Forest “Phantom” Dalton always finishes what he starts. And the mission to rescue a Peace Corps volunteer is no exception. With or without his SEAL team, he’s going to find and bring Kalee home, no matter what the cost to himself.
** Securing Kalee is the 6th and final book in the SEAL of Protection: Legacy Series. Each book is a stand-alone, with no cliffhanger endings.
Release date: September 22, 2020
Publisher: Susan Stoker
Print pages: 366
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Phantom sat in his room in Casa Hinha, a hostel in Dili, the capital city of Timor-Leste. He and his team had stayed here when they’d rescued Piper and her three little girls from the orphanage high up in the hills.
He couldn’t help but agonize over the fact that while they’d been waiting for Piper’s passport and for the adoption paperwork to be sent in, poor Kalee Solberg was probably going through a living hell.
He shouldn’t have left her. No matter what protocol dictated. She’d been alive, and Phantom had abandoned her.
Staring off into space, flashbacks flew through his brain, and it felt as if he was back in time, experiencing the moment again.
Bodies. At least two dozen. They were piled on top of each other in the hole. Thrown there as if they were trash to be discarded. Flies were everywhere.
And the worst of it was…most of the dead were children. Little girls who’d been shot. “Is that Kalee Solberg?” Rocco asked quietly.
Phantom didn’t say a word; his jaw flexed as he desperately tried to hold himself together.
“Pretty sure, yeah,” Rex answered just as quietly. “It’s kind of hard to tell, but the red hair matches and her skin’s lighter than that of the locals.”
“We need to get her out of there,” Phantom said in the silence that followed Rex’s words. “We promised to bring her home.”
All four of the other men nodded. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but their mission was to get Kalee out of the country, and even though she’d been killed in the raid against the orphanage, they still had a job to do.
“How do we want to do this?” Rocco asked.
Phantom opened his mouth to respond when a loud burst of gunfire echoed from the jungle around them.
“Shit!” Rex swore at the same time Rocco flipped the safety off his weapon.
“There’s no time,” Ace said. “We have to get out of here.”
“We can’t leave her,” Phantom argued. “I’ll meet you guys back at the village.”
They could hear shouts nearby. The rebels were way too fucking close for comfort.
“We aren’t splitting up,” Rocco said, grabbing Phantom’s arm. “We need to go.”
“She’s our mission. We can’t leave her!” Phantom repeated, pulling against his friend.
“She’s gone, man,” Bubba reasoned urgently. “We can’t get down the mountain with her body and get Piper and the kids out. We’ll come back and get her after the rebels are taken care of.”
Phantom wanted to protest further. He wanted to jump into the hole and grab Kalee’s dead body right that second. But he was also a well-trained Navy SEAL. He knew when the odds were against them.
He turned back to the hole and stared down at Kalee’s lifeless form once more. She was lying face down on top of the pile of small bodies. Her feet were bare, and she wasn’t wearing a shirt.
A muscle in Phantom’s jaw ticked again, but just then, they heard the sound of men talking in the distance. They were going to have company soon. There wasn’t any more time to discuss whether or not they could get into the mass grave and get Kalee out to carry her home. The SEALs were trained to fight. But they had no idea how many men were headed their way, what kind of firepower they might have, and they had four innocent civilians to protect. They had to leave. Now.
Phantom blinked. He remembered that moment as clear as day. But it had taken him months to recall the most important part of that scene. He’d been on the brink of death in a helicopter in Afghanistan. Avery Nelson, Rex’s woman, had been trying to distract him from the pain in his leg. She’d ordered him to think about anything other than what was currently happening, namely, that they were being shot at by insurgents. And of course, Timor-Leste had popped into his head.
“Think of something else,” Avery ordered. “Anything else. Then tell me about it. Every little detail.”
Phantom stared up at Avery. He wasn’t really aware of anything else around him. All he could do was stare into her eyes.
“When we were in Timor-Leste, and I found that pit of bodies…I couldn’t look away,” Phantom told her.
He didn’t think Avery knew what the hell he was talking about, but she didn’t miss a beat. “How did it make you feel?” she asked.
“Pissed off,” Phantom said between clenched teeth. “All I could see was little legs and arms. It wasn’t fair, there was no reason for the rebels to kill all those children.”
“Then what happened?” Avery asked when Phantom didn’t continue.
“We heard the rebels coming. They were laughing and shooting at who knows what as they walked toward the orphanage. I was livid that they sounded so carefree, when the children in that pit could no longer laugh at all.”
“Did you kill them?” Avery asked, leaning over so she was almost nose-to-nose with Phantom.
“No. We had to leave. Get Piper and the kids away. I looked back once more though and— Holy shit!”
“What?” Avery asked. “What did you see?”
This time when Phantom answered, his gaze moved from Avery’s up to Rex’s, who was still hovering behind him, holding his shoulders. “Kalee moved! Her foot wasn’t in the same place it had been when I’d first seen her.”
Phantom saw Rex stiffen. He knew his teammate wanted to tell him that he was wrong. That the Peace Corps volunteer they’d originally gone to Timor-Leste to rescue had been dead. But whatever Rex saw in Phantom’s eyes kept him silent.
“Kalee was alive!” he said in an anguished tone. “That’s what’s been bugging me about the mission. It wasn’t about failing, not entirely. Subconsciously, I saw proof she wasn’t dead yet—and we still left her there!”
Now, Phantom was back in Timor-Leste. It was months too late, but he wasn’t going to leave the country without her again.
After all this time, Tex had found proof that she was alive. He’d sent a thick file to Commander North, who had in turn shared it with Phantom.
Everyone involved in the mission to save the Peace Corps volunteer felt some sort of guilt that they’d left her to be captured by rebels. Phantom knew that was the only reason his commander had allowed him to review the files.
While everyone felt badly about the situation, the United States Navy wasn’t authorized to go into Timor-Leste to search for a woman who, if intel was correct, had joined forces with the rebels and was terrorizing the native citizens.
The pictures Tex had somehow obtained were grainy and unfocused, but Phantom had known he was looking at Kalee Solberg. Her beautiful auburn hair had been cut extremely short, she was carrying a rifle, and was smack dab in the middle of a group of men who’d been identified as rebels fighting against the Timor-Leste government.
Phantom had memorized as much information from the file as he could. He knew Kalee’s birthday, her height and weight, her passport number, social security number, where she was last seen, and numerous other details about her.
He also knew her father still thought she’d died all those months ago and was currently living like a hermit, hardly ever leaving his large mansion.
He’d stopped taking his meds after Kalee had first been presumed dead, going off the rails and kidnapping little Rani, thinking she was his daughter. Piper and Ace hadn’t pressed charges, understanding that because he’d stopped taking his medicine, his schizophrenia had hijacked his mind. He was doing much better, back on his meds, but he lived a solitary life, retiring from the company he owned and keeping to himself.
Phantom’s superior officers had ordered him to stand down, to not do anything rash, like jetting off to Timor-Leste by himself to try to save Kalee. He’d agreed, and had asked for a month’s leave. His leg still gave him issues every now and then from where he’d been shot in Afghanistan while rescuing Avery from insurgents.
Phantom had called a SEAL friend who was stationed in Hawaii, and he’d found a small beach shack up at North Shore that Phantom could rent for a month.
Commander North had been wary, but after he’d spoken to Mustang, the other SEAL, and he’d verified that Phantom really had contacted him and the arrangements for housing were made, the older officer had relented.
Feeling a little guilty that he hadn’t spoken with Rocco or any of the other guys on the team, Phantom had left late one night and flown to Hawaii. He knew his team was going to be furious with him for what he was about to do, but he pushed that to the back of his mind. What was done was done. He’d deal with the consequences when he arrived back in Southern California in a month.
For now, Phantom was sitting in the rundown but clean hostel near the coast in the capital of Timor-Leste. He’d already visited the American Embassy and spun a tale of his girlfriend losing her passport. He’d given them all her details, and said he’d return with Kalee in a day or two so she could pick up the replacement document.
Phantom knew Kalee was last seen in the northwestern part of Dili. The rebels had come down out of the mountains and had set up a type of camp there. The citizens had been forced out of their homes and the rebels were currently engaging in raids on the government buildings on that end of the city.
They were more a nuisance than a real threat at this point. The Timor-Leste government had mostly quashed the rebellion and were basically ignoring the final resisters, hoping they’d give up and fade away into the night.
Phantom’s plan was to wait until it was dark, then head out to where the rebels were known to be hunkered down and find Kalee.
After that, his plan was a bit vague. He had no idea what frame of mind Kalee would be in. Reports had claimed she was willingly taking part in raids, brandishing a rifle and threatening citizens. But Phantom didn’t believe it.
Kalee had come to the country to be a Peace Corps volunteer. All her spare time had been spent at the orphanage where they’d found Piper, along with the three little girls she and Ace had adopted. He didn’t think a woman like that would turn into a cold-blooded killer in the months she’d been in the company of the rebels.
But then again, people coped differently in extreme situations. Phantom didn’t like to think about what tortures she’d been through. He wasn’t optimistic enough to believe she hadn’t been hurt—physical, mentally, and sexually—by the lawless group of men she’d been seen with. But he hoped she had the inner fortitude to be able to rise above it.
Phantom sat on the floor in the middle of the small room he’d been given, trying to clear his mind to prepare for what was to come. He wasn’t used to acting alone anymore. He’d come to depend on his SEAL team to not only have his back on missions, but to talk things through with and plan.
Even though it had been his decision to go to Timor-Leste on his own, he missed them. But there was no way in hell he was going to ruin their careers the way he was ruining his own. At this point, there was no turning back. He’d gone over and over the maps and knew he could complete this mission by himself. That it was the best way. He’d be much less likely to be seen than if the other SEALs were there too.
It was pitch dark when Phantom silently slipped out of the hostel and headed for the rough part of the city where Kalee had last been seen. Tex had provided maps to the commander, giving Phantom a very precise place to start looking.
He had all the information he needed stored inside his head. While he didn’t have a gun, he’d picked up a wicked-looking sharp knife with a six-inch serrated blade when he’d arrived in the city. He didn’t need a gun; he could kill just as effectively with the knife.
But his plan was to use extreme stealth. He wanted to slip into the lion’s den and steal Kalee away without anyone being the wiser. Phantom knew the chances of that happening were slim, but that was definitely plan A.
Dili was a bustling city during the day with people everywhere, but at oh-three hundred in the morning, it was eerily quiet. Phantom didn’t run, simply walked with purpose. He didn’t want to bring any unwanted attention to himself. While there weren’t many people up and about to see him, the last thing he wanted was for someone to call the local cops and alert them to his presence.
It took around thirty minutes for Phantom to get to the part of town where Kalee and the rebels were holing up. It only took another fifteen to find the building he suspected she was in.
His heart was beating fast and hard in his chest. Phantom silently thanked Tex for his thorough report. Without it, there was no way he’d have been able to pinpoint the exact building he was currently surveilling. It was a dilapidated concrete structure that had certainly seen better days. Phantom wasn’t sure there was even an intact roof over the two-story building.
Moving with the stealth his nickname suggested, Phantom kept to the shadows and made his way to the west side of the building. He cautiously peered inside and saw at least ten men sprawled all over the floor. They were snoring—or passed out drunk, if the beer cans he saw strewn around the place were any indication.
But more worrying was the number of rifles scattered throughout the room. All it would take was one wrong move and he had no doubt they’d be up and ready to kill in seconds.
Looking around, Phantom realized he’d seen the vines that snaked up the side of the concrete building before. When they’d been in the country escaping through the jungle with Piper and the children, the vines had been everywhere. They were thick and almost impossible to cut through. Phantom should know; he’d tried.
Without making a sound, Phantom reached for one and tugged. Hard. The leaves on the vine rustled, but didn’t budge.
Smiling, Phantom slowly began to climb upward, using the vine as if it were a rope. Within seconds, he was hovering outside an open window on the second floor.
Peering in, he saw there were significantly fewer occupants up here. In the dim light, he thought there were only three.
The odds of him being able to fight three men and come out on top were much greater than the dozen or so on the floor below. Of course, if any of the men up here made any kind of sound, it would bring the others running, and he’d be fucked.
Using his upper-body strength, Phantom easily swung himself up and over the windowsill and silently stepped onto the wood floor. He stayed crouched down for a long moment. Waiting. Watching.
When no one moved, he slowly eased his way across the floor.
Everyone he’d seen in the house, and in Tex’s grainy photos, had been wearing black pants and a black shirt, the unofficial “uniform” of the rebels. Two rebels had their backs to him, facing a wall, and a third was on his back, one arm flung over his head, and slight snores coming from his mouth.
Knowing every second that passed was one second too long, Phantom moved toward the two rebels against the wall. He didn’t dare turn on a light, and the closer he got, the harder his heart beat.
He was prepared to search the entire house, but it looked like luck was with him for once—he’d recognize Kalee Solberg’s red hair anywhere.
It might be cut short, but no native citizen from Timor-Leste had hair that color.
Kalee wasn’t moving, and for a second, Phantom had a flashback to all those months ago when he’d looked down at her from above the mass grave. He’d been looking at the back of her head then too. But this time, he wasn’t leaving her behind. No way in hell.
Phantom moved silently toward her. This would be tricky. He had no idea how she’d react. The bottom line was that, while Phantom didn’t think she was working with the rebels willingly, there was always a chance he was wrong. And if he was, he might not make it back to the States to face the consequences of his actions.
* * *
Kalee lay on the hard wooden floor with her eyes closed, but she wasn’t sleeping. She never slept well. Ever since her nightmare had started, she rarely slept through the night. For the most part, the rebels had left her alone for the last few months, deciding it was more fun to rape and torture the women in the houses they raided than bother with Kalee, who no longer resisted. But that didn’t mean she trusted them. No way in hell.
They’d shown from the very beginning that they had no morals, and they took great delight in forcing her to do everything they demanded.
At first, she’d defied them every chance she got. After trying to run away for the fifth time, Kalee had been beaten so badly, she’d almost died.
She’d lain in the dirt, unable to get up or defend herself, when the first man came toward her with an unholy look of lust in his eyes. Kalee was barely conscious as the man raped her…and surprisingly, when he was done, no one else came forward to take a turn.
Later, she’d learned the man hadn’t been able to ejaculate, and he’d blamed her. Calling her the “red devil” because of her hair color. And no one else had wanted to risk their manhood enough to take her by force. She became grateful for that moniker.
In that moment though, the pain from the beating was so bad, she’d just wanted to die. But they hadn’t let her, of course. They’d hauled her up and forced her to walk to their next camp. She hadn’t been able to see out of one eye, and the other was almost swollen shut. One arm had definitely been broken, and she hurt so badly all over that she hadn’t been sure she was going to make it.
Despite that, it had taken a few more beatings for Kalee to truly learn her lesson.
Now, if she kept quiet, did what she was ordered to do, she was mostly left alone. The men she was forced to keep company with were still quick to strike, to get her to move faster or be quieter, but it was almost as if they’d become bored with her presence. Most of the time lately, she could get through a day without being spoken to at all.
She still thought about escaping often, especially after they’d arrived in the capital city, but flashbacks to what would happen to her if she failed kept her terrified and compliant. She couldn’t go through another beating.
And she couldn’t allow anyone else to die because of her. She’d kill herself first.
But every day, she prayed the rebels would be taken captive by the Timor-Leste military. Surely she’d be separated from the men, and that would give her a chance to tell her side of the story. To maybe convince someone she wasn’t really a rebel, and they’d let her go home.
It was a pipe dream, but that was all Kalee had to live for now.
Though, she still had the option of orchestrating her own death. It wouldn’t be hard. Provoke the rebels enough and they’d surely kill her. Or she could step in front of one of the rifles during a raid and be shot. She’d also thought about jumping out the window of this crappy house, but it wasn’t high enough; she’d only hurt herself and be forced to continue on, even with a broken leg.
Besides, Kalee didn’t want to die. She wanted to live. To get home to California. To see her dad and Piper again. She had no idea what her life would be like; she was definitely fucked in the head now. But she wanted to live.
As Kalee lay on the floor, she thought she heard a sound behind her. Every muscle in her body tensed. She wouldn’t put it past one of the rebels to attack her in the middle of the night. They’d all gotten drunk as hell last night, and sometimes when that happened, they’d get horny and want relief. With her “red devil” reputation and her efforts to fade into the background, they usually found someone else to force themselves upon, but there was always the chance a rebel would be drunk or desperate enough to take what he wanted.
She was about to turn over to confront whoever was sneaking up on her, but Kalee didn’t get the chance...
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