No Regrets cover

Delta Force, Book One

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No Surrender

Renowned cryptologist Noelle Blanche refuses to have blood on her hands. So when the military asks for her help in a covert operation, she refuses – until masked gunmen raid her home and threaten her life. Suddenly it’s all too clear that the blood spilled may be her own. Noelle has no choice but to trust the dangerous stranger sent by the military to safeguard her. A stranger who is everything she detests, everything she fears…and everything she desires.

No Looking Back

Former Delta Force operative David Wolfe thought he left it all behind—the horror, the hurt, the guilt. But now the men who savagely murdered his wife have set their sights on a brilliant cryptologist who can lead them to the cache of weapons they prize. As passion ignites between David and the woman he’s sworn to protect, what began as just a mission escalates into the fight of his life. But can he prevent history from repeating itself?

No Regrets

The last thing ex-cop Trent Brady needs is more blood on his hands. Yet when he catches Elise breaking into her sister’s house, full of reckless determination and fear, he knows she needs his help. But just as desire ignites between them, a twisted madman sets his sights on Elise. Hell-bent on possessing her for himself, this psychopath won’t rest until he has his perfect woman.

Sample Chapter

Chapter 1

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Chapter One

David Wolfe’s past caught up with him in the parking lot of a small-town grocery store in the Rocky Mountains. Late November sun warmed his dark hair but did nothing to rid him of the chill of foreboding that sank into him with every step he took toward his former commanding officer.

Colonel George Monroe lounged against David’s Jeep, blocking his escape.

“What are you doing here, sir?” asked David, his tone sharp with displeasure.

Colonel Monroe regarded David with a steady stare that would have made a less confident man go pale. Monroe’s once-black hair was shot steely gray with age and he had the emotionless eyes of a man who’d seen too much suffering in one lifetime, but in his white knit shirt and khakis, he looked more like a retired golfer than he did a commander in of the world’s most elite, secretive fighting force.

“You’re a hard man to find, Wolfe,” said Monroe.

“I wasn’t wanting to be found, sir,” replied David. “I’m surprised that you got this far.”

“We traced the money you sent your sister for her son’s surgery.”

David spat a searing curse. He’d wired the funds from over a hundred miles away under an alias of an alias of a man who didn’t even exist. Monroe should never have been able to find him.

Unless he’d really been working at it.

Ripples of unease slipped down David’s spine. Whatever Monroe wanted from him, it couldn’t be good. Powerful military leaders like Monroe didn’t ambush former military men in grocery store parking lots just to catch up on old times.

“What do you want?” demanded David.

“We need you, Wolfe. There’s a…situation.”

“I don’t give a damn about your situation,” said David, purposefully adding a belated, “Sir.”

Monroe’s mouth twitched with a hint of a smile. “I see you haven’t lost your respect for authority these past two years.”

“No, but I’m about to lose my temper, so you’d best move away from my Jeep and find yourself another man for your situation. I quit Delta Force two years ago, remember?”

Monroe didn’t budge and David was quickly beginning to think that he was going to have to show Monroe just how much he’d learned in all those years of being under his command – training to fight with whatever was at hand, and when nothing was at hand, fighting with nothing. His body tensed as he sized up Monroe for a quick, efficient take-down.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Wolfe,” said Monroe as if reading David’s violent thoughts. “I’m not stupid enough to think I could take you on in a fair fight, so I brought back-up. There’s a sniper a hundred yards behind you in the trees. He’s not as good as Grant, but he’s good enough.” A brief, feral smile flashed over Monroe’s face.

David froze, suddenly feeling the weight of a lethal rifle aimed at his skull. If he touched Monroe, it would be the last thing he did.

“You’re a bastard, sir,” said David.

“So says my wife, but then she doesn’t know me like you do.” Monroe flicked a hand signal at the sniper and David recognized the command to wait – on alert. “I need you to take on an assignment and I’m not taking no for an answer.”

“Yes you will. I don’t owe you anything. I walked away with a clean slate. The only favors I owe are to Grant and Caleb and they’re not the ones asking.” David suppressed his guilt as he mentioned his two closest friends – the men he owed his life to countless times over. The men he’d walked away from two years ago, leaving them to carry on the fight for freedom without him.

Monroe tilted his head and looked directly into David’s eyes. He was one of the few men David knew who could really look at him and not flinch. “You’re wrong. You do owe me.”

The sudden softness in Monroe’s voice worried David. Men like Monroe were never soft – not with their wives or children and certainly not with the men like David who they ordered to the most hellish places on earth to kill some of the most vile people to ever draw breath.

“What the hell are you talking about?” asked David.

“I was the one who ordered the rest of Delta to stand down on your last op.”

Pain seared David’s chest at the mention of that failed operation and just how much it had cost him. His body shook and the groceries crunched under his tightening grip. Against his will, his eyes slid shut and he was forced to face the horror of his two-year old memories, still painfully fresh in his mind.

“You were the one who gave that order?” The lack of air in his lungs made the question come out as a thready whisper.

“I did,” said Monroe. “And I’d do it again today if faced with the same choice.”

Had David not had the small outlet of revenge Monroe had given him, he wouldn’t have lasted this long. The guilt would have eaten him whole.

“Were you court-marshaled?” asked David.

Monroe looked away, his gray eyes sliding uncomfortably to the woods behind David where the sniper waited for a sign to kill. “It doesn’t matter now. What does matter is that I need your help. I never meant to call in that particular favor, but I don’t have any choice. I need you to come back for this op. Lives are at stake.”

Bleak, painful memories flooded David’s head and he fought to hold them back – to stem the flow of blood, death and pain all cloaked in shades of nightmares.

“I won’t go back.” growled David, unfamiliar with the raw sound of his own voice. “I can’t. I lost too much working for you to ever go back.”

Monroe’s mouth flattened into a grim line. “The Swarm has resurfaced. They’ve started killing again.”

David was so shocked it rocked him back onto his heels. “That’s impossible. I killed them all. I torched the building and watched to make sure not one of them made it out alive.”

David relived every single moment of his last op in the space of a heartbeat. He felt the blind rage that had gripped him as he killed, felt the grim satisfaction of knowing that the Swarm would never hurt anyone again, felt the hollow emptiness of knowing that no matter how many men he killed, he couldn’t bring back the dead. Revenge changed nothing.

After several tense moments, David was able to rebuild the barrier on the part of his mind that was a tempest of chaotic nightmares – images that beat at his sanity until only a bubble-thin film remained.

“Four civilians are dead and the life of a young woman is at stake. I need you. She needs you.”

“You want me to protect her?” asked David in disbelief. “You must be desperate.”

Monroe pulled in a deep, weary breath. “You know the Swarm. You know their tactics. You also know what will happen to her if you fail.”

Seething, violent rage billowed up into David’s throat, leaving behind the acid taste of bile. For two years he’d thought that he’d taken out every one of the Swarm’s members. Before he quit Delta Force he’d made sure that they could never harm an innocent again.

He’d been wrong. For two years, he’d been wrong.

“Tell me where the Swarm is now,” demanded David in a near growl. “I’ll kill every last one of them myself.”

“We don’t know where they are. But we know what they want.”

“The woman,” guessed David.

Monroe nodded. “Dr. Noelle Blanche. Stick with her and you won’t have to find the Swarm. They’ll find you.”

A slow, ferocious smile curled over David’s lips. “Where is she?”

“We need to talk.”

Noelle Blanche jerked with a start and she turned around to see who had interrupted her concentration.

Professor Joan Montgomery, Noelle’s long time mentor and friend, stood in the doorway of Noelle’s cramped office, looking worried and slightly nauseated.

Joan had been one of Noelle’s undergraduate professors at the University of Kansas. She had given Noelle her first taste of Latin and because of Joan, Noelle’s educational destiny had changed. Her career path to mathematician had taken an exit toward linguistics and she’d ended up at some wacky rest stop called Assistant Professor of Applied Mathematical Linguistics.

Noelle forced a welcoming smile on her face, pushing aside the intriguing, vaguely Cyrillic script she’d just received in an email from a colleague in Russia. “I’m teaching Linear Algebra in fifteen minutes, but I have until then.”

Joan’s expression twisted with discomfort. “I’ve been sent by the dean to find out your final decision about that grant. He’s tired of waiting.”

Noelle stifled a resigned sigh. “I already told him I won’t accept any grants funded by the military.”

Joan tucked her graying, chin-length hair behind one ear, pulled out the orange, 1970s cast-off office chair and sat down. “Why not? You’re the only one in the department who can do the work. Hell, as far as I know, you’re the only one in the country who can do it.”

Noelle shook her head and shoved a hand through her red curls to detangle them from the hinge of her glasses. “That’s not true. There are at least four other people who know more than I do about that particular flavor of cryptology and two of them live right here in the States. It’s just a hobby for me. They do it full time.”

“They weren’t the ones the government offered oodles of grant money,” reminded Joan. “Apparently, you’re a lot more valuable than you think.”

Noelle made a rude, snorting noise. “My sister’s the smart one. Let them ask her. Or anyone else. Just not me.”

“Why won’t you do the work? It sounded fairly tame to me. It’s not like they’re asking you to build a bomb or something.”

“They want me to develop a mathematically-based encryption system for military use.”

“So?” asked Joan, frowning at Noelle in confusion. “Don’t you think you can do it?”

Noelle waved a pale hand, almost knocking over the Leaning Tower of Paperwork. “Of course I can do it. I’m already halfway finished with the algorithms because I couldn’t stop my brain from working on the puzzle while I was sleeping. I’ll have the solution in another two months, whether or not I want to know it, but that’s not the point.”

“Then what is the point? Because I’m not seeing how you turning down easy money is going to help solidify your position here at the university.”

“If I give the military a tool, they will use it. Eventually, they will use it offensively. When that happens, people will die and I’ll be partially responsible. I can’t do that.”

“If you don’t, someone else at some other university will,” said Joan, her face softening with understanding. “You’re brilliant, and it will probably take someone else five years to do what you can in two months, but eventually, someone will figure it out. Eventually, someone will give the military their tool.”

“But it won’t be me,” replied Noelle. “I won’t have that blood on my hands, even if it means I get fired.”

“Downsized,” corrected Joan with a grimace.

“Whatever.” It all meant that Noelle would be out of a job.

Silence filled the room, broken only by the faint buzzing of the cheap fluorescent light overhead.

“Not whatever,” said Joan. “Downsized.”

The apologetic tone of Joan’s voice caught Noelle’s attention. “They sent you to fire me, didn’t they?”

Joan’s dark eyes met Noelle’s green ones. “If you don’t accept this grant money, you’re going to be let go at the end of the spring semester.”

Let go. Noelle felt like her outdated chair had fallen out from under her. She probably shouldn’t have been shocked, but she was. It was one thing to think about the possibility of losing her job; it was entirely different to know it will happen. And when. “Are you sure?”

Joan nodded, making her short gray hair sway along her chin. “That’s why I was sent here. The department doesn’t want to lose you and your freakish brilliance, but we just can’t afford the additional expense right now. Since your salary comes out of the Linguistics Department budget, we had the final say. I’m so sorry.”

Noelle closed her eyes. What would she do now? Finding a job that didn’t require her to say, “Do you want fries with that?” was going to be nearly impossible. It wasn’t as if she had employers beating at her door, begging her to come to work for them. Mathematical Linguistics wasn’t exactly a booming field. Someone in an obscure career like hers would need months, if not years, to find another suitable position – likely one that would have to be built specifically for her. What would she do until then?

She had racked up tons of debt in student loans just to get her Ph.D. The loan payments by themselves were more than her other living expenses combined. She could hold off the bill collectors for a while, but she was going to need a decent income – not the kind she could make flipping burgers.

Noelle swallowed past the panic that clogged her throat. It was just money. She’d find some way around this obstacle.

“You could always take the grant,” suggested Joan.

Noelle wished it were that simple. She was sorely tempted to just give in and make her life a whole lot easier. But for someone who started college at sixteen, easy clearly wasn’t her modus operandi. “I can’t do that. It’s blood money.”

“Don’t be so dramatic,” scolded Joan. “No one’s asking you to hurt anyone. In fact, it’s entirely possible that doing this could save lives.”

“And if you’re wrong?” Noelle stood and shoved her laptop into its black nylon tote. “I can’t take that chance. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night wondering if my work cost the lives of innocents.”

“This is your career we’re talking about – your entire future rests on this decision.”

“Now who’s being dramatic?” scoffed Noelle.

“I’m serious. If you walk away from this grant, chances are you won’t find another position anytime soon. If you take the job, then you stand the chance of becoming famous in academic communities as the woman who revolutionized Mathematical Linguistics.”

Noelle rolled her eyes. “I’m sure they’ll write that on my gravestone, right next to the part about how I helped kill thousands of innocent civilians in some country where the children don’t even know what math is.”

“I can’t let you do this to yourself,” said Joan. “You’re too brilliant to slaughter your career because of something that might happen.”

“It isn’t your choice to make. You’ve been by my side, supporting me when everyone else pointed fingers and laughed at the scrawny kid with more brains than social skills. You are more than just my mentor, you’re my friend, but you can’t ask me to do this. I won’t be a part of killing, no matter how necessary some general thinks it may be.”

Noelle shoved students’ homework into her bag, refusing to look at the woman who had given her nothing but good advice and steadfast support.

“I’ll call you this weekend, after you’ve had some time to think,” said Joan.

Noelle didn’t bother to tell her that she’d already done all the thinking she needed to. Her mind was made up. And just to be sure she wasn’t tempted to change her mind when the financial panic truly set in, Noelle pulled her laptop back out from its case and typed the command that would kill every trace of data on her hard drive tied to the project. There was no going back now.

She’d be out of a job come spring, but at least she’d be able to live with herself and that was something no amount of grant money could buy.

Fired or not, Noelle still had a job to do until spring and she had just settled in for a wild Friday night of grading clumsily executed Calculus I homework when the lights in her tiny rental house went black. With a sigh that came all the way from her toes, she pulled open a drawer that held one of many flashlights in her home. She’d always been told that old houses possessed great amounts of charm and character, but in her experience, they simply possessed noisy plumbing, abundant drafts and faulty wiring. It was the third time this week that she’d blown a fuse in the house’s ancient fuse box.

Making her way to the basement more by memory than sight, Noelle descended the bare wooden stairs. With the speed of much practice, she unscrewed and replaced the same fuse she’d put in just two days ago. Mentally, she made a note to speak to Mr. Hasham about this problem when she paid him next month’s rent.

Even with the new fuse in place, the lights didn’t come on. That had never happened before.

Above her head came the crash of breaking glass, followed by the muted tinkle of brittle shards falling to the hardwood floor.

Noelle jumped with a start and then froze, listening. The sound had come from her back door.

Someone was breaking into her house.

Chapter Two

Noelle’s heart slammed around inside her chest as she fumbled to switch off the flashlight so she could hide in the dark basement. Overhead, she heard the slow, methodical step of at least two people walking over the floor.

She prayed that they’d just take whatever they wanted and go. As silently as she could, she tiptoed over the dusty floor toward the stairs. The basement was relatively empty and the only hiding place was behind the creaky stairway.

Noelle held her breath until her lungs burned, listening as the footsteps came near the top of the stairs. A beam of light flashed into the basement, falling on the spot where she had been standing only seconds before. In the center of the white pool of light sliding slowly over the floor was a tiny red dot – the kind cast by a laser pointer like she used when lecturing.

Or like the laser sight on a weapon.

Noelle sucked in a silent breath as the realization hit her. These weren’t just some punky kids out to make a few bucks off a stolen TV. Whoever was in her house was armed in a serious way.

Noelle heard the faint rattling of the batteries against the plastic case of the flashlight held in her trembling hands. The white spot of light swung to her left, casting the shadow of steps – like jagged black teeth – onto the floor near her feet. The red dot glowed brighter and she could see the streak of laser light bouncing off the dust particles floating about in the grimy basement air.

A soft gasp escaped her mouth against her will and blood pounded loudly in her ears. Noelle watched the white light, saw it gather and grow smaller and brighter as the wielder stepped onto the stairway.

The old wood of the top step creaked under the man’s foot. She could see his heavy combat boots through the open back of the steps as he descended.

Noelle tried to catch her breath as she shrunk back into the smallest space possible. She clutched the flashlight knowing that it was her only weapon. She knew also that it was going to be a poor match against men armed with real weapons.

A sharp pop, followed by a muffled thump sounded from what Noelle thought was her living room. The foot on the step moved, pivoting as if the man had turned around to look behind him. The column of light disappeared for an instant. She heard a grunt and the sickening crunch of breaking bone, then the body of the man at the top steps slowly tumbled down, bouncing limply off the hard edge of each wooden step.

When he landed at the bottom of the steps on the dirty floor, his dark eyes were open, staring right at Noelle.

She froze with fear. It took her several frantically fast heartbeats to realize that the man was dead. Most of his face was covered with a black knit ski mask, but she could see his eyes, glazed and fixed in death.

The small flashlight mounted to the top of his rifle cast a brilliant cylinder of dusty light against the wall immediately to Noelle’s left. The dust kicked up by his body landing on the dirty floor swirled in the air, clawing its way into her lungs. The need to cough strained her chest as she fought to remain silent.

The groan of old wood sounded directly above her head and her chin shot up in time to see a new pair of boots land stealthily on the top step.

This time the boots were larger.

The man moved down the steps staying to the outside edge so that the wood made as little noise as possible. Noelle forced herself to remain quiet, pressing a hand hard against her mouth and nose to keep herself from coughing. He moved with caution and a practiced grace that told her he’d done things like this before. A lot.

No flashlight was mounted to this man’s weapon, but now that he had descended down the steps far enough for her to see him through the wooden slats, she realize that he was wearing headgear – likely the Starlight scopes the military used for night vision.

He knelt down to the dead man at the bottom of the steps and pressed two fingers against the side of the fallen man’s throat. Even as he checked for a pulse, his eyes never lowered.

He plucked something from the dead man’s head and fitted it into his ear – probably some sort of communication device, she guessed.

He scanned the room and as soon as he spotted Noelle through his night vision goggles, his body went still.

Cold sweat slid down between her breasts. She clamped her fist around the plastic flashlight, gripping it as she would a baseball bat. Slowly she forced her trembling legs to straighten and began inching her way to the only escape – the steps.

“Dr. Blanche?” asked the man in a near whisper.

He knew her name. That had to be good, right?

“I’m not here to hurt you. I’m here to get you out before the bad guys can.” He extended a gloved hand. His body was entirely encased in black. Even his face had been smeared with black paint behind the eyeholes in his mask. He held the rifle with the unconscious confidence of a man that had spent a lot of time handling weapons.

She prayed he wasn’t lying. She wasn’t used to running on instincts, so hers were rusty, but they told her that he was telling the truth. He was here to help.

Intellectually, her best option was to make a break for the stairway to get out and let the police sort out good guys from bad. It was a good plan. Her only plan. But as if he anticipated her moves his body shifted so that if she wanted to get to the stairs, she’d have to go through him. She’d taken enough statistics classes to know the chances of that happening were almost as bad as her chances of winning the lottery.

Painful, ragged heartbeats punctuated her scattered thoughts. Above the thud in her chest came the faint creek of aging floorboards. Someone else was up there.

Noelle’s heart did a flip-flop and settled low in the pit of her stomach.

The man in front of her didn’t even flinch. He raised one gloved finger to his lips for silence and knelt down to switch off the flashlight of the dead man.

Instantly, the basement was plunged back into dusty blackness. Noelle’s eyes widened but there was simply no visible light available. She was blind.

Noelle resisted the urge to flip the small plastic switch on her own flashlight, and sweep away some measure of terror with the brush of light. She knew that would give away her position not only to the man here in the basement, but also to the one above.

Those rusty instincts screamed at her to get out of the house. Too bad they hadn’t started shouting five minutes sooner.

Cautiously, Noelle reached out a hand to feel for the stairs as she stepped forward. Before her first step had fallen, the man in the basement with her had crossed the distance between them, covered her mouth with his gloved hand and used his body to flatten hers against the brick wall behind her.

A startled scream bubbled with up in her throat, but his hand prevented the noise from escaping.

He bent his head down so that his mouth brushed against her ear. His words were a mere breath of sound, almost too quiet for even her to hear. “Be quiet and I’ll get us both out of here alive.”

Noelle had no idea what this was about or why these men were in her house. But one thing was for sure, no matter how much she wanted to flee, there was no way she was moving until he was ready to let her. Her body was pressed so tightly against the wall that she could feel the tiny serrations in the bricks behind her.

Noelle gave a tight nod to let him know the she would comply. Satisfied, he lessened the pressure of his fingers against her mouth. She pulled in a deep breath, which expanded her chest, bringing her closer to her captor. The heat from his body seeped through the knits of the multi-layered clothing she wore to combat her drafty house. She felt metallic bits of his military gear against her breasts and belly, along with the hard edges of a bulletproof vest. Her nose was level with his collarbone and she could smell the distracting combination of the leather of his glove and warm, male skin and cordite.

Another weary floorboard gave away the location of the intruder above. He was in her bedroom, and she could tell by the slow creak and groan, the intruder was searching for something. Or someone.

It was completely black in the basement, but Noelle could feel his steady, even breathing mingling with her own frantic, rapid breaths. If he was nervous, he certainly hid it a lot better than she did.

She found his confidence oddly comforting.

His body shifted, and she could feel the warm press of his mouth against the top of her ear. His wide, gloved hand still hovered directly over her lips. She didn’t doubt for a second that he’d be able to stop her from yelling before she even pulled in enough breath to make a squeak.

“Stay put,” he commanded in the low, gruff voice. “I’m going to clear a path to get you out of here.”

“But -“

His fingers sealed off her mouth, preventing any more words from escaping. “I know what I’m doing. I’ll come get you when the coast is clear.”

Before Noelle could argue anymore, he was gone and she was left alone in the darkness without even the faintest whisper of footsteps trailing behind him.

Noelle wasn’t about to be trapped in the basement again with an armed stranger. Her gut told her that man was telling the truth – that he really did want to help her. Logic told her that he was just one man against multiple, armed men. If he failed to clear a path, as he put it, she may well be left to her own devices to escape.

Using only memory to guide her, Noelle shoved the flashlight in her jeans’ pocket, held her hands out in front of her, and began to slowly inch across the basement floor. The dry, splintery surface of the wooden stairs scraped her fingers, but she refused to let go of the only object that could safely lead her to freedom. The toe of her tennis shoe bumped into something limp and heavy. The dead man.

She shivered in revulsion as her stomach clenched and she ground her teeth together to keep from vomiting onto the basement floor. Pushing the thought of corpses out of her mind, she knelt down and felt around the body until she touched the cold, smooth surface of his rifle. Being careful not to accidentally pull the trigger, she positioned her hands so that she could use the weapon as it was intended. Her fingers trembled and her skin was slick with the sweat of terror. She wasn’t sure that she could actually shoot someone, and she prayed that anyone looking at her wouldn’t instantly know that was the case.

From the floor above, she heard a pop and the heavy thud of a body collapsing. Fear slithered along her spine, as she wondered which of the men had fallen.

She prayed it wasn’t the man with the commanding tone and the smell of leather on his skin.

David picked up the weapon of the man he’d just killed. A quick glance through his NVGs confirmed his suspicion that the ammunition they were using was non-lethal. Tranquilizer darts.

The men after Dr. Blanche were not here to kill her. They wanted her alive.

The thought should have made David feel better about the situation, but then again, the Swarm had wanted many other hostages alive. At first.

Bitter memories churned in his head making his gut clench. He’d failed one woman and it cost her her life. He wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice.

He looped the strap of the confiscated weapon over his shoulder and headed back down the hall toward the main living area.

The door to the basement was open, as was the shattered kitchen door that led to the back yard. Cold, black air swept over the ancient tile floor and curled around David’s legs. The scent of burning leaves and wood smoke wafted on night wind, reminding him of campfires and countless frigid nights spent on frozen, enemy soil.

So far he’d taken out three men. The comm unit in his ear buzzed with another voice, frantically trying to locate his buddies. If David had been running their mission, there would be at least one more silent participant covering the outside of the house on the off chance that the woman would be able to escape the trap they had made of her home.

A shadow fell across the concrete slab just outside the kitchen door, giving away the presence of another man right outside. To his left, wooden stairs creaked and he knew that Noelle was heading right into the line of fire.

David crouched low, down to the right so he could cover her entrance into the kitchen. The matte black coating of his weapon and silencer blended into the shadows. If anything was going to give him away to his enemy, it would only be that he was a darker shape than the night that surrounded him.

Slowly, the enemy pivoted around the doorframe, making himself a clear target. Before David had time to squeeze the trigger, Noelle stepped out into the kitchen directly between David and his target.

With a silent curse, the muzzle of David’s weapon jerked toward the ceiling. “Get down!” He shouted.

The man in the doorway ducked and fired, hitting Noelle with a dart.

Noelle jumped and the rifle in her hands fell in a metallic clang on the tile floor. Her file stated she had no combat training, but, to her credit, it only took her a split second to respond. She spun around toward sound of his voice and ducked low, covering her head with her arms.

David heard the hollow thud of the second tranquilizer dart as it exploded from the end of the rifle and sunk into Noelle’s flesh.

She yelped in pain and reflexively ripped the dart from her arm, tossing it on the kitchen floor as if it were a live snake. Clumsy fingers swatted the remaining dart from her arm, but it was too late. The damage was already done. Her body wobbled unsteadily as the drug began to take effect. David rose from his crouch, leveled the gun, and squeezed off two rounds in a double-tap. The bullets hit the target one half inch above each eye socket.

Even before the dead man had landed on the ground, David lowered his weapon and went to Noelle. Her fingers were pressed over the injuries on her arm. A dark spot spread out over the thin pale fabric of her sweatshirt – likely more drug than blood considering how quickly she’d shed the second dart. The first one, however, had stayed in long enough to do its job and the drug was already coursing through her system.

David didn’t dare remove his NVGs to check her injury. There wasn’t much time before she’d be unconscious and he needed her awake to complete the second part of his mission.

Noelle’s eyes rolled around loosely in her head, which she moved as if it were too heavy to support.

None too gently, David took her by the shoulders and gave her a shake. “Don’t leave me yet, Noelle,” he commanded in a quiet growl. “Where is your research?”

She squeezed her eyes shut and opened them wide, trying to focus on his face. “My laptop,” she managed, jerking a hand toward the small desk in the living room.

“Where do you store your records?”

Her eyes slid shut and David reached for the hypodermic pen that contained a stimulant powerful enough to keep her awake for a few more minutes – long enough to get the information he needed. He’d had the pen dosed for someone lighter than himself, but his hand wrapped around her slender upper arm told him that the dose wasn’t small enough. He’d seen surveillance photos of Noelle, but he hadn’t expected her to be so slight under her baggy clothing. Even the reduced dose could make her OD.

Save the woman at all costs. We need her alive.

His orders had been crystal clear. Had they left even a shadow of a doubt that he’d have to be responsible for another woman’s death, he would have walked away from the assignment and not looked back.

David stowed the drug and gave Noelle’s slim shoulders another shake. “Where are your papers? Your records?”

Clumsily, her mouth worked to form words. “No paper,” she mumbled. “Here.” Noelle tapped a limp finger against her temple.

Her eyes glazed over and her face went slack. She was out.

“Shit,” David cursed, hoping she wasn’t just bragging about having her work in her head. It would make his job a hell of a lot simpler if he didn’t have to go on a search and destroy mission as well as a rescue mission.

Before any more visitors appeared, David scooped her up and positioned her over his left shoulder in a fireman’s carry so he could still fire a weapon. He ripped the laptop cords from the wall and shoved the whole octopine mess into the travel case nearby.

As soon as his burden of limp woman and laptop were settled, he raised his weapon and headed for his truck.

Only one enemy remained, guarding the get-away vehicle. When David’s arm jerked slightly as he fired two silenced rounds into the man’s throat, Noelle didn’t even stir.

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