Eye of the Storm

A Security Specialists International Book

Monette Michaels


Chapter One

Iguazu River, Argentina, the Triple Frontier

Keely Walsh stopped to rest. Even with the shade from the rain forest canopy, the heat was oppressive. Tipping back her broad-brimmed hat, she wiped the sweat out of her eyes, then took a deep drink of water from the canteen she carried. So far, according to her portable GPS, she'd traveled two klicks from her landing site. If her coordinates were correct, and they always were, she should see the village in less than another kilometer. Right now all she could see were trees, low-growing foliage, and more trees.

After she'd landed the chopper in a small, elevated clearing, she’d followed a faint path leading down and away from the landing site. She surmised the path had been cleared a day or so ago, then just as quickly overgrown. It led in the general direction of the village. She'd seen marijuana growing in the clearing, so it made sense the locals would need a path to get to their cash crop.

Shrugging her backpack off, she let it slip to the ground. She knelt and pulled out the white cotton shirt she'd worn on the plane, then put it on over her tank top. It was way too hot and humid for any covering, but she couldn't have her brother go nuts if he saw the bruises on her shoulders and upper chest. Time enough for explanations later, after they were safe in the hotel suite she'd booked in the Iguazu National Park before securing transportation and her weapons. She sighed, imagining how good the air conditioning would feel after this steam-bath hike. The hotel had a pool and a pool bar. She could almost taste a large Pepsi with ice as she dangled her legs in the cool water.

God, she hated heat, humidity, insects and snakes, all of which jungles had in abundance. Only for her favorite brother, Stuart "Tweeter" Walsh, would she do this—plus there had been no one else. Her father, Marine Corps Colonel Kennard Walsh, was on a training mission. The call to her other four brothers had not produced the instant response needed. The twins, Loren and Paul, were on a SEAL mission and the other two, Devin and Andy, were Marines searching Afghanistan’s caves for terrorists. By the time their emergency leave was approved, Tweeter would be dead. And she couldn't trust anyone else but her mother Molly—and her Dad would kill her if she involved her mama in this mess.

She was it—the only person who could warn her brother about the trap. She couldn't stay safely in Massachusetts while Tweeter was in danger. He'd protected her over the years, and she could do no less for him.

She let the shirt tails hang over her baggy khakis. She slid the knife she'd bought from a wizened little man named Bazon in Puerto Iguazu into its sheath, then clipped it and the holster holding the Bren Ten she'd purchased onto the belt at the small of her back. Nothing like a Bren to make your point. She’d taken the finding of the rare gun as a sign that her mission would be a success. There'd only been fifteen hundred made and the odds were astronomical against her finding the gun she was most comfortable handling. Her dad had taught her to shoot with a Bren. It was highly accurate and had hitting power. She checked the magazine and found it fully loaded with all ten .45 caliber rounds. She locked the hammer back to the “condition one” setting; a flick of the safety and she would be good to go for single shot or automatic fire.

Satisfied she was as ready as she could be, she headed once more in the direction of the village where Tweeter, along with his Security Specialist International team, were allegedly meeting an informant.

SSI was a security firm specializing in international troubleshooting for private corporations and governments who would rather not use their own intelligence personnel. Ren and Trey Maddox, both ex-special forces, had established their headquarters and training facility in Sanctuary, Idaho, a SSI-owned town at the edge of the Nez Perce National Forest. SSI's current mission had been arranged through the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Clandestine Service or NCS; the classified report she’d come across while working on a project for the government had outlined the mission as an information-gathering on a reputed al Qaeda organization operating out of the Argentinian section of the Triple Frontier.

What it really was? A specially designed trap for Ren Maddox and anyone who accompanied him.

If the trap hadn't been sprung by the time she made it to the meeting place, they'd hoof it out and head for the helicopter she'd also rented from Bazon. In the Triple Frontier, it was easy to find weapons and drugs—and to rent military-equipped helicopters. She hadn't asked the old man where he'd gotten the Kamov KA-60, kitted out with belly guns and air-to-ground missiles. She never looked gift battle-ready helicopters in the mouth.

Bazon even had ordnance for the belly guns. For double the rental price, she'd had him load the ordnance, checking his work as he did it. She might not be able to lift the ammunition, but she knew how it should be loaded.

She'd been surprised when the man hadn't tried to gyp her. When she'd asked him about it, he'd given her a mostly toothless smile and said, "For you, pequena muchacha de oro, it is a pleasure." Then Bazon had winked at her, and his flirtatious manner had her choking back laughter. The Argentinian had to be old enough to be her grandfather.

It probably hadn't hurt that she'd paid him five thousand USD in traveler's checks. Say what you want about the economy and international relations, the almighty dollar was still the currency of choice in the world’s hellholes.

Now, if the trap had been sprung—well, she'd cross that bridge when she got to it.

To this point, her trek had been merely hot and sweaty, but not dangerous. She'd seen no one other than monkeys, toucans, butterflies and other inhabitants of this particular subtropical rainforest. Nothing, not even the local four-legged predators, had bothered her. She was more worried about chancing across the two-legged variety before she reached the village. As her father had drilled into her and the boys, “always expect perimeter guards when approaching a danger zone”. Since her father had survived some of the hairiest conflicts on the planet and taught thousands of other Marines to pull through in some of the worst places in the world, he knew of what he spoke.

Keely's gaze now moved continuously, watching for anything out of place. She attempted to differentiate the background noises, hoping she'd sense a change when peril approached. The jungle fauna were nature's version of an early-warning system.

When danger did appear, it was on the path. Or, more explicitly, lying across it. She stopped, her steel-toed hiking boots just inches away from a trip wire strung across the path. Was the trap for those stupid enough to steal the villagers' marijuana crop? Or, had it been placed there more recently by the mercs hired to take out the SSI team?

She knelt and examined the wire. She snorted. It went nowhere and was attached to nothing. A red herring. Somewhere around here was the real trap.

She lifted her head and swept the area around the path and a few feet ahead. Ahh, there it was. A disturbed area, no new vegetation had grown, so the digging was recent. After the wary traveler stepped over the more obvious wire, the poor unsuspecting sap would then step onto a pressure plate and die before he or she even finished congratulating themselves on a narrow escape.

Keely couldn't leave the trap for some hapless villager or for her and the guys to stumble over on the return trip to the chopper. Looking around, she spied a pile of rocks. Stepping off the path, she carefully picked her way toward the outcropping, which looked to be the remnants of a small building. She edged around the rubble, picked up a rock, then lobbed it with an underhanded toss. It hit the plate just as she ducked for cover. The explosion was loud, startling birds and other animals into heading for shelter higher in the rain forest canopy. The sound of detritus hitting the broken-down hovel told her it had been a fragmentation mine.

Crouching back under the cover of some low-growing palms, she waited. After the explosion, the sound of silence was pregnant with tension. It was as if the animals of the forest remained silent just as she did, waiting to see who would respond to the mine's destruction.

She just hoped whoever investigated would look, see no body parts, and leave. She wasn't up for killing anyone else this trip just to get to the village. She could kill if she had to—and had recently done so in self-defense—but it had cost her a piece of her soul. Her stomach clenched, acid roiling at the memory. Taking deep breaths, she conquered her nausea, then shoved the images of two men with broken necks, lying in a dirty warehouse in Boston, to a dark corner of her mind.

At the start of this hastily thrown-together trip to South America, she'd thought she could get to the SSI team and let them handle any dirty work. Arming herself was one thing, using her weapons was entirely another. She shook her head in disgust at her naïveté. Obviously, she hadn't thought far enough in advance. The sound of pounding feet on the hard, red dirt prevented her from replaying the past. It was the present that counted, the mission to save her brother and his friends.

She peeked through the palm fronds and noted that the two approaching men didn't use the marked path at all. She'd follow their example when she headed out once again, not wanting to hit any other mines or hidden traps.

Breathing shallowly and slowly, she calmed her rapid heart rate enough so the sound of it pounding in her ears would subside. She needed to hear what the men said.

The two walked around the small crater created by the explosion. One even scratched his head in a "what the fuck happened" gesture. She choked back a laugh. They might look confused, but she wouldn't count on it. Even clueless people could shoot to kill.

Her Spanish was more than good enough to follow their conversation and what they said was revealing. They were some of the mercs hired by Reyo Trujo to kill the SSI team. And from what they said, the trap had not been sprung—they were waiting on someone. Possibly Trujo?

If her intel proved accurate, there was a team of at least twenty mercs in this jungle version of Purgatory. If she eliminated these two, then there would only be eighteen or so.

Should she take these two out? And if she did, how soon would they be missed? Did they check in face-to-face? Over communication devices like the military used? She looked between the palm fronds and saw nothing in their ears or on their vests. Maybe they used walkie-talkies? She didn't see anything like those, either. Face-to-face, then. Odds were in her favor that by the time their buddies missed them, she'd have the guys heading out. Disabling these two would improve the odds later if there were a firefight.

Shooting them was out of the question. First, because it would be cold-blooded murder and second, there would be too much noise. The sound of gunfire carried miles at this altitude.

Could she overpower them and tie them up? She assessed the two men. On the plus side, they were short and wiry. On the negative side, they were mercs and probably had some military training.

She laughed silently. She also had military training. Growing up, she’d survived fights with five older brothers and all their friends. Then there were the attacks by predatory men and other assorted bad guys her brothers knew nothing about. The odds were better than good she could come out on top. But still, it would be better to take them one at a time.

And if she had to kill in self-defense, she always had her knife—the silent option.

She unbuttoned the shirt she'd just put on and stuffed it into her pack. Her tank top displayed a healthy amount of cleavage and some really nasty bruises and teeth marks. Maybe she could lure them over with sex and sympathy? She snorted. It was much more likely they'd see her as an easy victim with whom to wile away their afternoon. Either way, she was bait for the trap.

She let out a low moan and remained behind the pile of rubble. They could come to her.

"¿Quién está allí?" one of the men called out. Slowly, he headed in her general direction. She moaned again and he corrected his trajectory. He gestured to the other man to stay and guard.

"That's good, boys," she muttered, "investigate one at a time."

The man left behind nodded to his friend, his gaze quartering the area, maybe looking for a trap. She grinned. He was looking in all the wrong places.

His buddy walked toward her, also keeping an eye out.

She had to give them credit—they were cautious—but it wouldn't help them.

When the man spotted her, he froze in his tracks and let his gun's barrel drop toward the ground. Big mistake, amigo. A wide, leering smile broke out on his swarthy face. Bastard probably thought he'd died and gone to nookie heaven. Men—and Latino men especially—loved her pale cream-colored skin, her strawberry blonde curly hair, the full breasts on her petite frame. Suckers never looked to see it was all window dressing. Never noticed the muscles under all the female attributes or the calculating and sometimes lethal look in her eye.

The man opened his mouth to say something—to her or his friend—she didn't know or care. Smiling as if she were happy to see him, she moved toward him quickly, thrusting the heel of her hand up his nose, breaking it. He moaned and tried to turn away. Before he could attempt to shout to his friend or even defend himself, she chopped his windpipe sharply with the side of her hand and then grabbed his shoulders to steady him for a knee to his balls. As he bent over, bleeding, choking and gasping, she steadied him once more and thrust her knee forcefully into his diaphragm twice, effectively cutting off his ability to gain enough breath to make any loud noises for some time. Dirty fighting, but effective—and it all had taken less than fifteen seconds.

He fell to the ground like a stone, clutching his manhood and struggling to breathe. She pulled a set of flex-cuffs from her pocket, secured his hands behind his back and used his belt to bind his ankles. Pulling his shirt from his trousers, she used her knife and cut off a strip to gag him. He could breathe through his nose—just—so he wasn't in any danger of suffocating any time soon.

Keely then moved back under cover and waited for his friend to come find him. If the men had any communication devices, now would be the time for the other guy to use one. He didn't. Instead he called out, "Pablo, ¿qué se está encendiendo?" Too bad Pablo couldn't tell him what was going on.

Checking the area around him once more, Pablo's buddy headed her way. His finger was on the trigger of the semi-automatic weapon. Not good. She'd have to disable him before he could shoot. She pulled her knife and waited to take her best throw. If she failed, she'd resort to her handgun.

When the mercenary was ten feet away, she rose and threw the knife, hitting him in the arm. The knife stuck in his arm, just above his elbow. His finger slipped from the trigger as he grabbed to pull the knife out. She made her move and took him down just as she had Pablo. While he gasped for breath, she restrained him in the same manner as she had his friend. She retrieved her blade from his arm and cut his shirt for a compression bandage and a gag, then wiped the knife off on some grass and sheathed it.

She studied the two men who flopped on the ground like beached whales. She was in no immediate danger from them, but it was always possible if left apart that one might be flexible enough to escape the restraints and get away to warn the other mercs. She couldn't chance it.

Taking a page out of her father's "subduing the enemy" lecture, she tugged the two men closer together. God, they were heavier than they looked. She wiped the sweat dripping down her face with the hem of her tank top exposing her stomach and the lower curves of her breasts. Pablo stilled his frantic movements, his leering gaze fixed on her exposed skin.

"Pervert," she muttered. She pulled out her last set of flex-cuffs and secured the men to each other, back-to-back by their bound hands. Both men made noises around their gags. She was pretty sure her ancestors and her were receiving a tongue-lashing in Spanish. She patted each of them on the head. "Save your breath, amigos. You might just live long enough for someone to rescue you."

She retrieved her pack, pulled out some duct tape and wrapped their lower legs together and secured the cloth gags by covering them with the multi-purpose tape. They weren't going anywhere. They were close enough to the main path some villager would see them sooner or later and let them go. She wasn't going to worry about it. Old Pablo would have raped her in an instant, then turned her over to his friend. She'd seen it in his cold black eyes.

Stripping them of their extra ammunition, she put it in her backpack. After shrugging her shirt back on, she picked up her pack and put it on, shouldered one of the downed men's weapons and kept the other in her hand, ready to fire. Tweeter and the guys might need the extra weapons and ammunition if they had to fight their way back to the chopper.

Checking out the submachine guns, she said, "Hmm, H&K MP5. Very nice, boys. And clean. My dad always did say 'Keely, take care of your weapon and it will take care of you.' Too bad you had to run across me on one of my mean days."

The men glared at her, making noises in the backs of their throat. She turned away from them and resumed her trek to the village, paralleling the path but staying off it. Looking back, she made sure the men couldn't be seen too easily from the path. They couldn't. The undergrowth was too thick.

Using more caution than before, she stealthily approached the village. The meeting the SSI team was to attend was to be held at the local version of a cantina.

She stopped on the outskirts of the village, although calling it a village was generous. There were three small palapas, typical rain forest huts woven out of palm leaves, and one larger, sturdier building, the bottom half of which was constructed of local wood with a roof of tightly woven leaves.

If she were a betting woman, she'd put her money on the larger building being the bar. It had a generator running outside of it, meaning there could be cold beverages inside. The thought of anything cold and wet right now sounded orgasmic. She swiped a sweaty curl that had escaped her hat out of her eyes.

Sidling around the edge of the village, still under the cover of the forest, she moved until she was immediately behind the cantina. She'd seen no one. No villagers. No mercs. That worried her. Had those two bozos been wrong? Had the trap been sprung while the two had a siesta? Where were the sentries? Or were the bad guys all holed up somewhere, waiting on el jefe?

She crossed a small clearing and crept toward a hole serving as a window on the side of the building. The noise of the nearby generator would cover any sounds she might make. Letting out a breath, she peeked over the sill of the opening.

Her shoulders sunk in relief. Tweeter was in there. Alive. Safe—for now.

She also spotted Renfrew Maddox. A frisson of awareness shot down her spine at seeing him in the flesh. He was huge, even sitting down. His face was all angles, his jaw stubbled with a day or more of growth. His dark hair was longer than it had been in the military photo she'd seen in the DoD file she'd downloaded. His eyes were grey-blue like those of an Arctic wolf—and like the wolf he looked to be a predator. He reminded her of the men in her family—all male, all macho—and all deadly grace.

The other SSI operative was the Russian, no, he was Ukrainian, Vanko Petriv. His icy blond good looks and slightly smaller stature when compared to Maddox and her brother was deceptive—and she imagined a lot of his opponents had underestimated him to their detriment. The file she had on him described his training as an assassin. He'd often gone under deep cover for Interpol to ferret out Russian mafiya terrorizing European enterprises.

She scanned the room again to see who else was present. That was all of them—other than the bartender.

God, Maddox had balls. She shook her head. That or he was stump-stupid, only bringing three men to an intel meeting supposedly on al Qaeda operations in the Triple Frontier. But Maddox had been a highly decorated SEAL and Petriv had his lethal reputation through Interpol. Plus, her brother wasn't exactly helpless either. While he had a doctorate and never served in the military, he had the advantage of being trained by their dad and beat on by four older brothers. She smiled. She called Tweeter an alpha-geek, a nerd with muscles. So, maybe it only took three SSI operatives to deal with a meet. And, of course, they hadn't known their intel gathering mission was a death trap designed specifically for Maddox.

Ghosting along the side of the building toward the back, she stopped before inching around the corner. Good thing, too. An armed man came out of the dense rain forest foliage, striding toward the rear entrance of the bar in an "I'm-the-king-of-the-jungle" manner.

He must have seen her movement because he quickly headed her way. When he saw her fully, his jaw dropped open. He recovered instantly. This guy was more by-the-book, not as lecherous or easily distracted by a woman as Pablo. He raised his weapon and opened his mouth to yell at or challenge her. His demeanor was fierce, mean—and deadly. He was twice her size. He looked buff and strong. No time to take him out hand-to-hand, if she even could.

Her assessment of the situation had taken less than two seconds. In even less time, she pulled her knife and in one fluid movement, threw it. She caught him in the throat, cutting off anything he might have yelled. She hurried to meet him as he stumbled around. The man didn't know it yet but he was dead. Still, he grabbed at the knife with both hands, his gun falling to the ground. His expression was shocked as he stared at her. He grew weak quickly. His mouth opened and closed like a guppy seeking air. His eyes dimmed as life drained out of him.

Pushing aside pity, she stiff-armed him with her left arm, then pulled the knife from his throat with her right hand. Blood gushed from the wound, but it was not arterial. He would take a while to die and suffer horrific pain. She had to finish him off and warn her brother about the imminent attack. This man had been the advance man. She had no doubt in her mind they'd have to fight their way out now. She'd beaten the main attack, maybe by minutes.

Taking a deep breath, she murmured a silent prayer before slicing him across his carotid, using a backhanded motion. She danced away from the arterial spray as the man fell to the ground. His lifeless eyes turned to the sky.

Keely turned her head and gagged. Pulling her canteen from her pack, she drank, swallowing the sickness threatening to rise in her throat once more. She wiped the knife on a tussock of grass by the building before sheathing it.

How much time did they have? She stared into the dense green foliage. She saw nothing. The sounds of the rain forest were loud, seemed normal, so no one approached yet. Her gut told her they might have ten, maybe fifteen minutes.

She picked up the dead man's gun from where he'd dropped it, another H&K. She drew the line at wading through the blood pooling around the man's body to retrieve his extra ammo. Turning, she approached the rear of the cantina, listing in her head what needed to be done. Clear the backroom. Secure it against intruders. Disable the bartender. She was on what she suspected to be a short clock, so she'd better get to it. Aftermath for the bloody kill could come later—much later, at the hotel.

Sticking her head around the doorframe, she found no one in the crammed-to-the-rafters back room. It wasn't big and there were no places to hide. She entered, then shut the door and slid a metal bar used to lock it through an iron loop. That should slow down anyone trying to sneak in the back. Just in case, she quietly shifted a couple of cases of empty beer bottles in front of the door. Breaking bottles would make a lot of noise, warning them.

Now for the barkeep. She turned, then opened the door between the back room and the bar area. She thanked God someone kept the door hinges oiled. It barely made a sound. Looking around the corner, she located the room's four inhabitants. The bartender was behind the bar, and her brother, Maddox and Petriv were still at a table by the front door.

The bartender fidgeted, his body swaying from foot to foot, his gaze shifting to the doorway where she hid in the shadows. Sorry, Charlie. Your buddy ain't coming to tell you what to do.

As the bartender, his back to her now, began making what looked like a Mojito—lime, yummy—she ghosted into the room and came up behind him. She placed the flat blade of her less-than-pristine knife along the man's carotid.

"Don't move, senor. I might slip and cut you," she said, her voice loud enough to draw her brother and his team’s attention. "Don't bother to finish the Mojito. We're not staying for drinks. Although I'd kill for a to-go Pepsi."

"Imp! What the fuck are you doing here?" Her brother's question was in the form of a roar. "And whose fucking blood is that?"

She glanced down and noted the blood spatter on her white shirt. Well, hell, she bet she had blood all over her face. Eeuw. She breathed slowly to dampen her renewed queasiness. No time to be sick, things would go tango uniform soon enough.

"No time for explanations. Someone needs to cover the door and windows. Company’s coming." Using her knife as incentive, she forced the bartender to move with her—or chance getting his throat cut.

“Keely Ann Walsh!” Her brother stomped toward the bar. His face, a mask of calm, but his eyes held a powerful mixture of emotions—fear, concern, anger—all aimed at her. “Talk. Now.”

Maddox followed her brother. Petriv moved to the side of the open doorway. At least someone was taking her seriously. "I was looking for you—to warn you." Her hand trembled; she really needed some sugar and fast. She wasn’t kidding about killing for a Pepsi. She recognized now her nausea, her weakness was because she had low blood sugar, not an uncommon occurrence for her in hot, humid environments. The bartender jerked away from the blade. She pulled him back, emphasizing her point by pricking him with the point of her knife. “Not a good idea, senor.

“About the company. Got that. Goddamit, are you hurt?” She recognized that tone. He wanted answers and he’d keep them there all the damn day until he got them.

She sighed. "It’s not my blood, okay? Had a run-in with a merc out back."

Cursing in gutter Spanish, the bartender attempted to pull away again. She drew a line on the barkeep's flushed neck with the dull edge of her knife, leaving a trail of his friend's blood in the sweaty folds of fat. "Your friend is dead, senor. Please don't do anything stupid. I've done more than enough killing in the last two days."

The bartender spit to the side. "I have no friend, senorita. I am sorry, I also have no Pepsi. I have Coca-cola." His English had a Brooklyn-tinge to it.

The bartender tensed. Stupid, stupid. He was thinking, planning. She could almost see the wheels spinning in his head, powered by little Chihuahuas. She'd let it play out, see how dumb the man really was. Plus, the resulting lesson would show Tweeter's friends she could handle herself. They'd soon have to trust her to fight alongside them.

"Coke? That'll do." She withdrew the knife, giving the bartender an opening to make his move. "Get me one. Carefully."

Tweeter cursed under his breath. So did Maddox and Petriv, in assorted languages, each of them very vulgar. She shot them a warning glance. This was her fight, her lesson. Her brother glared at her and pointed his gun at the bartender's head. She shook her head and glared back. Overprotective brothers had been the bane of her existence. Maddox and Petriv she'd excuse for having their guns trained on the bartender, they didn't know any better. But Tweeter should. Sheesh.

Petriv moved away from the door to get another angle on the bartender's head. Maddox stood alongside her brother. The SSI owner's nostrils flared. His lips thinned. His piercing gaze watched every move she and the bartender made. Her conclusion? He was way pissed, but still ready to make a move to save her poor little female butt. She almost snorted. He'd learn she could save her own hind end—and soon. The bartender really was that stupid and would try to take her.

" A Coke for the senorita. Un segundo." The man turned to smile at her. His face showed his shock. She got that a lot from men she'd held at knifepoint. The bartender's grin widened. Sucker thought he could take little ole her. Not going to happen, dumbass.

She sensed movement from her brother and Renfrew Maddox. She didn't shift her gaze away from the bartender as he reached toward an under-bar refrigerator. "Let the man get me my Coke, guys."

Maddox made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a growl.

"Keely—" The warning in her brother's voice would normally make her cringe, but she was too busy concentrating on the barkeep's movements. All weakness was temporarily gone, due to a timely surge of adrenaline. She fondled her knife, keeping it ready.

Instead of bending down to get a cold soda, the man turned, his head and body just enough below the bar top to mess up the other three's shots. He used his arm to knock her knife hand up and away. Expecting something like this, she kept a firm grip on her weapon. She thrust the heel of her left hand up and broke his nose. Too bad for el fatso—she had two hands and was equally adept with both.

There was still some fight in the man. Howling, he lunged for her. Using his forward momentum, she blocked the hand reaching for her knife with her forearm and kneed him in the balls. Then to add insult to injury, she used the old trusty knee to the diaphragm. Her dad and brothers had taught her to fight dirty. While the big strong man thought he could contain the little slip of a female, she had him on the ground, crying like a little girl.

By the time Tweetie and Maddox came around the bar, she'd flipped the very unhappy barkeep and had a booted foot in the small of his back, holding him down, her knifepoint at the nape of his neck.

"You got any flex-cuffs? I used mine on the way here. My source in Puerto Iguazu only had three sets. I was just thrilled the guy had ordnance for the Kamov that’ll haul our butts out of here."

Her brother's lips thinned and flags of white appeared around them. His was furious, but containing it well. After all, he was the most even-tempered of her brothers. He tossed her a set of cuffs from his belt, which she caught with her left hand. Pressing down on the bartender's left kidney with the heel of her hiking boot, she sheathed her knife and cuffed the man’s hands behind his back, then flipped him over. His moan told her she might have broken a rib or two. She blamed it on the adrenaline.

Now that the immediate danger was past, she was shaking from the combination of too much adrenaline and too little sugar. Stepping over the downed man, she peered in the refrigerator under the bar and indeed found cold, six-ounce bottles of Coke. Pulling out two of the small bottles, she closed the door. Popping the top off one on the edge of the counter, she held up a finger toward her brother who had relaxed enough to open his mouth to speak, then downed one bottle. God, she needed that. She could already feel the sugar and caffeine blasting into her bloodstream.

Maddox stood next to Tweeter, glancing from her to the man on the ground and back, a look of stunned disbelief on his chiseled face. Petriv joined the other two; his lips quirked. The stone-cold assassin was fighting a smile. Who knew he'd have a sense of humor? His file hadn't mentioned it. Intelligence files usually mentioned everything right down to the size of a man's dick. Petriv's was seven inches, slightly above average from all her reading; Maddox's, eight. She managed to avoid looking at their crotches to see if her intel had been correct.

Petriv caught her eye and winked at her. She inclined her head graciously. The Ukrainian threw back his head and laughed. Maddox shot Petriv an angry glare. Ooh, he didn't like his associate flirting with her, huh? Tweetie had told her his boss had no use for women and had established a "no-single-women-on-Sanctuary rule." Only operatives' wives, long-term, live-in girlfriends and fiancées were allowed to live on the property. The DoD and CIA files on Maddox labeled him as a loner; he'd had only two long-term relationships in his life, one for twelve months and another for nine, and neither of those women had lived with him 24/7. Knowing the male of the species fairly well—with a dad and five brothers how could she not?—he probably didn't avoid sexual conquests; he wasn't a monk, he just had no use for permanent relationships.

She placed the empty bottle on the bar with a thunk and opened the second. This one she intended to savor. "Uh, someone really needs to watch the door." She broke what had become an uncomfortable silence. She hated being the cynosure of everyone's eyes. "You were led into a trap, guys. I took care of the back door. The sound of breaking beer bottles means they're coming in that way."

"Keely, what the fuck…"

"Tweeter, you can't say that word. I'll tell Mom." Their mother, Molly Walsh, disliked the f-word, but with a house full of military men, she fought a losing battle. Her response was to demand payment—a quarter for every f-bomb. Her mother sported some very nice jewelry because the Walsh men and their friends uttered a lot of f-words.

Keely frowned at her brother to underline her point, then turned to the man at his side and held out her hand. "Mr. Maddox? In case you hadn't guessed, I'm his little sister. I worked on a project for NSA through the auspices of my employer MIT until about twenty hours ago. While working for them, I came across this anomaly in the COMINT, uh, the communications intelligence I processed—which I will explain later if y'all really want to know the deets. Bottom line, this is a trap. There is no al Qaeda cell in this hole in the jungle. They're all across the river in Paraguay, if you really want to know. This is a trap set by Reyo Trujo, who seems to have a humongous hard-on for you, through the machinations of a highly placed traitor in the Department of Defense." Then she smiled sweetly and pulled out a granola bar from her pocket, unwrapped it and took a bite. Caffeine and sugar only went so far in combating low blood sugar—and she’d need all the energy she could muster for the fight to come.

Maddox looked at her hands as if they might rear up and bite him. Again a sound somewhere between a rumble and a snarl came from deep in his chest. His icy grey-blue eyes warmed and turned a deep, smoky slate blue. His gaze traveled over her as if trying to classify her species—or figuring where to take a bite out of her first. She shivered. Now, she knew firsthand what a soft furry bunny felt like when a wolf had it in its sights. The man was an honorable, dominant, alpha male with predatory tendencies, much like her dad and brothers. This was a good news-bad news thing. Good in that she knew how to deal with the alpha personality; bad in that such honorable alphas wanted to cocoon her in bubble wrap and put her somewhere safe.

She didn't get "put" easily.

"Keely." Tweeter's voice had gone low and soft. Too soft. He was pissed—and really, really scared. "How did you get here?"

When in doubt about handling men getting on their protective high-horses, her mom told her to answer their questions literally, in great detail and at length. Such responses had a way of distracting the overprotective male.

"I flew commercial until Puerto Iguazu—and let me tell you there are no straight-through flights anywhere in this part of the world."

Someone snorted. She turned. Had the sound, much like stifled laughter, come from Maddox? Nah, his face was stone cold, the expression of a man who ate nails for breakfast. She must have imagined the sound. He caught her look and raised an arrogant dark brow. She glared at him, then turned back to her brother.

"Then I rented a chopper—”

"The Kamov," Petriv offered. He winked at her. Again. A trained assassin with a sense of the ridiculous. How fun. "A good bird."

She shot him a sunny smile. "Yes—you were listening. Good, 'cause we need to get out of here." She chased the granola with the second Coke, then stepped over the wiggling bartender and headed around the bar.

None of the three men moved. She stood, hands on her hips. "Did y'all hear me? Bad guys. Twenty of them or maybe more—well, come to think of it, seventeen or maybe more … I'm not counting the bartender—are coming to kill you."

Her brother grabbed her arms and shook her. She winced. "Tweets, you don't know your strength. You're hurting me."

He hovered over her, attempting to use his foot or so advantage in height to intimidate her. He should have learned by now it didn't work on her, but he always tried.

"Don't give me that crap," he said, exasperation in his voice. "I'm hardly touching you. Are you sure none of this is your blood?" His forehead creased with concern as his gaze traveled her torso and a finger traced the blood spatter down the front of her shirt.

She slapped his hand away, then leaned her forehead on his chest and sighed. Unwanted tears welled in her eyes. She refused to let them fall. That was a wussy-assed thing to do, and there was no time to be weak. She was safe and her brother was safe. She'd made it in time.

He held her more tightly against him. "I hate to ask—but why are there now only seventeen or so mercs left?" He took her hat off and leaned his chin on top of her disheveled, sweaty curls, his fingers soothing her scalp as he untangled the mess now falling to the center of her back.

One of the other two men gasped. Typical male response to her hair. She hated her hair. Most days, it was a nuisance. It was thick and heavy, and in hot humid weather, it curled and frizzed like crazy. But all her brothers, her dad and, most importantly, her mama begged her not to cut it.

"Why seventeen, Keely Ann Walsh?" He rocked her within the circle of his arms as he used to do when she skinned her knees as a little girl.

"Because I had to, um, disable two on the way here and then kill the guy out back. I was on a short clock, like Dad always says. I couldn't let anyone or anything stop me from getting here. Okay?" She wasn't happy that her last word had ended on a shrill note. She took a breath and let it out slowly. If she had a mantra, she'd be chanting it.

"Okay, calm down, Imp." He smoothed her hair, a losing battle since it always did what it wanted to anyway. "Did you see any of the other mercs?"

"Nope, but I think the guy who I killed out back was coming to let the bartender know the attack was imminent. The two guys on the trail said something about waiting on someone. I figured Trujo wanted to be in on the kill."

Maddox grunted, drawing her attention. As he opened his mouth to say something, probably something macho and sexist, several rounds of automatic gunfire hit the front of the building, burning through the flimsy wood like a knife through butter. The mirror behind the bar shattered under the barrage, showering her and Tweeter with glass.

She shoved out of Tweeter's arms then pulled him to the floor. Satisfied he hadn't been hit, she belly-crawled from behind the bar, ignoring everything but the need to get to the back room to retrieve the H&Ks she'd left there along with her backpack and all the ammo.

"Keely," Tweeter yelled, his hand just slipping off her booted foot.

"I've got her," Maddox shouted. "Start laying down some fire out the front and block the fucking door!"

Continuing her fast crawl, she threw a frowning glance over her shoulder. "Has my mom met you?" He shook his head, confusion evident in his eyes. "Don't ever use the f-bomb around her. She'll make you pay."

Maddox snorted. Same sound she'd heard earlier. He'd been—still was—laughing at her. Ass.

"You think that's funny? Just wait until you owe her a small fortune," Keely muttered.

He put a large hand on her hips, shoving gently. "Move it. What have you got in the back room? An arsenal?"

"How'd you guess?" She ignored his sarcastic tone and threw a glare over her shoulder. "Move the hand. Tweetie is looking—and he won't like it."

He slowly pulled his hand away, caressing her rear end. "Tweetie?"

They were in the middle of a fight for their lives and he wanted to share personal family info? Fine. She could multi-task. "I couldn't say Tweeter when I was little. Want to know when my brothers first short-sheeted my bed?"

He grinned and shook his head. "Maybe later."

He choked back another laugh at her muttered, "Ass." She dragged the backpack to her and pulled out ammo, tossing him a couple of magazines and then one of the H&Ks.

His mouth quirked. "Hand me the extra H&K for the guys. They’ll need the extra firepower." He stuck his hand out.

She shoved the weapon at him, which he took and crawled into the other room. He'd left his weapon so he was obviously coming back. Lucky her.

Out of habit, she checked it over for him. Say what you would about hired guns, they did take care of their weapons. The H&K was clean and good to go.

After shoving some boxes of canned foods around, she built a place for them to hide behind. She put bags of flour in front of the boxes. Might stop some bullets from getting through. Then she dropped behind the makeshift barricade and checked her weapon again. Maddox crawled back into the room and gave her preparations a surprised and approving look. She answered the unasked question in his eyes. "Too many years of following my brothers around and playing war games." She shoved his gun toward him. "I checked it. Thirty-round mags and I set it for bursts."

"Trained by a Marine, I see." He checked over the weapon himself.

She wasn't insulted. He'd be dumb if he hadn't. "My dad—and a couple of SEALs. My oldest two brothers are Navy." She wished they were here now. It sounded like WWIII in the front. She anticipated an attack on the back any time.

Before Maddox could make a comment, something thudded against the back door. Two more thuds and the bad guys figured they couldn't knock it down, so they shot at it. Splinters flew as the door was riddled with bullets.

Keely lay on her stomach and poked the muzzle of her weapon through a firing hole she'd created. Maddox was next to her, his body heat and male scent engulfing her. She felt more threatened by his closeness than by the murderous goons attempting to breach the back door. She wiggled away, opening up her personal space, but he followed, his body now touched her from hip to ankle. Damn. He was ready to cover her body with his to protect her. He'd learn eventually—she always carried her weight. She didn't need a man to cover her ass.

He looked at her. "Short bursts. Go for the head. They might have body armor." He followed his words with an example, aiming head high through the door. A body fell through the decimated door. A perfect head shot.

She shouted to be heard over the return fire. "I know. Don't baby me. I can hit what I aim for. You could ask my brother, but he and Petriv sound busy."

The merc force had thrown the main firepower to the front. Maybe they thought the SSI men would be distracted and forget there was a back door. That would be stupid thinking on the mercs' part. She let off a short burst of gunfire at the next man who stuck his head around the shredded door. The man fell forward on top of his buddy, the top of his head missing.

Keely touched Maddox's muscled, hairy forearm. His arm tensed under her fingers. His eyes burned blue like the heart of a gas flame as he turned to look at her. She frowned—distracted by the flames in his eyes. He wasn't angry, but she wasn't sure what he was feeling. She shook off the effect of his intent look. "Um, FYI, the three I took out had no armor. It's too frick-fracking hot for Kevlar."

Maddox laughed, a full-out sound that reached into her gut and turned her insides to mush. O-o-kay, the guy could lighten up—though now might not be the right time.

While the battle raged at the front of the building, the gunfire had temporarily halted at their position. The enemy had to reassess their strategy. Two of theirs were down and they hadn't even fully breached the rear of the cantina. The lull would not last forever. Already, Keely's neck itched like crazy. It would be soon.

"Way too hot." He lifted her chin with a calloused finger. This time she was the one to tense. She had the little-prey-feeling again. She licked suddenly dry lips, wishing for another Coke. His gaze turned frigid, the color of Arctic ice. "No one gets through."

In other words, don't be a girl about killing. If he only knew—"Gotcha." She attempted to smile, but failed. "Don't worry, Mr. Maddox."

"It's Ren." He tweaked her chin. "Say it."

The cessation of fire at their position still held, but it couldn't much longer before someone tested the door again. Humor the man, Keely. "Ren."

His eyes warmed. She licked her lips again. His eyes darkened to the deep grey-blue color peculiarly his before he turned away to concentrate on the rear entrance. Yet, she sensed he knew every breath she took, every movement she made, even if it was minor.

"Uh, I won't let y'all down." She bit her lower lip. "I just wish I could've warned you before you left Idaho. Some guy named Quinn said I just missed Tweetie."

"You made good time. We just got here two hours ago."

She fixed her gaze on the door and away from him. He was a distraction—and she was usually hard to distract. She focused on her weapon, her finger ready to pull the trigger. "You had to sneak in. I came direct. Makes a difference." She took a deep breath. "They're regrouping—it shouldn't be long now."

"Yeah. Nervous?"

She caught his sideways glance. He was concerned. He probably wished her anywhere but here. His type would always protect the little helpless woman. She wished she could convince him she could handle her end of the fight. Well, he'd learn soon enough. "A little. I hate killing. But I'll do what I have to do."

"But you shouldn't the fuck have to." His tone was angry tinged with regret.

"I tried to get some of my brothers freed up, but they would have been too late."

His look told her she should've tried harder. She was tempted to stick her tongue out at him, but just then his head whipped around to face forward as two men burst into the room through the decimated wood door. Their guns blazed amidst the crash of bottles as the cases spilled open. The two were immediately followed by others. Guess the strategy was to hit them all at once.

In her shooting zone, Keely was barely aware of anything around her. She shot in short bursts, aiming for heads and legs. When it became evident that they did not, in fact, have body armor, she adjusted and went for heart shots, even if she missed the heart, torso shots at this caliber had stopping power. Her mathematical mind figured angles and trajectories, anticipated movements and coordinated with her muscle movement and eye-to-hand coordination. Her sniper training courtesy of one of her dad's buddies stood her well. She wasted no ammunition. Each man she aimed at, she hit. When they went down, they stayed down.

She emptied a magazine and swiftly and efficiently ejected it and inserted another.

Ren's muttered "goddamn—a warrior sprite" had her glancing his way. But he was concentrating on shooting and not her. She must have imagined his words.

They fell into a rhythm, each taking out every other man through the narrow door. When one reloaded, the other took up the slack. It was as if they could read each other's minds.

Finally, the attackers stopped coming. Bodies lay strewn across the floor of the small back room. Smoke hung in the air. Silence fell over the bullet-riddled building. Tweeter and Petriv spoke in low rumbles in the other room. But Keely's tension increased rather than decreased with the cessation of the attack.

"Fudge ripple, that's not good. It was too easy." She looked at Ren. His eyes were narrowed as he examined her. "I don't like this. Maybe my intel wasn't complete. There were too many of them—so there could be a lot more out there."

"They could've changed the plan after you set out." Ren's tone was low, rumbling, meant to soothe her. "Don't worry about it, sprite."

She hadn’t imagined him calling her that earlier. Before she could call him on the carpet—"Something's coming."

"What?" Ren turned toward her, crowding into her personal space even more. "What do you…”

A grenade thrown through the doorway tumbled into the room.

Ren's "fuck" barely registered. Keely was closer. Tossing her weapon to the side, she went for the explosive. As she rolled across the floor toward another set of boxes, she grabbed the live grenade, then lobbed it side-handed out the rear door. She kept rolling and made it behind some boxes of frijoles before the explosion rocked the back of the building.

She rolled onto her stomach and pulled her Bren from the holster at her back. She flicked off the safety and held it two-handed just in case someone was alive to follow through.

"Keely, what the fuck was that?" Her brother's frightened bellow was loud and cut through the ringing in her ears. She could make out Petriv swearing in some highly colorful Russian.

A quick glance told her Ren was okay—but visibly furious. "Don't you ever fucking do that again!" He glared at her instead of paying attention to the new hole in the wall.

She shrugged and fired over his head at a man attempting to come through the smoldering opening. The dead man drooped over the jagged remnants of the wall, half in and half out of the room.

After another furious glance at her, Ren double-tapped the intruder to make sure he was dead.

Why the heck was he mad at her? She'd kept them from being blown into hamburger and then saved his life? She deserved an "atta-girl."

Silence reigned once more over the small, battered building. Her itchy feeling was gone, thank the Lord. She laid her weary head on her forearms, but kept her handgun in her right hand, just in case her spider sense was wrong.

"Keely!" Tweeter's worried voice came from the front room once more.

"I'm fine, Tweetie. How many did you get on your side?"

"Vanko and I got us a confirmed ten motherfuckers."

She ignored her brother’s profanity, allowing for the situation. "My three on the way here plus your ten plus we have eleven, no, make that twelve on the floor and hanging over the hole in the wall. That's twenty-five. We might have taken out one or two with the grenade out the back door…"

"What fucking grenade?" Tweeter yelled. "Where did you get a fucking grenade?'

"The live grenade your fool sister picked up and threw out the back door." Ren's jaw clenched and unclenched. He belly crawled toward her.

"Tattletale." She stuck out her tongue.

His eyes narrowed as he moved toward her. "Brat."

Ignoring him, she turned and crawled into the bar area with Ren so close behind her she could feel his hot breath on the bare skin of her legs above her hiking boots. She met her brother just inside the doorway as he crab-walked toward her. He looked her over, then sighed.

"I think that's the same blood you already had." He closed his eyes and shook his head. "Imp, don't do that shit. Let us do it."

"It" being the throwing of live grenades, she supposed. "It was closer to me—and I know how to handle a live grenade, ya know." And why was she getting defensive?

"Yeah, Mom never let Dad live that training session down, did she?" He grinned at her. A shaky finger stroked her cheek.

"Nope, she didn't." She sat up and pulled her knees to her chest, her arms hanging loosely over her bent knees, her gun still in her right hand. "There could be more mercs waiting in the jungle—or the survivors of this team could be regrouping. I say we get out of here before they can come at us with bigger guns or something. Plus, we have the belly guns on the helo and all that armor-plating Russians love to layer on their aircraft. I'll feel better once we're up and can shoot down on them."

Petriv's shout of laughter had her smiling. Someone appreciated her. She grinned at the Ukrainian.

Knee-walking, Ren came up against her back. His knee nudged her bottom and his body almost covered hers from behind. He grabbed her arms, keeping her from moving away from his heat and scent. What was his problem now? She was just sitting here.

"Ren?" Tweeter frowned. "You're crowding my baby sister. Back off."



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