She senses he's in danger because of his past.
If only he could remember why…
Ava Wallace feels safe in her remote cabin—until a wounded man collapses at her door. He remembers being a marine, but he has no idea who left him for dead or how he ended up in the mountains of Wyoming. As the stranger begins to recover his memory, he and Ava begin to trust each other. But every recollection brings them closer to a deadly revelation…
From Harlequin Intrigue: Seek thrills. Solve crimes. Justice served.
Release date: July 27, 2021
Print pages: 256
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A Stranger on Her Doorstep
Luke Broughton pumped his brakes as the center line on the asphalt was gobbled up beneath the wheels of his SUV, in case it was the sharp curves and steep inclines of this mountainous highway that had caused his brakes to fail. But he knew better. He knew it in his bones.
Somebody wanted him dead.
A clearing in the trees to his left gave him a glimpse of the two black SUVs on the road above him. They were in hot pursuit, maybe a half mile behind his location. Another hairpin curve and they’d be on his tail. Until then, it was only a matter of time before his unchecked speed sent him flying off the edge of the road at the next turn he couldn’t make.
He’d raced LAVs on the sand-swept roads in the Middle East and over the sparse terrain of the Afghan mountains. But this was no Light Armored Vehicle, and the Teton mountains in northwestern Wyoming were a different sort of beast. Higher, steeper elevations. Better roads but sight lines blocked by towering pines and aspen in the full leaf of summer. His knuckles whitened as he gripped the steering wheel and careened around the next curve, his rear tires fishtailing onto the shoulder before he regained control. Beyond the guardrail, there was a steep drop to the next cutback on the road. Or maybe it fell off into a rocky creek bed. Or an endless chasm filled with trees and granite outcroppings.
He tried downshifting, but his transmission had locked up on him. Definitely sabotage. Done by somebody who knew their business around ways to accidentally silence anyone who got in their way.
Luke laid on his horn when he saw the turkey vulture feasting on the carrion at the side of the road. The large black bird spread its enormous wings and reluctantly hopped back and floated out of harm’s way as Luke plowed through the carcass. That was going to be him in about sixty seconds if he couldn’t come up with a way to slow down the out-of-control SUV.
He cursed his own damn luck before risking taking one hand off the wheel to tap the front pocket of his jeans. The mini thumb drive was still there. Thank goodness he’d made himself a copy. Everything else he’d done since yesterday morning had been one rookie mistake after another. He’d been thinking like the civilian he’d been for a mere eight months, not the seasoned warrior who’d survived tours of duty overseas and fought his way through tangles of bureaucratic red tape when he’d been stationed stateside, putting together security units for the Marine Corps. Whistleblowing was a dangerous business. He should have known the illegal dealings he’d uncovered went deeper than his initial suspect.
That next turn was coming up fast. He checked his rearview mirror. The two SUVs were on the straightaway with him now, bearing down on his position. He knew what was coming—what he’d do himself if their positions were reversed and he’d been given the assignment to stop the escaping enemy by whatever means necessary.
The irony of it all was he’d been hired by Bell Design Systems to be the man driving one of those black SUVs. He hadn’t realized he was the odd man out—that the enemy was someone he’d trusted, one of the men or women on his team, someone who should have had his back instead of chasing down his runaway vehicle on a remote mountain road with the express purpose of taking him out.
He steered around the next curve, careening into the guardrail and peeling the paint off the passenger side of his SUV as metal screeched against metal. He wondered if the guardrail was secure enough to stop his momentum, or if he’d have better luck turning the car into the ditch and rock face on his left. Risk sailing into the unknown or smash into solid granite? He didn’t like his options. Even if he survived a purposeful crash, he’d have to pray he didn’t flip the vehicle, and that he could get out fast enough to take out the other men or lose them in this vast, verdant wilderness he wasn’t all that familiar with. Although he wore a gun strapped to his belt and another in an ankle holster, he had no idea how many men were in those vehicles besides the drivers. He could shoot. He could fight hand-to-hand. But one man against a potential army was never good odds.
He swerved into the oncoming lane, overcorrecting the curve, and glanced ahead at the road signs indicating a trio of tiny towns and a descent that was only going to get steeper.
“Think, Broughton.” How do I survive this?
He should have checked the SUV before starting the engine and leaving the Ridgerunner Lodge, the fancy executive resort retreat owned by BDS on the southern end of Jackson Hole between the Snake River and Bridger-Teton National Forest. Less than a year out of the Corps and he was getting soft. Why had he agreed to meet the security chief, CEO and other company muckety-mucks in the remote location instead of corporate headquarters in Cheyenne?
And neither of those had been his first mistake. He’d handed over the evidence he’d uncovered to a source he hadn’t checked and checked again. This wasn’t the Corps. In the Marines, he’d trusted his senior officers without question. But he was a civilian now. His supervisor? The company bosses? His coworkers at Bell Design Systems? He hadn’t personally vetted them. They hadn’t gone through the same training he had at Quantico or Lejeune. They hadn’t shared the same deployments or worked with a smooth-running team at Camp Arifjan or Fort Leonard Wood. The chain of command was clearly a lot sketchier in the civilian world, and he’d exposed his position like a damned private who hadn’t seen battle yet.
He swore again as the speedometer crept past the eighty-mile-per-hour mark. More than thirty miles above the recommended speed limit.
The SUVs behind him were picking up speed, too. Tinted windows and the need to control his own runaway vehicle kept him from identifying his pursuers.
He suspected he’d stumbled onto something big when he’d run his security check on the executives visiting from China. He was too good at his job. Too thorough to ignore the red flags of classified communications that indicated someone within the company had a private agenda for meeting with their guests this weekend. Although he hadn’t been able to pinpoint the source of the communications, the cryptic emails had been clear enough. This meeting was more than a scenic tour of Yellowstone and Teton National Park, with a couple of days set aside to lay the groundwork for a legal trade agreement. Someone intended to illegallysell BDS weapons technology to the Chinese. Maybe not the Chinese government. But there were enterprising souls on both sides who intended to turn a tidy profit at the expense of military and civilian lives right here in the US and among its allies. Technology meant to improve the side Captain Luke Broughton, USMC Retired, had fought for going on fifteen years before the old injury to his right leg and one concussion too many had forced him into early retirement. They’d offered him a desk job until he made lieutenant colonel, but he couldn’t see staring at four walls and paperwork for another four years. He’d been raised in the Missouri Ozarks. Hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, anything outdoors, had always been his calling until a savvy recruiter had sold him on four years of college and a career serving his country.
Taking the job on the security team at Bell Design Systems had ticked all the right civilian boxes. He couldn’t beat the Wyoming-based company for a location this close to the mountains and all the outdoor activities he loved. And, in a way, he’d felt like he was still serving his country, working for a firm that developed technology used primarily by the military and law enforcement. He wasn’t the brains of designing the tech. But his recent military experience made him an experienced consultant, and his background with base and advanced guard security gave him the perfect skill set for being part of the multibillion-dollar company’s security team.
Luke sailed around the next curve and felt his inward tires leave the road.
“Options, Broughton,” he ground through clenched teeth. He needed options.
He was screwed unless he found an exit ramp or gravel road that would take him back up the mountain at an easier slope, slowing his speed enough to jump from the vehicle.
He felt the first tap to his bumper. The SUV skidded from lane to lane, but Luke fought to maintain control.
Oh, yeah. These bastards wanted him dead.
He’d survived explosions, a knife fight and a shattered leg. But you blow one whistle on someone who’s supposed to be one of the good guys and there was hell to pay.
Maybe this was how he was going out.
But damned if the enemy got to win.
He had the backup evidence in his pocket. Even if he was dead on the side of the road, those maniacs would pat him down and take whatever they wanted so that not even the undertaker could trace their illegal activities. Or maybe they’d plant something on his body. Make him the scapegoat in case their scheme became public knowledge.
He needed to protect himself. He needed to get the information through to an outside ally who could help. He needed to complete this mission.
Luke pushed his gun aside and dipped his fingers into his pocket to pull out the thumb drive. This was going to hurt like a son of a gun going down, but it was the only way to secure the evidence. He jammed the data stick into his mouth and swallowed.
When the first black SUV tapped his bumper again, Luke only had one hand on the wheel.
And that was all she wrote. There was no recovering from the skid this time. He slapped both hands on the wheel, but it was too late.
The SUV tilted onto two wheels, hit the guardrail and bounced back across the road. He steered into the skid but sped off the shoulder into the ditch. A tree ripped off the side mirror and the front fender glanced off the rock wall, flipping the vehicle back onto the road.
Luke smacked his head against the window despite the airbag deploying. The seat belt locked up across his chest, stealing the air from his lungs. The crunching sound of metal was deafening. Sparks on burning asphalt stung his nose. His vision blurred as the SUV tumbled and tumbled. He blacked out for a few seconds before the SUV rocked to a halt.
He was nauseous, disoriented when he came to. Sharp, bruising pain made it difficult to catch his breath and his head felt like a spongy mess. Two men dragged him away from the wreckage. But he was sentient enough to know that this was no rescue.
The men dropped him with a thud on the side of the road between the twisted bulk of his SUV and the mangled guardrail. He tried to raise his eyelids and peer through his lashes, but he couldn’t focus. He was on his back, looking up at a platoon of men gathering around him.
Faceless men in suits and ties. Even in his groggy state, he knew that wasn’t how the enemy dressed. Had he been taken hostage? Had he been tortured and lost consciousness? Had his LAV hit a roadside bomb? Where was the rest of his team?
There were hands on him, and he was being searched. They removed his phone. He nearly retched when they rolled him and took his wallet. He felt a pinch at the back of his neck and knew they had ripped off his dog tags.
His eyelids were too heavy to keep open now. But he was still conscious enough to mentally assess his injuries. Another concussion. The coppery taste of blood at the corner of his mouth. Something stabbing him inside.
Radio for backup. Extraction! Extraction!
He had a vague notion that help wasn’t coming. The enemy had him at their mercy. But the color of the world he’d glimpsed through his lashes was too green for Afghanistan or Iraq. The Hurt Locker never had a cool breeze like the one whispering across his face.
Suicide bomber must have made it past a checkpoint. Snider! Martinez! Sound off! Where were the rest of his men?
“It’s not on him,” he heard a voice say. “Maybe he didn’t make a copy.”
“He’s too smart not to.” That sounded like the man in charge. “I don’t want anyone to link the body to us. Grab his gun, too. If the authorities ever find him, they’ll be able to track him by the serial number.”
“What about his car?”
“I’ll take care of it.” A third voice. Who were these men? Soldiers? Guards?
“It’s a company loaner. Take it apart in case he stashed it there. We’ll erase his name from the records.”
That wasn’t military talk. This wasn’t right. He wasn’t in the Corps anymore.
But damned if he could force any of this to make sense.
Gravel crunched the pavement beside his ear as someone stood over him, casting a shadow over his face. “I could have used a man like you. Too bad you couldn’t see my point of view. I could have made you very rich.” The shadow left and sunlight washed over his face again. “Put a bullet in his head and make this all go away.”
Shake it off. Clear your head. How are you going to survive when the enemy captures you?
He heard multiple footsteps and a car engine turning over. He heard someone calling for a tow truck. They didn’t do that out in the field.
Where was he?
What was happening?
Who were these men?
How did he get hurt?
How are you going to survive?
His CO’s advice echoed in his head. He’d been trained to fight. To give the enemy grief. To do whatever it took to stay alive and complete his mission.
Forcing his leaden eyelids open to a swirling blur of blue sky and green treetops, of twisted metal and rocky outcroppings and pinpricks of light that pierced his brain, he took in his surroundings. Car wreck. A sliver of understanding warred with the pinpricks of light for control of his brain.
Shadows of men walked to another vehicle. There was nothing to his left beyond the grassy edge and some wildflowers beneath the shredded guardrail that had done its job to save him from certain death. He could feel the bulk of metal in his boot. A gun. If he could reach it... The world spun into oblivion when he tried to move. He quickly squeezed his eyes shut and breathed deeply, willing himself to stay conscious. Staying awake was the only way he could fight.
Put a bullet in his head and make this all go away.
He needed options. Now.
Option A. Was there any way he could reach his gun and stand his ground here on the road? Hell, he wasn’t even sure he could stand.
Option B. What lay in the abyss below his line of sight? Was he physically able to make a run for it? Was escape a possibility?
A shadow fell over him again. He heard the unmistakable sound of a bullet being loaded into a chamber.
“You’re awake?” His would-be killer hesitated. Yeah. It was a hell of a thing to look a man in the eye when you pulled the trigger.
The man squatted beside him and pressed two thick fingers to his neck. Then he muttered a curse at determining he hadn’t cooperated by dying for him. “Nothing personal, Captain. Orders are orders.”
The man pushed to his feet and took aim.
Luke rolled. He bet every heartbeat left in him that he wasn’t plunging to his death as he slipped beneath the guardrail and tumbled off the overhang into the abyss.
The man with the gun swore.
He heard the crack of a gunshot, ...
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