Authors: Parker Kincade
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, places, brands, and dialogues in this book are a product of the author’s imagination and are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, or persons, living or dead, is completely coincidental.
This book contains content that is not suitable for readers who are 17 and under.
Copyright © 2013 by Parker Kincade
To Rosanna Leo, for more reasons than I can list.
Thank you for your friendship, and for introducing me to the joy that is Nutella.
And to Caleb, for reminding me of the importance of a strategically placed kick.
To the Mad Skills Squad:
Lacey Thacker, JT Lacy, Monette Michaels, Deni Golden, Ardyth Neill, the Diamond State Romance Authors, and the ladies of Love, Lust and Laptops: My sincerest thanks and gratitude for all you do.
Pickyme, thank you for the beautiful cover. Your talent knows no bounds and I look forward to seeing what you come up with next.
Mandy Harbin, thank you for always having my back, and for not being afraid to kick my ass when I need it.
And as always, a big thank you to my family for their support and love.
He was going to die out here.
The smoke set his lungs on fire, forcing him to take shallow breaths. It hurt like hell to take a deep breath, pushed him too close to the edge he already teetered on. His eyes watered, the pain in his leg and shoulder damned near unbearable. He fought against the pain. Mind over matter. He was a Marine. He could do this. He had to do this.
Had to stay conscious and, preferably, alive.
Quiet. So fucking quiet.
He was on the ground, knew that much by the blue sky above him, beyond the haze and trees that covered the remote location.
They hadn’t been equipped for a fight like this. Not here. Not now. It should’ve been a cakewalk. Get in, get out.
Not a fucking bloodbath.
His men. Son of a bitch. He arched his neck, looking for his downed team, and immediately regretted the movement. He clutched a fist against his wounded shoulder and panted for air. Where were his men? For that matter, where was he?
They’d gone down. Every one of them. Shaw. Riley. Morgan. Stephens. As if in slow motion, one-by-one they’d fallen as he took rounds meant to kill him—and likely still would.
They’d been ambushed. Surrounded with nowhere to go, no time to gain cover. And then … shit. He reached for the sheathe strapped to his leg. Empty. He’d drawn his knife and buried it into the belly of … the man who’d dragged him away. To the safety of the jungle.
What. The. Fuck?
He shook his head, struggling to clear the fog from his brain. This was cartel territory. Their intel had provided an opportunity to quickly and quietly take out one of the top men in this area, thereby crippling the shipment of drugs to the United States, at least temporarily. Intel that had been wrong, if the number of men, armed to the teeth, who’d overtaken them was any indication.
Too many questions. Who was the man who’d dragged him out here, away from the site? Where was he now? Why the hell hadn’t he left him a weapon?
And why was it so goddamned quiet?
Groaning, he slowly pushed himself up. The world swayed, seducing him with the promise of unconsciousness. No, not yet. Not until he found his team. He was their commander. He had to find them. Owed them that much. It was his duty.
Dead was the only way he’d leave this jungle without them.
His injuries were severe. The bullet lodged in his right shoulder prevented any significant movement in that arm and hand. Blood seeped from his left thigh, saturating his pants. He couldn’t see the damage, but he knew the bullet in his leg would kill him if he didn’t do something quick.
He struggled to unlatch his belt and pull it free of his fatigues. His vision blurred as he wrapped it around his leg, above the wound, and fed the end back through the clasp. Taking two quick breaths, he pulled the belt tight and yelled out, his voice hoarse with the pain that exploded through his body. His hands shook as he secured the makeshift tourniquet and fell back to the ground, sweating, panting, praying he wouldn’t pass out. Hopefully, it would slow the bleeding, buying him time to … he chuckled. To what? He was in the middle of the jungle. Wounded and unarmed. He was a sitting-fucking-duck.
This was supposed to be his last mission. He was going home to his family. A family left shattered in the wreckage of the plane crash that had killed their parents last year. Now, it seemed he’d only add to the wreckage by going home in a box.
His men were dead. Fathers, sons, brothers. Men under his command, his protection. Gone.
His father had hounded him on the importance of family. Of living by his word and doing what was right. As the oldest son, it was his responsibility to live by a certain set of rules.
Family. Honor. Duty.
Concepts his seventeen-year-old self hadn’t accepted from the father who’d loved him. He’d left home then, joined the military. It was there he’d finally understood what his father had tried to teach him. It was there he’d dedicated his life to protecting others.
And he’d failed. The fact that his men were dead and he was laying in a puddle of his own blood was evidence enough.
What would happen to his family now?
There were so many things he wished he’d said. Regret was a nasty bitch.
He watched the trees sway, concentrating on the back and forth motion as he battled with his body for the upper hand. He wasn’t ready to go. Seemed his body had other ideas.
His eyelids grew heavy. So tired. Maybe he should rest a bit. Regain his energy so he could get them out of here. Somehow.
Brandon. Alec. Amanda.
Chilling cold raced through his veins as the feeling left his limbs.
He’d failed them all.
If, by some miracle, he survived … never again. Whatever it took, he swore to himself then and there.
I’ll not fail them again.
But first, he needed to rest. Just for a minute. His strength depleted, unable to fight any longer, Caleb Martin embraced the darkness.
Oblivion the only salvation from his sins.
Perspiration gathered on his skin, his hair wet, matted to his head. Caleb fought to release the images pounding through his brain as air sawed in and out of his chest.
Images he knew he’d never be rid of.
Pressing his palms to his eyes, he growled in frustration and threw his legs over the side of the bed. The dizziness that always accompanied the aftermath of his nightmare rolled over him. He waited a minute, staring out of the windows that surrounded his condo, allowing the peaceful beauty of the night sky to soothe him.
Running a hand over his face, he rose slowly, giving his head time to catch up with the change in altitude. He rested his fingertips on the nightstand, a safety net in case his legs decided to go the way of his head—topsy-turvy. A man shouldn’t feel this unsteady unless he’d had too much to drink—something Caleb rarely did, but he wouldn’t say no to a beer about now.
Ignoring the fact he was naked, he wandered toward the kitchen. He lived alone, not only in his condo, but on the entire top floor of the twenty-story building where he resided. There wasn’t much chance of anyone seeing him, especially through the one-way, reinforced glass he’d had installed in place of the original windows. Windows that ran the length of his condo and around both ends. From outside—day or night—it was impossible to see even the slightest light coming from his place, let alone anything else. But his view of the Austin skyline was stunning.
He’d revamped the space before moving in, removing most of the interior walls to create a space difficult to hide within. A space that allowed him room to breathe. He’d succumbed to adding walls around the two spare rooms and single bathroom on the opposite end, to preserve his sanity when one or more of his siblings happened to stay over.
His brothers and sister were the only people who had the key code to get on the floor, and getting into his condo took yet another access code, which he changed on a consistent basis. Okay, so he might’ve been obsessive with the remodel, but with all the death and destruction he’d seen in his life, he figured he was entitled to a little paranoia when it came to his home.
Reaching the refrigerator, he grabbed a beer; the light on the microwave told him what he’d already suspected.
Two fucking hours of sleep. It was more than he got on most nights, but that didn’t make it any less frustrating. Twisting the cap off the bottle, Caleb circled back through and went into his bathroom.
He started the glass-enclosed shower, turning the water on as hot as he could stand it. Catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror, he turned, as if seeing a stranger. His hands shook as he leaned in, nose to nose with his reflection. He cursed, clutching the edge of the vanity like a lifeline.
Tiny lines wrinkled around his eyes, giving him the look of a man older than his thirty-five years. His hair stuck out in all directions on top, the result of his hands pulling through it, no doubt. His tanned skin had paled considerably.
He deserved all of it, he supposed. Every nightmare, every minute of sleep missed. He’d lost control and men had lost their lives. His men.
Filled with disgust, he snatched his beer, brought it to his lips, and drained it dry. It wasn’t enough to dull the pain in his leg, the constant reminder of his failure all those years ago.
After a quick shower, he threw on some gym shorts and his favorite running shoes and headed for the treadmill. He preferred to run outside, but not at two in the morning in downtown Austin. He’d rather be out at the tactical training facility he and his siblings owned. The thousand-acre compound offered a lot of wide-open space, but he didn’t feel like driving the hour it took to get out there. Besides, maybe he could still exhaust himself into at least another hour or two of sleep.
Back in the main living area, he stepped on the machine and started it up. A quiet hum filled the room, but was soon smothered by the drum of his soles against the tread. He settled into his pace and hit the button to start up his iPod. Music blared to life, pouring from hidden speakers throughout the room. The pounding bass and fierce guitar urged him faster, helping him work through the pain now screaming through his left thigh. Sweat formed and trickled from his temples, purging toxins if not his sins.
His cell phone rang out, replacing the music with its shrill tone. The special display on his customized treadmill indicated it was Alec, his youngest brother. Caleb punched a button, not breaking his stride. “Do you have any idea what time it is?”
“I know exactly what time it is, Cay.” Alec’s voice reverberated through the living room. “Just like I know you’re on the treadmill again.”
“Nothing wrong with a little workout. You should try it.” Caleb backed off his pace a bit. He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t happy to hear his brother’s voice. His family kept him grounded. Kept him sane. Even when they annoyed the crap out of him.
“Have you seen my abs lately?” Alec joked. “Keep running, old man. Gotta stay in shape if you want to keep up with a young stud like me.”
Caleb rolled his eyes. “You called at this hour to give me shit? I’m hanging up.”
“No, wait, don’t hang up,” Alec rushed. “I need your help.”
“It’s, uh, well —”
“Spit it out, Alec.”
“I need your help with Samantha.”
Samantha Quinn. The last thing Caleb wanted to do was talk about his sister’s best friend and gigantic pain in his ass. Right after getting his eyes gouged out and his fingernails removed. And he certainly didn’t want to talk about her while his skin still vibrated with echoes of the past.
“Can’t this wait?” he snapped, glaring at the ceiling speaker housing Alec’s voice.
“What’s she done now?”
“She hasn’t done anything. Jesus, Caleb. You really need to get off her ass. She called me for a ride and I’m worried about her.”
Great. Just fucking great. Calling Alec for a ride meant she’d been drinking and was probably causing all kinds of trouble in whatever honky-tonk she’d landed. Someone needed to put a leash on that woman.
“And how is this my problem at three in the morning? If you’re so worried, go get her. Better yet, call her a cab.”
“It’s not that simple and you know it.”
Nothing was ever simple where Samantha was concerned. Not since the day Alec had introduced her to their baby sister, Amanda, who—lost in grief over the deaths of their parents—had been stuck with three older brothers who had no idea how to help her.
Not since the day he and his brothers had charged the woods on horseback, searching for the two teenage girls who had snuck off to drink their fill in secret. That little outing had started Samantha’s incessant need to refer to them as the Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Only now it was four, with Amanda’s new husband, Joe, added to the mix.
A full set.
Caleb clenched his teeth, remembering Samantha’s words.
And damn sure not since the day Samantha had earned herself a stalker by using her law degree to help the battered wife of a powerful man disappear.
His workout ruined, Caleb mashed the button that slowed the machine to a stop. Not waiting, he braced his palms against the handles and lifted his upper body, spreading his legs and settling his feet outside the slowing tread. He grabbed a towel and slung it over his shoulder.
“What do you want, Alec? Because if you’re about to ask me to go pick her drunk ass up, you called the wrong number. Call Brandon or go get her yourself.”
“You’re such a dick. Brandon is at the compound training a group in night surveillance techniques, which you damn well know.”
Shit. Of course he knew. That was all his other brother seemed to do lately—work. Other than himself, Brandon was the only one of his siblings to have joined the military and was closest to him in age. They had come up with the idea of Martin Tactical together, both with a driving need to stay sharp, even out of the game. It was also a way to keep the family together. Close. Where Caleb could watch out for them. Protect them.
“Would you rather I call Amanda? You know Joe won’t let her make that drive alone. Not to mention it would take her well over two hours to get there.”
Caleb sank down on the sofa, putting his head in his hands. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. All he wanted was a moment, just one moment of peace. Was that too much to ask? He wiped his head and neck before leaning back into the cool leather, draping the towel across his legs.
Amanda was the whole reason he tolerated Samantha in the first place. If she hadn’t gotten through to Amanda after their parents died … well … Caleb shuddered to think how different things could be today. For that alone he owed Samantha a debt. And it looked like he was about to make another payment.
“And besides, you’re closer.” Alec’s sing-songy voice grated on Caleb’s nerves.
“You don’t sound too concerned.”
“I mean, I’m a
concerned. After the vandalism at her office and the break-in at her apartment … of course I’m concerned. But this is Sam we’re talking about. She can take care of herself. She’ll be mad as hellfire that I sent you but…”
“But?” Caleb prompted when Alec went silent.
“She doesn’t have anybody else, Cay. She’s my friend and Amanda loves her. Brandon likes her too. Seems it’s just you that has a stick up your ass when it comes to her and, although I have some theories about that, I’d rather you just go get her and take her home.”
“You still haven’t told me why you can’t go pick her up. She called you.”
“I’m working. Being productive. And by the time you’re done arguing, I could’ve sent Amanda. In fact, she’s online working with me right now. So, what’s it going to be, Caleb?”
Jesus, doesn’t anybody in this family sleep? And Alec was right. He was acting like a complete ass, which seemed to be his normal state where Samantha was concerned.
Caleb leaned forward, bracing his forearms on his thighs. He rolled his head on his shoulders. “Fine. I’ll go. Where is she?”
“A place called The Five Crowns. Somewhere out 71. You heard of it?”
Caleb cursed. Was nothing sacred? Of course he’d heard of it. It was
place. A shitty hole in the wall where he could always find a drink, a fight, or a friendly card game—depending on his mood. It was a place where a man could blow off some steam. Wasn’t it enough for her to make his life miserable? She had to take his private hideaway as well?
“Yeah, I’ve heard of it. I’m on my way.”
* * *
Almost twenty minutes had passed before Caleb turned onto the all but hidden dirt road. Another ten minutes passed before he pulled into the grave
l lot in front of The Five Crowns. How had she found this place anyway? Knowing the clientele, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
Motorcycles, parked side-by-side, lined the front of the bar. A few trucks were scattered around, causing him to wonder where Samantha had left her car. That could explain how she’d found the place. She’d hitched a ride with someone. He really hoped he didn’t have to fight some drunk asshole tonight.
The men who haunted this bar were a good lot, always willing to give Caleb a fair fight when he had energy to burn. He’d had his ass kicked in this parking lot almost as many times as he’d kicked ass. And then they’d go back inside as if nothing had ever happened. He had a feeling it wouldn’t end as well with Samantha in the mix.
It took him all of three seconds to locate her. There were at least ten men, every patron in the bar as far as he could tell, hovering around one table. Samantha’s bright auburn hair stood out in the sea of denim and black leather. She was bent forward, the sorry excuse for a top she wore gaping open as she studied the cards on the table.
Caleb turned toward the bar and smiled. The tiny, dark-headed minx behind the bar was one of the few people he enjoyed being around. She’d owned the bar for as long as Caleb had been coming here. She wasn’t one of those annoying people who tried to get up in his business. She didn’t push. She served his drinks, took his money, and didn’t take his shit. He’d seen enough to know he didn’t ever want to end up on the business end of the shotgun she kept behind the bar. Or the baseball bat.
“Hey, Rosanna,” he said as he approached, walking around to the end of the bar so he could sweep her into a bear hug. “Everyone behaving themselves tonight?”
“Everyone but me, you big ox,” she teased and gave him a quick squeeze. “Now, put me down before you ruin my reputation.”
Caleb’s laugh rang out, deep and husky. He placed her on her feet and stepped back, putting a few feet between them. “We wouldn’t want that now, would we?”
“I’d never recover from the gossip of being tagged with the likes of you. All other men pale in comparison.” She fisted her hands over her heart in dramatic fashion.
“I do what I can, baby doll. What’s a guy gotta do to get a drink in this place?”
She winked. “You do know how to give a girl ideas, don’t you? But instead, how’s about you just order one? I’d say that’s the easiest route to getting your drink.”
Her brows shot up and understanding dawned in her eyes. “Right.” She reached down, twisting off the cap and sending it flying toward the trash as she put the bottle in front of him. She jutted her chin toward the crowd. “You’re here for the redhead?”
He didn’t even ask how she’d guessed that. Caleb turned around to find Samantha’s gaze on him. Even in the poor lighting, he could see the furrow of her brow as she scowled at him. If she thought that would intimidate him, the woman was crazy. The fact that she was here, alone, pissed him off. She was tough, sure. But could she hold her own against a bunch of drunks twice her size? Her sense of self-preservation was severely lacking—something he’d discuss with her once he got her in the truck.
He turned back to Rosanna. “Yep. You reckon I’ll be able to get her away from that mob without any trouble?” He took a casual swig from the bottle.