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Authors: Catherine Mann

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Defender

BOOK: Defender
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Praise for Catherine Mann

“Catherine Mann’s military romances launch you into a world chock-full of simmering passion and heart-pounding action. Don’t miss ’em!”


USA Today
bestselling author Merline Lovelace

 

“Exhilarating romantic suspense.”—
The Best Reviews

 

“A great read.”—
Booklist

 

“Terrific romantic suspense that never slows down . . . An action-packed story line.”—
Midwest Book Review

 

“As gripping in its suspense as it is touching in its emotional pull.”—
Romance Junkies

THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP

Published by the Penguin Group
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Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

 

DEFENDER

 

A Berkley Sensation Book / published by arrangement with the author

 

PRINTING HISTORY
Berkley Sensation mass-market edition / April 2009

 

Copyright © 2009 by Catherine Mann.

 

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

 

eISBN : 978-1-101-02985-5

 

BERKLEY® SENSATION

Berkley Sensation Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

BERKLEY
®
SENSATION and the “B” design are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

 

 

 

http://us.penguingroup.com

To Morgan Mack Mitchell—a precious blessing to all who knew him. Thanks to the generous gift of organ donation, we were touched by the warmth of Morgan’s shining smile for eight and a half years.

 

And to his grandmother, K. Sue Morgan, an invaluable mentor, talented author, and treasured friend.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

To my editor, Wendy McCurdy, and my agent, Barbara Collins Rosenberg, endless thanks for your fabulous feedback and faith in my flyboys. Joanne Rock and Stephanie Newton, what would I do without your brilliant insights, inspired critiques, and excellent taste in chocolate? Suzanne Brockmann, Lori Foster, and Merline Lovelace, your continued encouragement and support mean the world to me. Karen Tucker, R.N., your proofreads and medical fact checking are invaluable. Julia Morrison, I adore you, maestra extraordinaire,
Star Trek
expert, and sister dear. Sergeant “Root”—Air Force Special Ops gunner—you have my deep appreciation for your help with the rescue-scene info and for your twenty years of brave service to our country. My deepest gratitude to USO performers, crews, and staff who so generously give their time and talents to entertain our troops!

And most of all, thank you to my family who somehow believes I can accomplish anything. My children, my miracles—Brice, Haley, Robbie, and Maggie—I love you all. Rob—my very own flyboy hero—I can’t thank you enough for sharing with me your military expertise, unflagging support, and, of course, your love.

PROLOGUE

AFGHANISTAN: THREE YEARS AGO

Smoke trailing from the ass of his plane and terra firma approaching at meteoric speed, Captain Jimmy Gage figured he was about fifteen seconds away from being roadkill.

Punching out of a C-12 wasn’t an option. No ejection seat. He would have to wrangle this plane to the ground on his own, since the other pilot had slumped, unconscious from inhaling smoke and gas fumes before Jimmy could get his own mask on, then strap on his partner’s oxygen.

Major Nathan “Socrates” Breuer was still out cold, even sucking down the pure stuff spewing from the mask.

This troll through the sky should have been a standard medical transport along southern Afghanistan’s craggy landscape. They had completed their drop off and were on their way back to base. He even had a seasoned instructor pilot on board.

Who was still stuck in la-la land.

The left engine’s slowing groan told him it wasn’t reaching max revolutions. His best guess? Sand junking up the fuel tank, which started the whole cluster-fuck effect until an O-ring somewhere in the fuel system failed. Now that engine flamed out of control, the other coughing.

Jimmy fought to level the wings and shoot through a narrow ridge, muscles straining under his sweat-soaked flight suit. He’d dodged ground fire, shoulder-launched missiles, even handled crappy-ass weather, only to be jacked by engine failure. As if it wasn’t bad enough that he had to fight human bad guys scurrying around in those tunnels and caves, technology proved to be a lethal enemy as well.

What had his first instructor taught him to do when this sort of thing happened? Oh yeah, say something cool over the radio, then decide whether to go for the scatter or depth record. Hell, that was funny at the time. Not so much now.

The small cargo plane bucked under him. Yoke in hand, he battled for control, constantly adjusting the trim to maintain the best glide angle, defying the shuddering beast to split apart before he could wrestle it to a flat patch in this godforsaken sandpit.

If they survived this crash landing, somebody would need to scoop them up and out ASAP. Time to say something cool. What was the coded Mayday word today? Oh yeah, badger. Who thought this shit up?

He keyed the microphone and transmitted, “Fin six-seven, Fin six-seven, badger, badger, badger. Thirty miles south of bull’s-eye. I have an engine fire, and I’m not gonna make it to anything that looks remotely like a runway. How copy?”

A tinny voice came through his headset, “Fin six-seven, Choctaw zero-four. We’re passing your info to the operations center and heading your way. How long until you are on the deck?”

Jimmy thanked God and a couple of major saints that there were other friendlies in the area. He glanced out over the nose, searching for a flat spot or road to put down the fast-sinking aircraft. Good instincts and top-dollar training guided his hands as he readjusted his angle to eke a touch more glide from his wounded bird, just missing the mountain range on his left.

He radioed up again. “Roger that, Choctaw, pass to the ops center that I will be requiring rescue forces, and if they wanted to get them moving my way überquick, I would really appreciate it. My engine is barely putting out any power, and I will be . . . well, let’s call it
landing
in about two minutes.”

He stole a glance at his slouched-over partner. “Socrates, my friend, this is going to hurt me way more than you.”

A stretch of desert spread ahead. Jimmy banked the dying craft on approach to the barren patch of salvation ahead.

A very small scrap of sandy salvation.

His thermos clanked his thigh before rolling back along with the rest of his gear ping-ponging around the cockpit. He peeled his helmet off the ceiling after the near vertical dive. “Lucky for you I am a god of aviation and the greatest pilot since . . . well . . . ever.”

Jimmy lined up on the bikini-sized area and slowed the C-12 to near stall speed. He pulled up slightly to stay clear of scrub bushes and boulders, just avoiding that stall.

Then he chopped the power.

He yanked the fire handle and cut off fuel to the smoking engine. The plane screeched along the ground in an uncontrolled skid. Scraps of metal peeled off of who the hell knew where. Sparks showered over the windscreen and past the side windows. The left wing struck a small tree, and Jimmy’s world started a Tilt-A-Whirl so long he could have sworn the almighty cosmic carnie dude gave him a double ride until . . .

Stillness.

Silence.

And thank you, almighty carnie dude, alive.

Jimmy shook his head to get his bearings. Blood filled his mouth. He’d bitten his tongue and had a new appreciation for the word
whiplash
, but his arms and legs moved in all the right directions.

Still, his first crash sucked as much as he thought it would. And it would suck monkey butt a lot worse if the plane exploded before he hauled himself and Socrates out.

He peeled off his oxygen mask, flung his harness aside, and set to work freeing Socrates. “Come on, old man, let’s blow this pop stand.”

Jimmy hooked his hands under the guy’s pits and lugged him toward the door behind the pilot seat, which, of course, was jammed. The cosmic carnie dude’s benevolence had run out, or else he’d picked a mighty inconvenient time for a smoke break.

Damn it. Jimmy kicked at the door, once, again, a third teeth-jarring time before it finally shook loose and jettisoned outward to the ground in a poof of throat-clogging sand.

He grabbed Socrates by the collar and hefted him the rest of the way out of the hatch. The blistering heat swamped Jimmy. No matter how many tours he pulled in this sandbox, he would never get over the sensation of being mummified in an electric blanket cranked on high.

His flight suit sealed to his back with sweat, Jimmy opened an access door in the rear of the aircraft to check the emergency locater transmitter fixed to the floor of the compartment. The blinking red light indicated the radio signal was working, broadcasting on the international distress frequency so that they could be found. He considered turning it off since bad guys could use it to find them just as easily as the good guys.

Weighed the risk.

Decided to leave that red light flashing.

If there were bad guys around, they certainly knew where the smoking plane crashed. And rescue was high on his list. This enemy wasn’t known for hospitality.

His neck itched at even the thought.

This might look like the ass end of nowhere, but he expected terrorists would scurry out of their desert holes any minute now. Time to tap into some of that survival training.

Step one: stop, drop, and puke. No, wait, that wasn’t right.

Oh yeah, get away from the neon sign that was his smoking airplane. Hoof it a good distance toward a niche in one of those mountains, and dig in until the good guys came winging over the horizon.

Scouting for the nearest outcropping, he patted down his survival vest that contained water and food as well as a bunch of Boy Scout crap. Signal mirrors, matches, fishing lures, and line. Man, he hoped he wouldn’t be here long enough to need food. He definitely wasn’t hip on eating desert rats.

He skimmed over the rest of his vest to check his gun. Not standard Boy Scout issue, but the 9 mm in his vest and big ass knife in his boot were a part of who he was now.

Outfitted as best he could be, back to step one, which would be a lot easier if he didn’t have to carry two hundred pounds of comatose aircraft commander. He patted Socrates’ face.

“Come on, dude, you gotta wake up for me. There’s some heavy shit going down, and we need to book it out of here.”

No go. Nathan Breuer wouldn’t come to if a
Sports Illustrated
swimsuit model started washing a Corvette twelve inches from his face.

Gunfire sputtered in the distance. Given the echo off the craggy landscape, he couldn’t tell how many or how close. Definitely time to go to ground, set up shop in a thicket, an overhang, something of that order. A cave if he had to, but he didn’t cotton to the notion of being cornered with no escape route.

Jimmy ducked his shoulder into Breuer’s gut for a fire-man’s carry. “Okay, old man, up we go.” Jimmy grunted. “You’re packing on the pounds, Major Ton O’Bricks.”

He eyed a jagged outcropping a couple of hundred yards ahead. Not as close as the scraggly bushes, but at least with the rock at his back, he would have one less side to protect.

Jimmy started hoofing it east of the mangled C-12. “After this, we’re due a serious bar crawl, and you’re buying.” He oofed Breuer more securely in place, combat boots pumping pace. “And you’re laying off the Krispy Kremes, too.”

He half-expected Breuer to roar out in protest over that one, but no luck. The unconscious pilot stayed dead weight over his shoulder. Perspiration popped along Jimmy’s gritty skin, crusting the sand before sweat could reach his eyes.

“Not too much longer. We’re almost there.” He kept talking to distract himself from the shots popping in the distance. He did that a lot. Talked. And Major Breuer always listened, nodding sagely, until he finally offered up something profound that made Jimmy want to etch it on a stone tablet.

Socrates wasn’t just his fellow pilot or some drinking pal. This was his mentor. A patient man with vision who’d—God only knew how—found something of value in a short-tempered, foul-mouthed lieutenant when others vowed he was too much of a loose cannon to trust with a multimillion-dollar aircraft.

How fucking ironic
he
hadn’t failed. The plane had, and now Nathan Breuer’s life depended on him. “It sure would be nice if you’d hook me up with some of that Socrates aviation wisdom right about now. Of course, we aren’t really flying anymore, so perhaps that wisdom would be like tits on a porcupine.”

Just when he thought his screaming muscles would stage a revolt, Jimmy found a sunken-out wadi running alongside the rock wall. With their backs covered, they could lie belly flat, grafting right into the wadi with some scrub brush on top of them until help hailed over the horizon.

He flipped Socrates off his shoulder and set to work. Five minutes later, his hands so caked with sand he could no longer bend the joints, he’d cleared out enough room for them to take cover. Then the quiet set in, the waiting, the damned helplessness as he gripped his 9 mm and listened to Socrates’ shallow breathing.

A rumbling sounded in the distance. Good guys or . . . well, the crappy alternative? The growling engine grew louder as a rusted-out truck rounded a cave outcropping.

His fist tightened around cold metal. He started to squeeze the trigger to plug a bullet in the engine block but didn’t want to give away his locale. Three men stood in the back of the barreling truck, AK-47s raised, eyes directly on his hidey spot.

They sprayed the ground in front of him. The pops hit so fast, sand spewed in his face, nose, mouth. He squeezed off shots, trying to down as many of them as he could through the haze of sand. He heard a groan, but he couldn’t see.

The truck skidded to a stop with a fresh spray of desert. The driver leapt out, along with the three men in back, one of whom sported a blood-soaked sleeve.

Fuck. Pissed-off bad guys.

A boot came down on his wrist. Double fuck. He bit back a scream at the impact of bones snapping. His gun dangled from his useless hand.

He’d been in some hairy bar fights in his time, outnumbered and outgunned when some bozo pulled a knife, but nothing like this. Four-to-one odds, since Socrates was still down for the count. The numbers part didn’t daunt him as much as those AK-47s tipped with bayonets.

The roar of pain in his ears dulled enough that he could hear the men arguing—and helicopter blades chopping the distant air with hope. Now would be a mighty fine time for backup. How about a missile strike straight to that rusted-out truck with an explosion strong enough to stun the quad squad?

Except reason open-fired on hope. Even if the helicopter reached them, the MH-53 couldn’t risk shooting for fear of hitting the wrong guy.

Game over. Time to take one for the team. He raised his hands and dropped his weapon.

Silence seemed the best choice while they barked back and forth to each other in Arabic. The apparent leader—a lean man with golden eyes—stepped ahead of the pack.

Adrenaline pumped his senses on overload to the stench of sweat, sting of tight muscles, grainy wind taunting him with the helicopter serenade.
Okay, Afghani Al. What’s the verdict?

“Al” booted Socrates in the side. The sound of cracking ribs snipped the air. Socrates didn’t move.

Bile bit the back of Jimmy’s throat.
Come on, old man. Wake up, damn it.

Twice more, Al worked to rouse the unconscious pilot curled on his side. Nathan Breuer wasn’t playing possum.

Jimmy fought the urge to beat the shit out of Al and screw the consequences that would inevitably come from the three Al posers who seemed to get off from watching their big kahuna in action.

The leader glanced at the horizon with the helicopter chop, chop, chopping away against the backdrop of a sinking sun, then cranked back to Jimmy. “How sad you not run faster.”

Al plugged a bullet into Nathan Breuer’s head.

Jimmy didn’t think,
couldn’t
think. He launched forward. Two of the insurgents grabbed his wrists, legs, whatever they could catch on his flailing body. Dimly he heard his arm pop out of the socket. But he felt nothing except rage and instinct and an animalistic need to kill the bastard who’d blown off the . . .
oh God
. . . the back of . . .
God no
. . . his friend’s skull.

He pumped a knee upward. Probably not the wisest move he’d ever made, taking on four armed enemies, but the callous execution still stunned him stupid.

A fist met his face. His vision went red. He stared through the haze of blood at Al holding the AK-47 he’d used to splatter Socrates’ blood all over the rock wall.

The bastard kicked the dead man onto his back and smiled. “Now we run very fast.”

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