATF while she and her team steamed like vegetables in their SWAT fatigues.
Fucking departmental posturing. Fucking egos. Fucking waste of time.
So much precious time already depleted in briefing, staging, arming, negotiating.
Gunfire cracked through the air, followed by the
clang, clang, clang
of bullets against metal. The sting of anxiety burned across Keira's ribs. The half-empty bottle of Gatorade exploded beneath the crush of her fingers, orange liquid drenching her hand. She chucked the shattered plastic at the dirt.
“Don't return fire, you idiots.” She clenched her teeth to keep her voice low so the team, hovering beneath the shade of a single pathetic Joshua tree nearby, wouldn't hear. “My boy's in there.”
Her stomach coiled tighter, something she hadn't believed possible. She already felt like a bottle of champagneâshaken and still corked.
Enough of this bullshit.
She pushed off the SWAT van that acted as a barrier to the hostilities. The men supposedly in charge had ceased their dispute to watch FBI and ATF agents scuttle among pickups and outbuildings for cover.
“Excuse me, sir.” From beneath the brim of her uniform ball cap, she trained her eyes on Angus. “What are we waiting for? A neon sign flashing âArmageddon this way'?”
The ATF leader standing across from Angus sliced her with a critical sneer. One that indicated he had a dick the size of a peanut and had to compensate by making everyone else's life a living hell.
Angus's gaze remained locked on the other man, his demeanor controlled as he raised his index finger to Keira.
Don't push it
Yeah, she got it. Didn't even need her clairaudient abilities to get that message as loud as the gunshots across the compound and as clear as the growing risk she faced with every passing moment.
But, dammit, this waiting was killing her. She wanted that little boy. Wanted to see him. Wanted to touch him. Wanted to prove that the kid was real, and that she hadn't spent the last year of her life chasing a ghost only to end up in the same haunted, hopeless, helpless place she'd started.
She didn't understand the gravity of her needs. Only that they'd driven her from the moment she'd first seen his photograph. He was important to her. She just didn't know why. Just as she didn't know why another vague anxiety gnawed low in her belly. One she'd cued into as soon as she'd stepped onto the scene.
She scanned the landscape again, searching for the source of her discomfort. Clusters of FBI, ATF, local deputies, military personnel, support staff, and vehicles cluttered the staging area. Nothing stood out.
She reached into the front pocket of her jumpsuit for the child's photo, a talisman of sorts now after all this time. The moment she touched it, a young voice loped through her head.
Thia, edo eeme. Edo eeme. Thia.
Whatever that meant. She couldn't exactly ask the missing boy's father why the kid was speaking another language without exposing her clairaudient abilities. And if that happened, she faced an ugly path of workplace inquisitions, governmental psychological testing, probable suspension, and possible termination. If her powers, or more important, the source of her powers, caught the wind, her life and the lives of those she loved would hit the fan.
Keira studied the boy's face for what had to be the thousandth time over the past year. And wondered, for what had to be the hundredth time in the last few hours, whether she'd recognize him now, three years older than he was in the picture. Would his eyes still be warm and trusting? Would his face still be round and full of color? Would he even still be alive?
Keira looked up just as one of her fellow agents, crouched behind a metal storage shed for cover, bucked and pitched backward. She sucked an audible gulp of air. “Oh, shit.” Her stomach clenched and burned. Two backup agents swept in, hooked their hands under the armpits of her academy buddy, and dragged him to safety.
“Was that . . . Connor Royal?” she asked.
“Yes.” Angus pressed his fingers to the earpiece feeding him information over the airwaves as he spoke to her. Sweat glistened on skin the color of fresh ground coffee beans. “It was Royal. Not a fatal hit. They're bringing him out.”
Nerves split her professional shell. She couldn't stand it anymore. Screw all this testosterone. “Are you going to send us in or wait for him to kill our whole squad?”
She'd catch hell for the attitude later, in private. Now, Angus focused on Keira with his customary intensity. “Yes. You're going in.”
The other leader threw his shoulders back. “Now, wait just aâ”
She tuned out the argumentative ATF ass and swung back to signal her team.
Finally. She could get her hands on this kid, turn him over to his father, and get the hell on with her life. And even save a few other lives in the process. Win-win.
“Wait.” Angus put a hand on her arm and signaled the team to hold tight. “This isn't a rescue mission. Not yet.”
“Sir, you can't be serious.” She glanced back to make sure the ATF asshole wasn't within earshot. “There are women and childrenâ”
“I'm dead serious, Keira. At this point, the best way to salvage the lives of those women and children is to take out the shooter. Either by capture or elimination.” He pulled the Colt from her hand and slapped a Remington sniper rifle in its place, then released a five-by-seven photograph from his clipboard and held it out. “This is your target: Andre Rostov. And lose the attitude, would you?”
Her new mission came into sharp focus. Sweat slid between her shoulder blades.
She studied the photo, but didn't take it. She wasn't ready.
The man in the image was in his late fifties with nearly white hair and a clean-shaven jaw exposing a fair share of wrinkles and age spots over a plain, expressionless face. Light eyes, a color she couldn't determine, beamed with intelligence and defiance.
“Rostov's got another one of our teams isolated at the west end of the main house.” Angus drew her attention. “Pinned between a silo and an outbuilding.”
“Once we pull the kids outâ”
“No, Keira.” He had his boss face on. Hard. Demanding. Unyielding. “You are going to take him out of the equation before he starts handing weapons to those kids.”
A shiver tracked her spine. She stepped closer, forced her voice lower. “But, Angusâ”
“No buts. This is what you were trained for. You are our best chance of getting this guy before he hurts anyone else.” He pushed the photo toward her. “Do it for Royal.”
She peered toward the ranch houseâthe lower level windows boarded with shutters, the charcoal gray roof and stark white siding wafting in the inhumane heat.
Yes, she'd been trained. Yes, she could kill in self-defense. But, elimination? Assassination? Murder?
The department picnic two months prior flickered in her head with images of Royal's young wife and their two toddler daughters.
The fingers of her empty hand curled into her palm and squeezed hard before she reached for the picture. At the first touch, a tangle of sounds and voices snarled in her head. She let them murmur in the background until she was ready to unravel and apply.
That other, unrelated unease resurfaced, chewing at her belly. And it definitely wasn't coming from the photo. She glanced over the various groups again. Looking for . . . what? What the hell was bugging her on this subversive level?
“We'll get Tony's kid out, Keira,” Angus reassured. “But to get him out alive, you're going to have to remove the threat, and we both know this maniac won't let you take him alive.”
Yes, she did know. Which was why she wanted to get to the boy so badly. “I understand, sir.”
Keira tuned out the background voices of her colleagues, the rumble of vehicles, the murmur of generators. One by one, she sorted through the sounds: the clink of glass, bubbling liquid, a ringing timer. When none of those made sense, she focused on the disjointed voices.
Control group ... placebo . . . quantitative results . . .
The skin over the back of her neck tingled. “Angus, are you sure about the intel on this? A religious group?”
He pulled his attention from a map spread over the hood of a pickup. “Why?”
One more check of Rostov's picture, just to make sure
. . . Absolute measure . . . controlled environment . . . clinical trials. . .
“I just . . .”
Hear voices that tell me it's wrong.
How fast did she want to lose her job and land in a pink padded room wearing a straitjacket? “Look at him. Not much of a Koresh look-alike. I mean, come on, he's no cult leader.”
“It was your research that led us here.”
“To find the kid. I knew it was a commune of some sort, but I never said it was a religious compound.”
“Well, others have, and it's a moot point anyway. He's now shooting and holding hostages.”
And she'd been entrusted with this boy's safety. Angus was right. The underlying purpose of this ranch didn't matter anymore. What mattered was rescuing a child from a nut job. Reuniting a loving father with a stolen son. She'd seen the court custody papers, the ex-wife's psych evaluations. Now, she'd all but proven the abuse allegations.
Angus yelled at the ATF commander, huddled among other bigwigs, “My sniper's ready. Get me your best agent to guide her in.”
Keira's lip lifted toward a grimace.
“Ransom, suit up.” The man's growl stilted the conversation of several agents loitering around the back of an ATF van. “You're going in.”
Keira's brain was still pushing around
searching for a comfortable fit in some unused crevice when the name registered.
“What?” she asked Angus. “Who?”
“I don't know. Someone namedâ”
“Ransom,” the asshole yelled again. “Get moving. You're babysitting the Feebs' prima donna.”
Her stomach jumped and went icy hot.
The hostage she'd vowed to rescue and the cult leader she'd agreed to kill faded in her mind, replaced by memories of a man she hadn't heard from in three years. A man who shared her complex past and still secretly held far too much of her heart.
Lord, she could not afford to think about Luke right now. Besides the name had to be a coincidence, because Luke
an ATF agent. He was a fire captain in northern California. He wouldn't be at a government-run siege in the Nevada desert.
Surely there were thousands of men by the last name of Ransom in the western United States. She scanned the ATF camp, focused on one group of swarming men, and swallowed hard. Okay, maybe hundreds named Ransom who were also tall, well-built, and blond like the one suiting up, his back toward her.
There have to be, because Luke is not ATF. Shit, he's
The man dropped a black bulletproof vest over his navy uniform T-shirt. He leaned down to tighten the holster securing a semiautomatic at his jean-covered thigh and grabbed a Ruger submachine gun handed to him by a colleague.
Keira's stomach jumped. Jesus, the fluid movements, the tilt of his head . . . they created a delicious, familiar pressure in her chest. Which terrified her.
Please, no. Please, no.
Keira held her breath as the man pivoted toward his commander.
Before he'd fully turned, her stomach bottomed out. She knew the slant of that cheekbone. Knew the angle of that chin. Knew the slope of those lips. In fact, every inch of her body knew that mouth.
No! Dammit. Luke is
But denial couldn't erase the fact that he stood yards away, just as striking as the day she'd left him for the academy. Same intense blue eyes. Same long legs. Same wide shoulders. Same commanding presence.