CECELIA CLARK is a fighter and the only daughter of a retired Army Ranger who taught her at a tender age that violence is necessary for survival. It was a thorough education that she would suppress until the day arrived when she would require his lessons to save her own life and the lives of those she holds dear.
While tackling the decision to take back her cheating husband—millionaire attorney Brice Harrington—she bumps into British SAS soldier turned MI6 operative Gordon Hale. Their inopportune encounter is cut short before they can be introduced when Hale is pulled away by an ongoing operation, unbeknown to a disappointed Cecelia. Certain that they would never meet again, she reluctantly agrees to join Brice on a getaway to Greece for a last ditch attempt at reconciliation. But his efforts to win her back are impeded when she is kidnapped by a hired assassin who takes a perverse interest in her.
Upon his return to London, Hale learns that his father was murdered and leaves behind everything to settle the score. His bloodstained road to retribution takes him to Greece where he stumbles across a missing persons flyer. After recognizing Cecelia’s photo, he stops at nothing to save her and finish his personal mission of vengeance.
Hale follows the recovering Cecelia back to America, watching over her from a distance. But the continuing threat against her life forces him to come out of the shadows and join with her father and his elite unit of former Army Rangers—codename Armor Team—to protect Cecelia at all costs. But after uncovering a long buried secret that leads them to the reasons behind the attacks, it’s Cecelia’s protectors who must keep their enemies safe from her.
SHE AWAKENED TO a pitch-black room that was so thick with darkness she couldn’t see her hand in front of her face. Her back lay against the hard, grainy surface beneath her and the urge to shiver came over her as she felt the cold air biting her skin. While wrapping her arms around herself she felt her bare chest and then her uncovered stomach and legs. She was completely naked. The coarse ground scraped against her back as she sat up. Her earrings, wedding rings and even the ponytail holder that she used to tie her curly, shoulder-length hair back had also been removed along with her clothes. She took a quick self-assessment and felt a strange soreness on the side of her neck. It was tender to the touch and she was sure that there was a bruise.
Cecelia Clark had no idea what time of day it was or how long she’d been asleep. The grogginess and nausea she felt led her to the assumption that she’d been drugged. She could have been unconscious for a few hours or a few days. And who knows what could’ve been done to her while she was so helpless. Considering the fact that her neck was the only part of her body that ached, she assumed that her kidnapper hadn’t gotten around to doing much of anything to her…yet.
She stood up shakily and held out her hands in front of her. Then she started to walk forward slowly. After three unsteady steps her shin bumped into something hard and she backed up a pace. Feeling her way around the short hard object she came to another obstacle.
She felt the cold metal of vertically aligned bars and ran both hands across them back and forth, then downward until it met the dusty, stone floor. Standing upright, she pushed up on her tiptoes and felt more bars above her running horizontally. Following them to the other three walls, she confirmed what she already suspected, drawing the conclusion that she was locked in a cage meant for beasts like the one who put her there.
On the last wall she discovered the cage door. As she searched for the locking mechanism she heard the snap and clunk of a bolt sliding, but it wasn’t the lock to the cage. Suddenly the harsh, grating sound of a door creaking open filled the darkness. A fan of light spread across the floor and then the black silhouette of her abductor moved in ominously like an eclipse.
A mix of anger and terror ran through her mind as her heartbeat started to race against her thoughts. Cecelia’s fingers curled and tightened into fists as her breaths shallowed and quickened and her nails dug into the palms of her hands. She heard a soft step moving towards her, then a second and third step and finally the door scraping against the stone floor, as it slammed shut bringing her back into complete darkness.
While raising her fists in front of her in a fighting stance she heard four pings. It sounded like buttons being pressed on a phone or the keypad to an alarm system. Then there was a clicking sound followed by the squeak of friction between metal. The cage door was opening. She didn’t hear it close. She didn’t hear any more steps. She didn’t hear anything but the beat of her own heart jackhammering inside her chest as the darkness swirled around her.
And then with no warning at all, she felt the tight grasp of a gloved hand around her throat hauling her backwards until her back crashed forcefully into the hard, cold bars. She grunted and winced at the sting in her shoulder blades. She grabbed the wrist of the gloved hand as it squeezed tighter around her throat and followed the leather material to the thumb. She attempted to pull it in hope of twisting it and forcing the grip loose, but the drugs in her system made her too weak.
Reaching in front of her with the other hand, she searched in the darkness for his face, for something soft and vulnerable that she could get a grip on, but all she felt was a hard, mechanical mask. He was wearing night vision goggles so that he could see her without her being able to see him. Scraping at the device, she tried to lift her knees to attempt a kick to the legs or groin, but her muscles were not responding to the adrenaline rushing through her. Her lack of sight and wooziness put her at a great disadvantage. He grabbed her pesky hand and pushed it into the crossbar above her head. Cecelia tried to speak or scream, but she couldn’t access enough air to support either function.
Out of desperation and will of spirit, she managed to grabbed his thumb with her other hand and twisted it outward forcing the gloved hand to loosen its grip. Gasping for air, she released the hold and tried to hunch over but he pressed his forearm across her throat and held her up against the bars. A feeling of warmth brushed against her cheek and then her ear and she realized it was his breath. He was close enough now, she thought and thrust her knee towards his groin. He blocked it easily and pushed her knee to the side with his own. Then he slipped his hips between her legs and pressed against her.
“Are you afraid?” he whispered menacingly.
“No,” she coughed defiantly as she struggled to pull air into her lungs.
He pushed his body back and choked her again with both hands, squeezing harder. “You should be.”
NORTHERN VIRGINIA (SIX MONTHS EARLIER)
THE LAST PLACE twenty-six-year-old Cecelia Clark wanted to be was at her brother-in-law’s wedding. The young, entrepreneurial Marymount University graduate had been separated from her monogamy-challenged husband for only a week when the invitation arrived. And yet she robotically had her assistant, Kelly, send in the RSVP accepting the invitation for Mr. and Mrs. Brice Harrington, an entity that she felt no longer existed.
The excuse that Brice recited before he left still rang repeatedly in her head like the clangorous bells from church steeples that announced when someone was dying. And while she stood in line for a large chai tea at Café Colombiano, the idea of seeing him stand beside his younger brother, Brendan, on the altar with pride, bearing witness to the same vows that he had once pledged at their own wedding made her mentally nauseous.
As she brooded over the head-throbbing disgust she felt for Brice, she spotted his brother entering the café. She hoped that the large pack of patrons would cloak her from Brendan’s attention as she accepted her tea from the barista, but in spite of Brendan’s devotion to his fiancé he never let a good-looking woman go unnoticed in a crowd, especially if she was the woman he’d been covertly coveting for the last two years.
“Cece!” cried Brendan from across the café.
Cecelia froze at the sound of his voice as if his call was a lasso wrapped securely around her, holding her in place.
“Fuck!” The whispered expletive grazed softly against her full bottom lip as she seriously considered taking off in a full sprint through the door. Instead, Cecelia lifted her face from a frown to a simulated smile and turned to face him.
“Brendan,” she said as she raised her brow, “Hey.”
“Hey yourself,” he grinned, awestricken by her beauty. “It’s been forever. How are you?” Grabbing her upper arms he pulled her into a tight embrace and pecked her on the cheek. It was obvious to anyone who knew Cecelia well—and that was a short list—that she would have gladly preferred a real lasso laced with flesh-eating acid to the physical contact.
“I’m great,” she lied. Every muscle in her body tensed from the conflict of her natural reflex to recoil and her obligation to endure it. When he finally released her from the torture she breathed out and relaxed long enough to give him a half-hearted smile.
“You look great.” He stepped back and soaked her in. The sandy brown ringlets falling free from her loose bun framed her lightly bronzed skin and complemented the golden hues in her irises. His eyes fell to her silk blouse and knee length umbrella skirt and then rose to her awkward smile. “My brother’s such an idiot. I apologize for his severe lack of good judgment.”
“Don’t. It’s not your fault.”
“Actually…” He paused as he felt a familiar nudge against his arm. “Hey, honey,” he said to the pretty, petite blond by his side holding two coffees. Her pale blue eyes investigating the faintly familiar looks of the perturbed half-Latina.
“Kim, you remember my sister-in-law, Cece?”
Cecelia smiled in attempt to appear nonthreatening.
“Oh!” Kim’s territorial countenance relaxed as she handed Brendan his cup of coffee. “Of course. Cece, it’s great to see you again.”
“It’s great to see you too, Kim.”
She reached up to hug her and Cecelia flinched as if bracing for a second collision. Kim Chambers was not as strong a hugger as her fiancé. And the half-foot difference in their heights made it difficult to get much contact below the shoulders. She patted Kim lightly with one hand at the top of her scapula, accepting it as best she could, considering her abhorrence of the act.
Cecelia had not come from an affectionate home like Brice and his brother, fully equipped with a gentle and compassionate older sibling like their sister, Angela, and two competitively doting parents. Where she grew up, displays of affection had been understated and infrequent. It was no wonder why she’d run away looking for more. And she’d run right into Brice Harrington and his family of cheek-pecking huggers.
“Kelly accidentally RSVP’d,” she explained as they sat down at a recently vacated table. “I really didn’t plan on going. I mean I didn’t think I would be welcome with everything going on with me and your brother.”
Brendan frowned. “Cece, no matter what, you’ll always be family. You’ve got to know that.”
Her brow rose up as her lips formed a perfect oval. “Oh,” she said with surprise. “I appreciate that, Brendan. I really do. It’s just that I’d rather not run into Brice and his mistress.”
“That I can understand,” said Kim.
“Have you guys met her?”
Brendan nodded. “You’ve met her, too.”
“Brendan dated her for six months,” Kim explained, “before she jumped ship for his brother.”
“What?” Cecelia’s brow creased.
Brendan shrugged sheepishly as he sipped from his steamy cup.
“Skylar Reed,” Kim spit with a roll of her light eyes. “That’s the slut’s name.”
Cecelia recalled meeting one of Brendan’s ex-girlfriends over a year ago before Kim came into his life, but even if pressed she doubted that she could pick the woman out of a line-up. She had never been good with names and faces. People didn’t interest her very much unless they aroused a certain emotion in her, but that was extremely rare. She could be social when necessary, but she preferred to be with people she already felt comfortable with, which was another short list. It was common for Cecelia to reintroduce herself to the same person several times before she could recall his or her name without being reminded. However, written words, figures and numbers adhered to her brain like peanut butter to bread. She had a nearly perfect eidetic memory that gave her the extraordinary ability to recall anything she read with acute accuracy.
Ironically Kim seemed to dislike Skylar more than Cecelia who presumably had more of a right to do so. And similarly the feelings Kim expressed for Brendan seemed to surpass anything that Cecelia ever felt for his brother in spite of her one-year tenure as his wife. It made Cecelia a bit envious of Kim, for she longed to feel anything as deeply as Kim loved Brendan.
“After we broke up last year,” Brendan expounded, “we remained friends. She even interviewed for a job at our firm. Dad ended up hiring her as a paralegal.”
“I bet that wasn’t awkward at all,” said Cecelia dryly.
“Maybe at first, but we don’t work that closely together. Not as much as her and Brice.” Brendan frowned regretfully.
“I’m surprised you didn’t know about this,” said Kim in a you-must-be-an-idiot tone.
“I had no idea.”
“I’m sure it’s hard to keep tabs on your husband while trying to run a multi-million dollar company,” Brendan offered in her defense.
Cecelia nodded with appreciation.
“Well, you two don’t know how much I’d love to stick around and chat about my favorite subject,” Kim said rolling her eyes sarcastically, “but unfortunately I have to be in court in about an hour.” She kissed Brendan sweetly on the lips and rubbed the tip of his straight, narrow nose with hers with the most genuinely happy smile Cecelia had ever seen on a person. Her joy was nearly palpable and it made Cecelia feel quite awkward. So much so that she was delighted to see her leave. Now she only had to deal with half the discomfort, which was eventually offset by Brendan’s willingness to speak more freely about Skylar outside of Kim’s presence.
“We were practically living together. I even considered popping the question,” he admitted after a few probing questions.
Cecelia’s eyebrows rose a quarter of an inch as she took a warm gulp of tea.
“Luckily she dumped me before the thought became too serious. She really broke my heart, Cece, but it ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m just sorry that it led to Brice hurting you,” he said as he looked at her with guilt glinting in his stone gray eyes.
“Like I said, it’s not your fault.”
“You know if we’d never broken up, I’d never have found Kim.”
“Does Kim have a brother?” she chuckled.
Brendan joined her in laughter. “Yeah, but he’s not even old enough to vote.”
“Well, I at least need a guy who’s old enough to buy alcohol. Apparently I’m ‘an ailment that can only be cured by hard liquor’, according to your brother.”
“You sound just like him. The perfect amount of spite and narcissism,” he laughed. “I bet he said that after he caught some douche flirting with you.”
“How did you know that?”
“Because he’s an asshole and assholes are all the same—full of shit.” He shook his head.
“If only I’d given you my number that night instead,” she said archly.
He gave Cecelia a serious and shocked look. “You don’t know how many times I’ve wondered the same thing.” Her uneasy expression suggested that she’d made the remark in jest. He smiled self-consciously and looked down at his cup as he digressed. “Any guy lucky enough to earn your heart will live and die a very happy man.”
Cecelia’s eyebrows knitted with incredulity.
“You never know,” he continued. “Sometimes the worst has to happen before the best can come along.”
Cecelia mused over that statement a few minutes later as she left the café. Her entire life up until that point had gone from bad to worse to even worse. She’d never known better and she’d certainly never had the best of anything when it came to relationships. But in spite of her pessimism towards romance, there was still a little bit of hope that managed not to escape through the cracks of her broken heart. Somewhere buried under all of the scars she hoped for the best. But she wondered if she would even be able to recognize it if it ever came along.
THE WIDE GRIN on the face of the valet as the driver stepped out of the storm black Aston Martin 177 was warmly received and promptly reciprocated. The driver took his valet ticket from the eager young man with a stern look and a half-serious warning to be careful…or else. It was only half-serious because the truth was that in spite of the long price tag he could have cared less about the car’s well being. It was simply a prop lent to him by his employer to seal the illusion of his cover. Two days ago the SIS operative didn’t even have a valid driver’s license. Technically he still didn’t. The New York driver’s license in his wallet provided by the spymasters at the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service didn’t even have his real name on it. Now his brand new toy that he was quickly growing accustomed to was grabbing more attention than a streaker. And although he enjoyed driving it, no doubt, he could do without the gawking.
The hot, sticky July air clinging to his dark skin and clothing almost seemed as if it were weighing him down during the five seconds it took to walk from his car into the lobby of the luxurious Meryton Hotel in Georgetown. But the 98 percent humidity that was burdening most of the Washingtonians in the District was not what was bothering him. He’d definitely been through worst mugginess in the jungles of Sierra Leone and Mexico. However, it was not the weather that had put him in such a foul mood. It was a dilemma. Gordon Hale had a decision to make and unlike most decisions he faced, he was wrestling with this one quite a bit.
The mist of perspiration that layered thinly on his skin dried quickly in the cool air of the large lobby. Several female, and a few male, heads turned as he entered hauling a black leather wheeled suitcase in his right hand, a garment bag over his left shoulder and an anxious bellhop chasing behind him. Even dressed in a simple black V-neck T-shirt, trousers, and leather sneakers, his confident demeanor, rhythmic, yet fast-paced gait, and chiseled features demanded attention.
As usual, he looked around the large opulent room noting its occupants, exits and security cameras, comparing what he saw with the intell that the advance team had provided. After spending nearly half of his life in combat it had become a hard habit to break. But since he began working for the SIS he’d learned to conceal his acute alertness—a natural talent honed by his previous Special Forces training. He didn’t look at anyone in particular, but he saw every single person in the lobby, especially the armed security guards posted at the entrance and several throughways. If asked even up to seventy-two hours later, he’d be able to recall them all with detailed descriptions of their faces, sizes and clothing.
When he reached the front desk the clerk was already smiling at him. He’d spied her well-hello-there-big-boy expression as soon as he walked through the automatic doors and resisted the urge to smile back at the twenty-something year old night school student. Not that he was above such flattery. He appreciated the fact that he could still attract someone as young as his kid sister who was over a decade his junior, but he never let it go to his head.
He didn’t return the smile right away because he didn’t want to give the wrong impression and lead her on. He knew from his sister’s frequently broken heart how quickly a woman could get an idea in her head about a man. The way it started as a simple crumb and ended up as a ten-tier wedding cake topped with a figurine of her dressed in a white gown and some poor, unsuspecting bloke strapped in a morning suit, who probably hadn’t had a thought past how to get her naked.
A pair of passersby dressed in business suits and hauling wheeled suitcases were discussing the latest breaking news about the acquittal of a self-professed true believer in the jihadi movement who had been indicted two years ago for conspiring to murder US citizens and nationals and for contributing services to the Taliban. The American born jihadist was recently found not guilty on all three charges and had been released that morning into protective custody due to the countless death threats that had been sent to him during the trial.
Ironically his attorney, Bill Harrington, had managed to avoid such threats in spite of his firm’s very active role in the acquittal. He was able to use the media to his advantage, painting himself as simply an advocate of the law itself and not of his client’s beliefs. He had even gone so far as to blame the FBI for their failure to provide support of evidentiary value to the US Department of Justice. The empathy he’d displayed for the federal prosecutor for “his struggle to prove the Government’s case due to the FBI’s incompetence” went a long way with the American public. Of course he’d credited recent budget cuts to the deficiencies in the FBI, thus placing the blame on the Government itself and indirectly on the voters who elected its officials.
There had been panel discussions all over the news arguing the point that the fault lied within the system and not with any small group or individual. Hale vehemently disagreed with that nonsensical reasoning and seriously doubted the intellect of an American population that was so easily swayed by the dressed up prevarications spouted by a self-serving maggot like Bill Harrington. Overhearing the heated debate between the two businessmen on their way to the entrance made him think of the decision that was weighing on him and instead of the polite smile he planned to lead with, he started with a sad sigh.
“Whatever it is,” said the clerk with genuine concern, “I’m sure a stay in our grand hotel will make it better.”
He gave the hazel-eyed blond a mechanical smile and replied, “I’m sure it will.” He’d somewhat become accustomed to the way women reacted to his looks, but it was only recently since he’d come to the United States that he’d noticed the reaction to his fake, yet cultivated, American accent. His deep baritone and cultured speech created a powerful mix that American women seemed to appreciate. The clerk’s smile nearly doubled in length when she heard him speak and after about three seconds she finally blinked and asked if he had a reservation. He gave her the name of his alias, doing his best to speak as little as possible.
“Well, it looks like we have you set up in the penthouse suite, Mr. Ramsey,” she said with raised eyebrows. “But only for one night,” she noted. “You must be in town for the wedding.”
He nodded, a bit irritated by how observant she seemed.
“It’s a shame you won’t be staying with us longer,” she pouted. “Will you be needing a key for Mrs. Ramsey?”
He grinned at her fishing expedition showing a set of bright white teeth, which were offset by his rich, coffee brown skin. “There is no Mrs. Ramsey. One key should suffice.”
She happily handed him an envelope containing his keycard and gestured to the bellhop that was standing about five feet away from him. He had known the guy was following him since he entered the hotel, but after watching him wrestle with the hefty bags of a poor-tipping guest he decided to give him a break and carry his own bags inside.
“This is Ronny.”
He nodded at the stout young man in the blue and white-trimmed, pill-shaped hat and matching triple-breasted jacket with three columns of silver buttons. Ronny nodded back timidly, his forehead shining with perspiration.
“He will take your bags and show you to your room.”
He handed Ronny his wheeled suitcase and garment bag and followed him to the elevator. Ronny didn’t speak and his newest guest didn’t bother to make small talk over the elevator music. Instead Hale used the uninterrupted twenty seconds it took to reach the top floor to check the e-mail and text messages on his cellphone. Thanks to a friend of his who just happened to be a technical genius, he was able to use his personal phone on operations like these because all of the messages were hidden by very sophisticated encryption software that was impossible to break. Not even the geeks at Vauxhall could get past the codes. He still had to be careful on actual phone calls, however. Anyone could be listening in.
He had one or two e-mails that required his immediate attention, one from his handler, Maggie Dune, but he needed more than the time allotted by the elevator ride to compose his reply. So he made a mental note to revisit them once he was settled in his suite and went on to skim his list of text messages. There were a few that could wait, but a message from his younger, adoptive sister with a photo attachment of her holding a fashion magazine couldn’t, especially not after he zoomed in and saw that the magazine was Vogue and that the very sexy, blond model on the cover was his not so innocent baby sister. Hale had been adopted by her family after the passing of his biological mother, but the lack of shared blood between them made no difference in their relationship. They were quite close.
Hale frowned disapprovingly as his thumbs began to attack the keyboard on the touchscreen.
Did Vogue suddenly run out of money in their wardrobe budget? Surely they can afford more fabric than that.
Don’t be an arse, Gordy.
He grinned wryly as his thumbs hopped along.
Don’t ask me to do the impossible… 😉 Proud of you, Ari. As always.
He tipped Ronny with a crisp ten-dollar bill, which brought a wide smile to the young man’s taut face.
“Thank you, sir,” he said with considerably more enthusiasm than he had shown the last guest he assisted. “Enjoy your stay.”
“I intend to,” Hale replied while watching the grateful bellhop leave. He’d always over tipped even before he had money. It was his opinion that those who served others were deserving of large rewards.
He walked around the suite and noted all of the rooms apart from the main seating area—the master bedroom with an en suite bathroom, the powder room, study, full kitchen and separate dining room, which was large enough to seat ten at the polished wood table. He shook his head at the abundance and lavishness of the room, doubting that he’d ever get used to staying in places like this.
After replying to some of his more important e-mails and text messages he glanced at his borrowed Patek Philippe wristwatch and promptly began to unpack his bags, first the suitcase and then the garment bag. He laid out his suit, shirt, two ties, a belt, cufflinks, socks, and handkerchief on the bed and then placed his shoes on the floor just below. The latest woman in his life had the suit hand tailored for him during a shopping trip to Milan, Italy a month ago and tonight would be the first occasion he’d have the opportunity to wear it. He’d thought about bringing her with him to DC as his date, but quickly reconsidered. Having a bit of arm candy might have helped him to blend in more. But when that arm candy was a stunning, five-foot-ten redhead, it might have the opposite effect. The complexities of this op would require his full attention. So he had Maggie Dune arrange a business opportunity in Los Angeles for the morning of the wedding that Vivien couldn’t turn down in order to get her out of Hale’s way.
He felt a bit of guilt for tricking her as he checked his wristwatch again, noting that she would be texting him momentarily to let him know she’d landed safely in LA. After all she’d flown from London, her permanent residence, to John F. Kennedy International Airport the night before just to see him. Hale remembered thinking that she must’ve missed him an awful lot to tolerate an international commercial flight. One corner of his mouth turned up as he tried to imagine the aristocratic Vivien Helmsley slumming it in first class.
The late night visit to his New York apartment had been a surprise and although not a pleasant one for Hale, he didn’t let it show. He’d been much too preoccupied with his mission preparation to properly entertain trivial dinner conversation and a half-hearted attempt at foreplay. The mild sedative he put in the vodka tonic she’d drank upon her arrival saved him the trouble of having to reject her. Early the next morning she’d given him an apologetic round of fellatio to make up for her jet lag ruining their evening and then rushed off to catch her flight.
He had been seeing Vivien for nearly six months. The couple agreed to an open relationship due to the amount of traveling their work required and Vivien had taken ample opportunity to date other men, although none of them measured up to Hale. And while he would’ve liked to take more advantage of the terms of their arrangement, he simply didn’t have the time. He’d had a couple of late night trysts with a very sexy female state trooper he met during a traffic-stop a few months ago. He’d managed to use his superpowers of persuasion to convince her to let him off with a warning and instead of getting a speeding ticket that morning he drove away with her personal cellphone number. Those encounters were as satisfying as stale crackers were to a starving man, but he grew bored once he’d gotten his fill.
The lady cop was never replaced. His work did not afford him the opportunity for much socializing. Ironically, tonight would be his first social outing in nearly nine months. Every now and then Vivien would pop into town for a few days at a time and help take the edge off. She’d spend the days shopping and the nights shagging him. That was more or less the extent of their perfunctory and taciturn relationship, and that was the way he preferred it. He just hadn’t had the motivation to invest in anything more than that.
As he looked down at the suit Vivien handpicked for him and the ties and handkerchiefs that his sister had gifted him, he mused over the decision he needed to make. He laid the solid black tie below the collar and on top of the buttons of the shirt and then did the same with the striped one. If only it was as simple as choosing a tie, he thought. Unfortunately there was no simple way to choose whether a man should live or die.
SPREAD THE WORD ABOUT THE HARDEST OF WAYS