What Zoe knows can get people killed . . . and she might be at the top of that kill list . . .
Zoe Kealoha's work as a military scientist was supposed to change the way America hunted terrorists. It should not have made her a target. But it did. Now, if she has any hope of surviving, she needs help. She needs her boyfriend Gage—the man who, up until now, had no idea what she actually did for a living . . .
Gage doesn't really care what Zoe's been up to in her lab. All he knows is that he'll stop at nothing to keep her safe. And if he has to take on every rogue operator in the world and use every tool in his Marine Special Forces arsenal to do it, so be it . . .
If they want to make it to happily ever after, Zoe and Gage will have to weave their way through a high-stakes game where no one can be trusted. It will not be easy. But whoever said international intrigue—or love—would be easy?
Contains mature themes.
Release date: December 1, 2017
Publisher: Fiona Quinn
Print pages: 445
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Listen to a sample
Dabbur zann ala kharab esshoh
The buzzing of the wasp brought ruin to its nest
~ Egyptian Proverb
Zoe twisted her body into a new position under her blankets. Tugging the covers up under her chin, she desperately wished for sleep to overtake her anxious, over caffeinated mind. She squinted at the clock readout glowing from her bedside table, calculating. It had been forty-two hours since she’d last closed her eyes. And even that had been a nightmare-driven sleep, leaving her worse off than when she’d gone to bed.
That night, her flip-flopping and moaning had propelled Gage from her side. He’d stomped across her room, pulled on his pants, and headed home to “actually get a little shut-eye.” She hadn’t heard from him since. Zoe rolled over to punch at her pillow, trying to find a restful position to curl her body.
He didn’t answer my text.
Her friends had warned Zoe about seeing a new guy just as she’d signed contracts to start a lab project, especially one this big and this time sensitive. But first off, Zoe didn’t like to be told what to do. And second? Gage was a Marine Raider, an elite special operator, with a highly capable warrior’s body. Why shouldn’t she have a little indulgent pleasure to balance out the stresses of her day? Days. She hadn’t slept for days.
Metal on metal, a scrape sounded at Zoe’s front door, followed by the slow moan of unoiled hinges. A smile curved her lips as she imagined Gage sauntering in to her apartment to answer her request for some stress relief.
Good. This is exactly what I need.
She sat up, regretting having pulled on Gage’s sweats to wear to bed. She flipped her covers to the side. It would be nicer if he found her in something lacy…or maybe nothing at all. Zoe gathered the hem of the black hoodie to tug it off, but whispers from the living room stilled her hands. More than one set of heavily booted footsteps stole over the wooden floor, followed by the scratch of a drawer sliding open.
Zoe froze. Her mind was on fast forward, but the joints of her body held tight, as if rusted and ineffectual. Her brain screamed at her arms and legs to move, to grab a weapon, to hide. Something. Anything.
As she cowered there, her ears worked to dissect the moth-like movements down the hall. She registered the sound of each leaf of paper as it was lifted and rejected. She had a good idea why someone had broken into her condo. Her liaison, Colonel Guthrie from DARPA—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the R and D arm of the US military—had warned her to take extra security precautions, but she had scoffed at the idea. Few people actually knew what Zoe did for a living, and as long as she was tight-lipped, she thought she was safe. She was foolish, was more like it.
This could be an ordinary breaking and entering, she tried to reason. But her gut refused to be that naïve. Everyday robberies didn’t happen on the twentieth floor in a secured high-rise. When the intruders were done sifting through her desk, surely they’d come and wrench answers from her. Zoe couldn’t handle pain. She wasn’t a hero. She’d tell them everything.
Straining against her fear-paralysis, Zoe slid off the bed. First her toes, then her knees found the rug. As she pushed and forced herself into action, her brain whirled, feeding her information. She knew that her limbic system was working hard to keep her alive. Though letting off the brake on her body’s movements would go a far distance in helping her. Ironic that the system meant to save her was probably going to expose her instead. Her mind whirled with odd tidbits of information that she knew couldn’t be random. Her brain was sifting through data it had accumulated in its twenty-eight years of life and was thrusting certain stories forward. Survival strategies.
The loudest message came from a book she had read about Nazi Germany. The Jews, in hiding, would gather all of their bed linens and turn the mattresses over so the Gestapo wouldn’t feel the warmth from where their bodies had lain. Zoe eyed the crumpled linens on her queen-sized bed. She forced her arm to smooth the covers into place and shake the pillow so it looked like a sloppily made bed. She snagged her phone from the nightstand as she pulled her arm back to her side. The effort left her panting.
Her unyielding lungs had lost their elasticity. In the ninth grade, her friend, Hope McBride, stood in front of the class to give a speech and stopped breathing until she turned red, then blue, then passed out on the floor. That’s how Zoe had learned the phrase anxiety induced syncope. The idea of passing out with intruders in her apartment was even scarier than her current panic, so Zoe worked to suck more air up her nostrils.
Hide. She had to hide. Zoe let gravity pull her the rest of the way to the floor. The sheepskin rug muffled the sound of her collapse. She rolled, tugging her body past the green dust ruffle until she lay under her bed. It was hide-and-seek 101—the very first place anyone would search. Her body iced at the thought.
Light waves, her brain whispered. That was how the intruders would become aware of her. Her body mass would stop the light from hitting the rear wall. Move. Move now! The best she could do was to swivel and align her hips with the far corner of the bed, letting her legs extend out the length of the wall; her torso stretched across the headboard. She glanced down at the phone clenched in her fingers and drew a blank on whom she should call for help. Someone from DARPA? The Pentagon? Zoe was learning to hate adrenaline. Thoughts refused to crystalize. Pulling up her recent calls, hoping for inspiration, she saw FBI Special Agent Damion Prescott’s name and tapped out a text that read: SOS. She pressed send, then quickly squeezed the button to silence the ringer.
Zoe listened past her panting. The guest bedroom door scraped open. Then the bathroom. They were getting closer. Zoe toed the elastic at the ankle of Gage’s sweat pants over her feet. She turtled her head and hands into the perspiration-soaked hoodie to hide her skin. The number 9-1-1 suddenly surfaced and floated to the top of her swirling thoughts. She dialed.
“9-1-1. Where is your emergency?”
Zoe wanted to jump through the phone and throttle the man for answering so loudly. “Shh. Listen.” She managed to say just as her bedroom door snicked open. Zoe pushed the phone into the front pocket of the hoodie, hoping the dark fabric would hide the screen light. Her body was traitorously loud. Her pulse swished rhythmically in her ears. Her heart rate galloped. Her breath came in ragged gulps. Zoe knew they would hear her. And if they didn’t hear her, they would surely smell her as her adrenal glands forced fear stench through her pores. The intruders would drag her out from under her bed. Then they would…
Before Zoe’s brain formulated a prediction, a loose floorboard squeaked as someone moved into her room. The bedroom light clicked on and exasperated voices conferred. She heard someone move toward her closet and the whoosh of hangers being thrust aside. Zoe stopped breathing. A hand shot under her bed. Fingers splayed wide, it swished through the air before it pulled back out again.
As foreign words in deep male voices jumbled their syllables together, Zoe tried to pick out what language the men were speaking. There was a pause in the men’s discussion, then in heavily accented English, “She isn’t here. Her bed hasn’t been slept in.” He was on his cell phone. “Yes, okay… Be there in five.”
The front door whined on its hinges. “Hey, Zoe. I’m here.” The sexy grin in Gage’s voice pried open Zoe’s jaw and dragged a horrified scream up her throat.
Gage’s reaction was instantaneous. Suddenly thrown back to his days in the Middle East when he’d be laughing in the streets with his buddies then shot at from behind, his survival instincts didn’t need priming. He was on the starting block ready to jet into action. Gage raced down the hall.
A man in tactical gear with black face paint distorting his features filled Zoe’s bedroom door. A long blade glinted in his hand. Without breaking stride, Gage’s heel shot out to catch the guy’s knee, forcing it backward. The intruder’s arms flew up for balance. Gage slammed his fist into the tango’s throat, crushing his windpipe.
As the hostile collapsed, Gage caught movement in the bedroom’s far corner. An unsub, identically suited up, sprang toward the fight. Gage leapt over the dying man to get his feet clear of obstruction. The second tango depressed the button on his stun gun. Sparks crackled as he descended on Gage. Gage blocked the man’s arm, twisting his body inward and exploding out in a back fist that broke the man’s nose. Gage’s boot settled on the man’s stomach as he push-kicked him out of reach, driving the man into the highboy. The intruder’s head whipped back with his momentum, cracking against the sharp edge of the wooden lip. Gage hurled himself forward, wrapped his fingers around the man’s trachea and squeezed until the threat had been neutralized.
Gage pushed back, winded by the exertion. He scanned the room, then shot through the condo, scouring the place for any other intruders.
Returning to the bedroom, he reached under the bed and dragged Zoe out into the open. Her body was slack; her skin gray. He held shaking fingers to Zoe’s carotid artery, muttering a prayer under his breath that he’d find a pulse. In the field, he never felt fear when he killed the enemy or saved a victim—the fear came when he thought he’d lost someone from his team, his family.
With the steady thrum of her heartbeat under his fingertips, Gage sucked a lungful of air through his nostrils and sent a cloud of stress back out past his lips. He slapped his fingers lightly against Zoe’s cheek. “Zoe? Hey there, Zoe. Open your eyes.”
Her mahogany hair shifted back and forth, the long strands tangling in her eyelashes as she roused from her faint. Suddenly, Zoe’s lids opened wide with shock. She scrambled to her knees, fists raised protectively. “Gage?” she whispered, as if not trusting what was in front of her.
“It’s me, Zoe. You’re safe.” His heart beat furiously against his ribs, pumping blood to his muscles, held at the ready. His face was contorted into the brutal scowl he wore into battles. He worked to relax his stance, to take the violence out of his eyes, so Zoe could feel secure.
Zoe’s gaze shifted to the intruders in their heaps of wayward body parts. Gage watched her eyes lose their focus and roll back in her head. Her body seemed to melt. Clapping iron hands onto her arms, he lowered her onto the rug. “Zoe, it’s going to be okay. You’re safe.” He put conviction into the words he hoped would bolster her, but his warning antennae buzzed. He didn’t really know if she was safe or not. “Stay with me, Zoe. Come on. Deep breaths.”
She nodded and sucked in a lungful of air. He focused on her body, sprawled limply in front of him. His hands swept methodically over every inch of her as he looked for blood or other signs of trauma. “Did they hurt you, Zoe? Did they touch you?” His mind tried to grasp why two armed men were in Zoe’s condo.
“No, I hid.” Her words rattled between chattering teeth.
Gage pushed to standing. He kicked the black military-issue bag lying near the bureau. Zip-ties, a prison hood, and a neatly folded field stretcher scattered across her floor. He kicked the bag again to reveal a plastic bag with syringes and a vial of transparent liquid. In one stride, he towered over the second man he had killed. He pulled his phone from his pocket and took a picture of the tango’s face, then one of his profile. Gage scrolled through his apps list and pulled up his fingerprint display. Using the hem of his shirt to cover the man’s hand, Gage rolled the guy’s thumb and index finger onto the screen.
“They were here to kidnap you?” Gage stooped to gather the same identification info from the guy lying in her the doorway. “Why would they want to do that?” Gage dipped his head as he checked the guy’s pulse, to be doubly sure that there was none.
“Kidnap?” Zoe tried to jump up, but fell forward onto all-fours, her stomach heaving.
Gage shoved his phone back in his pocket and wrapped his arm under her hips. He half-carried, half-dragged Zoe to the bathroom. As she hunkered over the toilet, sirens sounded in the distance. Zoe pulled her phone from her pocket and whispered, “Thank you. I can hear them coming.”
Gage read the numbers 9-1-1 on the screen before she tapped the red dot to disconnect, leaning with a moan back over the toilet bowl.
“It’s going to be all right.” Gage smoothed a hand over her hair and gathered the strands into a makeshift ponytail away from the bile Zoe was gagging out. “I’ve got you. You’re safe.”
Funny, but as many times as he’d said that out loud, his words held zero conviction. He had been through enough crap on his special ops missions that he’d learned to trust his instincts. And right now, every cell in his body said this was just the prelude.
Zoe tilted her head to the side and swiped the back of her wrist across her mouth. Her skin, which was normally sun-kissed tan, a gift of her Hawaiian ancestry, was still pale and clammy. Gage pulled off his jacket and tucked it around her. She plopped onto her bottom and pulled his jacket tightly about her shivering frame as she squirmed backward and hunkered against the bathroom wall like a hurt animal.
A fist hammered against her front door. “Police. Open up.”
Gage put a steadying hand on Zoe to make sure she wasn’t going to keel over and smack her head into the tub, then made his way to the front door.
“Hands. Hands!” The officer shouted with his finger twitching near the trigger of his holstered gun. Gage laced his fingers, planted his hands on the top of his head, then took two slow paces back to give the officers space to move into the condo. Gage followed the gaze of the cop in front as it landed on the contorted leg of the dead man at the end of the hall. The cop rolled Gage and slammed him up against the wall. Gage’s hands flew out and smacked against the drywall to stop his nose from being crushed. A forearm pressed into his back and his feet were kicked to widen his stance. Nervous hands patted him down, yanking his knife from his waistband.
“Special Agent Damion Prescott, FBI.” Gage heard at the door. He wished he could turn his head to see, but the officer’s hand splayed across Gage’s scalp, fastening him in place with what felt like the officer’s full weight.
FBI? Gage’s mind went to the reasons why tonight could have possibly played out like it had, and all he could come up with was that the Zoe he thought he knew was not the real Zoe. She must be involved in some pretty deep shit. As the officers introduced themselves as responding to a 9-1-1 call for help, Gage let those thoughts float around in his head. Testing them out. He couldn’t believe for a second that Zoe would do anything outside of the law. Nope. He wasn’t buying it.
Prescott, judging from his institutional looking suit, moved past him to stick his head around the bathroom door. He swung his focus toward Gage. “Is she hurt?”
“She’s in shock.” Gage didn’t move from his wide legged stance, his cheek crushed against the wall. “She needs an ambulance.” He heard one of the officers in the front room call for a paramedic.
Prescott pushed farther into the apartment to stand in front of Zoe’s room. “The apartment was searched and secured? Only two?”
“Yes, sir,” Gage responded.
“Would you let him off the wall already?” Prescott asked the police.
When the officer released him, Gage gave himself a shake.
Prescott looked past him toward the officers, who had tripled in number since Gage had opened the door. “This is a case of national security. The Bureau will be along for the ride.”
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