PAIN. This was Nolan’s first coherent thought as he slowly and unwillingly emerged from unconsciousness. Excruciating tendrils of fire burned through muscle and bone He tried to lick his lips, but his mouth was as dry as cotton. How long have I been out this time? He tried to wipe his crusted eyes and found they were swollen shut. No wonder everything was blurry. Think. Remember. What had they done to him the last time they interrogated him? Every episode blended together in an agonizing mass.
He bent his legs under him and tried to sit up. More pain splintered through his chest. Broken ribs. Several. He sucked in a breath and quickly forced his body into a sitting position, his back resting on a concrete wall. Breathe. Breathe through the pain.
A single bulb barely illuminated his dark cell. The small room, or closet, more like a coffin, was slightly larger than he was. He couldn’t stretch out if he wanted to. The interior walls were metal and the door solid steel. And it was hotter than hell. When he still had his strength, he tried to pick the lock, strip the hinges, everything he could think of to escape.
Now, he survived.
He shifted his torso so he could breathe a little easier. Not that it did much good, but he could suck in enough air to keep himself from passing out.
His team would look for him and chase every lead they could find. He would wait. They would come for him. A rescue or a recovery, they wouldn’t give up until they found him. And Brenda Sue. God, she must be worried. His team would’ve told her he was missing by now. He never should’ve gotten involved with her. She was sweet and innocent, everything he wasn’t. And she had Charlie. A boy as sweet and innocent as she. They didn’t need to be worrying about whether or not he would come home whenever he went on a mission. It wasn’t fair to her and certainly no way to raise a child. The ache in his chest intensified and it wasn’t from the broken ribs.
Their mission had been a clusterfuck right from the start. Each member of his team had been assigned different tasks to gather intel. He watched and documented the comings and goings around a factory. Suspicious, since the person who entered or exited the premises happened to be a single man driving a covered truck in the morning and again at night. He would enter the same building, remain for about thirty minutes, and then leave, always the same man and always the same truck.
There had been five buildings that constituted the factory. All had their windows blacked out. No visuals were made inside the factory. However, Dwight, their tech-geek, loved a challenge. He had sent Nolan infrared. Heat sensors identified people in each building. One building had appeared to be a working assembly line. In three other buildings, people worked at sewing machines. Which had supported the theory of the factory’s cover operation making knockoff handbags. They had begun at the same time every morning after the truck arrived and had ended in the evening when the truck arrived again. It had to have been supplying food.
And there must’ve been underground tunnels. A way they had moved from building to building since nothing above ground happened. At night, after dinner, everyone, except what he’d assumed were the guards since they were armed, had moved to the farthest building and lain down for the night, everyone in one large warehouse. What had gotten Nolan at first was how small some of the people stood next to the guards. When he had figured out they were using children, he knew Burrows had to be stopped whether he had supplied the weapons or not.
The rusted hinges on the steel door creaked open, pulling Nolan from his thoughts. A small boy, a little older than Brenda Sue’s son, so maybe seven or eight, brought him in a cup of water and something that resembled oatmeal on a metal plate. The child looked like he could use the nourishment more than him. He nodded to the child and then gestured to the food. “You eat it.” The child blinked his wide eyes, eyes like Charlie’s, but which were void of the childhood innocence. Knowledge of pain and suffering, of witnessing life’s harsh realities, reflected in the child’s eyes. The kid didn’t speak English. He had attempted communication with several of the children who’d brought him food during his confinement. The child shook his head and backed away from him, finally turning and rushing out of the room. Nolan lifted the cup and drank every drop of the tepid water. He could go without food, but water was essential, especially in this heat. Then he finished off the meager meal and lay back down to wait.
* * * *
Dreams. Sweet, sweet dreams.
Soft hands caressed his skin, his face, his chest and moved lower. Warm, moist kisses followed where the hands had touched, raising gooseflesh. Except on his scars. He never reacted to touch on his scarred left side. But the warm hands didn’t hesitate or avoid the abnormal flesh; they touched everywhere. Brenda Sue’s body settled over his, her slight weight snuggling to his chest. She kissed his face, his neck, his lips.
They hadn’t had time to develop an intimate relationship, but this reoccurring dream kept his sanity in check. Gave him a reason to keep breathing, to keep fighting. The possibility of being loved by her kept him alive.
The lock rattled against the metal door. Warm stirrings faded to cold pain.
A tall, lanky man stepped into the room. “Still alive, I see.” He sounded American. He appeared young, maybe thirty; terrorists didn’t have long life spans. The younger they started, the faster Nolan and his team could end their careers. He ignored the remark. If the man wanted him dead, he’d be dead. There was a reason Burrows kept him alive, and Nolan needed to figure out why.
“Why the kids?” Nolan’s voice was raspy but audible.
“Cheap labor. Feed them, put a roof over their heads, and voila, employees.”
Bastard. “So they work your factory. Name-brand knockoffs is a good business. Why bother smuggling?”
Robert Burrows—he was fairly certain it was the same man they had under surveillance—squatted down until he was eye level. Normally this would have been a mortal mistake since Nolan was trained and specialized in hand-to-hand combat. However, Burrows came with two guards who aimed weapons right at Nolan’s chest.
“You know an awful lot about my operation, Nolan Foster.” He must have registered surprise, because the young twerp laughed. “Children aren’t good for only factory work. Give one a laptop and they can do almost anything.” He lowered his voice and leaned in closer. “Including finding the identity of you and your teammates who are at this moment trying to take my business apart.”
As he grinned, his busted lip split further. “My team isn’t done yet.”
“Oh, they will be. You see, I’ve found out quite a lot about you and your team.” Burrows snapped his fingers and one of the guards handed him a large envelope. He slid out several sheets of paper. He sorted through them, pulling one out from the rest. “Let’s start with this.” He held up an eight-by-ten of a woman pushing a little boy on a swing.
Nolan’s stomach lurched. Brenda Sue and Charlie. The bastard knew who they were and where they were. Fuck.
“Thought that one would hit a nerve. Good-looking kid, looks smart.”
“Ah, now. Let’s see what else we have here.” He slid another photo out of the envelope. “I believe this is your leader, Ethan, and his beautiful wife. I am told she is quite a handful, but I’m sure I could find someone who would appreciate her qualities for the right price.” And the bastard could do it too. Besides transporting illegal weapons, rumor had it he dabbled in human trafficking and drugs.
“What do you want?”
Burrows slipped both pictures back into the envelope. He remained eye level. He leaned forward, inches away, taunting Nolan as he spoke. “I want you to forget me. Otherwise, all the information I have found is going on the Internet. I have a feeling your team has made a lot of enemies in the years you’ve been together. People you’ve pissed off would like nothing more than to get their hands on your women.”
Personal information out on the web for every psycho they had taken down was a death sentence, or worse. “How do you suggest I stop my team? You’ve kept me here, pissed them off. They’re going to hunt you down whether I’m alive or dead.”
Burrows sat back on his heels, then smoothed down his tie. “Tomorrow I’m going to let you go, with your agreement that you will forget about me. Convince your team. I have nothing to do with illegal activities. I continue my work, uninterrupted. We both win. You go home to your woman.”
Like that was going to happen. A man like Burrows didn’t let someone go, especially someone with intel he had. “Why?”
Burrows grinned. “I don’t like to get my hands dirty.” He paused as if considering whether or not he should continue. “I may have need of a favor in your future. A man of your talents can come in handy.”
“Not gonna happen.”
Burrows held the envelope up. “I hold the ace.”
“You expect me to forget these kids? They’re malnourished, uneducated, forced to work sixteen-hour days. And I’m supposed to walk away?”
Burrows was silent for a moment, his eyes focused on the floor at his feet. Slowly his stare lifted to make eye contact. Intelligence flickered behind his cold gleam, devoid of any human emotion. So was his voice when he spoke again. “Charlie would be a valuable asset to my factory.”
Nolan lurched forward, slamming his forehead into Burrows’ nose. The man flew backward as blood streamed down his chin. While staggering to his feet, Burrows wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his jacket. “Leave him alive. Barely.”
The last thing he remembered was the butt end of a gun.
* * * *
Nolan woke in excruciating pain. This time he didn’t bother to try to sit up, instead letting the cool concrete ease some of the aches. Since he could no longer breathe through his nose, he assumed it was shattered. Because of the swelling, his vision was reduced to blurry slits. He was pretty sure there was internal bleeding, possibly a punctured lung from a broken rib considering he could barely suck in air. No way he’d survive another beating. He wasn’t sure he would survive the day.
Burrows had to be stopped. Not only for the kids’ sake, but the weapons he supplied, the people he sold, the drugs he put on the streets. And his empire grew steadily, locations on every continent. His team wouldn’t let Burrows out of their sight after his captivity. They would find some way to retaliate for torturing him. Which was fine by him; the bastard needed to be stopped. But at what cost? Their lives? No great loss. Nolan had known the probability of death before retirement when he signed up. So had the other members of his team. But the lives of their loved ones? Ethan’s wife, Frankie? Brenda Sue or her son, Charlie? They hadn’t considered others when they began their operation years ago. Love, marriage, and children were not considered their way of life. Now Ethan had Frankie and Jay had Eli. And something connected him to Brenda Sue. Something deep and potent.
Nolan tried to suck in a breath to keep the stars floating around his head from lack of oxygen at bay. The attempt caused another wave of pain nearly strong enough to make him lose consciousness.
Fight. Use the pain.
Brenda Sue. Think of her. Focus on the good. He panted lightly, fighting the stabbing heat in his chest, and kept the swirling stars at bay.
He hadn’t told her he loved her. Not yet anyway. Hell, he hadn’t been sure what to think. The moment he’d seen her, his heart stopped. He wasn’t sappy enough to believe in love at first sight, but damn. He had it bad.
And his fucking feelings were going to get her killed.
Burrows asked to be left alone. He could give the man what he wanted. Redirect his team, tell them he saw nothing during surveillance. He’d been alone, no one to corroborate his lie. He couldn’t confirm he witnessed illegal activity at the factory. There were no child labor laws in this country. It would be easy to walk away and forget. Keep Brenda Sue and Charlie safe, keep the others safe. So easy.
Fuck. It hurt to think when his brain had been knocked around.
Burrows would watch Nolan to make sure he stuck to their deal. He wouldn’t be able to make a move without Burrows knowing. Especially if it involved his team. But if he went off grid…Use the excuse to take some time to recuperate, lure Burrows away from Brenda Sue and his team. Hunt another direction and take him down before the bastard hurts anyone I care about. They had other teams stationed around the country he could get to help without clueing Burrows in. They collaborated months ago to help Jay and his woman. Could he count on a few of them to help?
He’d have to leave. No interaction at all to make this work. He could move away so they couldn’t keep track of him. And they would try. It’s what they did. It would mean cutting ties with his team. After they found out what he was up to, going behind their backs, it would probably be a permanent severing. But they would be safe and so would their women.
It would also mean leaving Brenda Sue.
Nolan took a deep breath, letting the pain in to keep away the emotions tearing through his soul.
But they would all be safe.
* * * *
“Have you considered my offer?”
Nolan roused himself, unable to lift himself from the concrete. Burrows leaned over, probably checking to make sure he was still alive. Nolan tried to form words, but his mouth wouldn’t cooperate, his jaw too damaged from the last beating.
“For you, I will accept a simple nod as our agreement. I release you. Then you’ll forget about me and move on. In the future, you will owe me a single favor.”
Nolan was out of options. He couldn’t keep Burrows away from them if he was dead. He had to agree in order to keep his team safe. To keep Brenda Sue and Charlie safe. He nodded.
“I knew you could be agreeable.” Burrows stood, then stepped back while one of his men kneeled down, a syringe in his hand. “A little nap and you’ll be back with your friends.”
Nolan welcomed the darkness.