“A taut romantic thriller readers won’t want to put down” – Library Journal, starred review
A Booklist Top 10 2016 romance debut
“nonstop action and romantic tension sizzle” – publishers weekly
“TRULY UNFORGETTABLE” – RT BOOK REVIEWS
“VIVID AND UNRELENTING ACTION AND DANGER … THOROUGHLY ENJOYABLE” – BOOKLIST
“Everything I love in a romance” – Heather Graham
“ONE YOU’LL NEVER FORGET” – Sharon Sala
“a raw, dark, emotional novel” – Kat Martin
“Romantic suspense at its best” – Carla Neggers
“A keeper” – Cindy Gerard
A Barnes & Noble #1 romance bestseller
KORU AWARD WINNER
gOLDEN hEART AWARD FINALIST
Rafe Angelito thought he was done with the demons from his past—until his son is kidnapped. Blackmailed into abducting an American heiress, the Legionnaire soon finds himself trapped in paradise with a fiery, daring beauty who’s nothing he expects … and everything he desires. But when he uncovers her own dark secret, Rafe realizes he’s made a critical mistake—one that could cost him everything.
Time to get this over with.
Rafe Angelito signaled his two crewmen. They pushed the RIB off the beach and leapt in, the scrape of the hull on pebbles the only sound in the moonlit bay. As he’d predicted, the American had brought her yacht closer to shore than usual for the night, to shelter from the trade winds belting through the Indian Ocean.
Michael pulled in the bowline while his brother Uriel lowered the outboard motor and gunned it. Rafe tested a thin rope, coiled it and stuffed it in his pocket. A pampered heiress wasn’t likely to give them trouble, but with his son’s future at stake he wasn’t taking chances. A kidnap for a kidnap.
He cricked his neck. Time for action, at last. Since dawn they’d followed the yacht through the archipelago, awaiting the right moment to strike. A lightning operation–grab the woman, leave the yacht. Even if she got out a mayday call they’d be gone before anyone responded.
“Faster,” he ordered, the language of his childhood awkward on his tongue.
Rafe’s jaw tightened at Uriel’s facetious comment. “Call me that again and I’ll rip out your throat.” This week he wasn’t a French Foreign Legionnaire. He was a Lost Boy again, whether he liked it or not.
Michael handed him a phone, nodding at the screen. A text. Rafe clenched his teeth. Gabriel again. ‘What is happening, my brother?’
He yanked off his glove, gripped the railing, and replied one-handed, in his native language. ‘A few minutes and we’ll have her.’
And I’m not your brother, you son of a bitch.
A reply came in seconds. ‘Don’t mess this up, Raphael, or your boy is mine for good.’
Rafe’s gut twisted. His son was sheltered, innocent–everything Rafe never had a chance to be. Right now, Theo was supposed to be home with his grandmother on Corsica, going to school, learning to fish, playing football. But the Lost Boys had come in the night, just as they’d come for Rafe as he’d lain sleeping in the dust of a refugee camp nearly thirty years ago.
Another buzz. He likes his Uncle Gabriel. ‘He’ll make a good lieutenant, when I’ve finished with him.’
Theo’s face filled the phone’s screen, terror lacing his dark eyes. Rafe’s heart kicked. Next to his son, with an arm slung over the boy’s shoulder, a man grinned. Gabriel. Two decades older, but no mistaking the machete scar splitting his nose. Rafe tightened his grip on the phone. What kind of “uncle“ would snatch a nine-year-old to blackmail his father into committing a gutless crime?
Gabriel, that was who. But why kidnap the daughter of an American senator? The Lost Boys’ usual trafficking victims were lost themselves–unwanted girls and women sold into prostitution, or orphaned boys forced to become child soldiers, like Rafe. This heiress was the closest America had to a princess. A stupid risk, but at least Rafe could ensure no harm came to the woman–or his son. Best-case scenario? Within the week her father paid the twenty million, she went home, and Rafe got Theo back. Worst-case?
Crack. A cobweb of splinters spread across the screen, fracturing the image of Theo’s face. Rafe loosened his grip and shoved the piece-of-crap phone in his pocket. The worst-case scenario would not happen. He pulled on his glove. He was an imbécile for thinking a past like his could remain buried.
His gaze swept the yacht, silvery and skeletal with its sails stowed. No movement. With luck she’d be asleep. On signal, Uriel swung the boat around to the northwest, setting up for an approach from the yacht’s leeward side. Rafe yanked down his balaclava and signaled his crew to do the same. Wouldn’t do to have their faces broadcast on the American’s live webcam.
“No mistakes,“ he growled. “Anyone hurts the girl, I hurt him.“
The halyard clinked against the mast as the yacht rocked in the swell. Holly Ryan closed her eyes and stretched out on the deck, soaking up the pleasure of dozing to the current’s ebb and flow.
She inhaled the velvety air and sighed. The sound rolled out into the night, joined by the slap of water against the hull and the strain of a distant motor. Tropical heat seeped into her skin. If only life could stay this way forever–waking at dawn and anchoring at dusk, sun-bleached hair clumped from swimming, freckled skin rough with salt.
She linked her hands behind her head. The boat wasn’t a hell of a lot bigger than her prison cell and only marginally more comfortable, but it was intoxicating just knowing the horizon wasn’t blocked by a concrete wall. Hallelujah. So what if the real Laura Hyland sipped champagne on her father’s superyacht somewhere off Bali while Holly did the hard sailing? Holly could get drunk on the smell of freedom–out here it came salty, with notes of seaweed.
Four more months of sailing and Holly would have fulfilled her end of this screwed-up bargain and earned enough money to wipe clean the disaster that had been her life so far. In the meantime, she’d damn well enjoy it. She’d done worse things for lesser reward.
Closer now, the motor whined as it was pushed faster. Bit late for a fisherman, and no villages lay along this stretch of rainforest. Precisely why she’d chosen the spot for an anchorage–the fewer people she faced as Laura, the better. Even in Indonesia, people had heard of the New York socialite and her solo circumnavigation. Though she did resemble Laura after a hurried makeover, Holly couldn’t risk anyone figuring out the truth.
The motor’s pitch dropped–it was slowing, the water swishing around it. On approach. She bolted upright, the back of her neck prickling. Moonlight glinted off an inflatable with three large figures on it. No lights, closing in. Her breath shuddered. Not one of the local fishing boats. A journalist looking for a scoop–but out here, at this time of night? Hardly. A shark-finning boat? Dozens of large sharks had glided past the yacht in the last few days.
Whoever they were, she had no escape. By the time she weighed anchor they’d be on her. A mayday call or flare wouldn’t do shit, out here in the middle of nowhere.
She skidded into the cabin, snatched up her pocketknife and stuffed it in her shorts pocket. What else could she use for a weapon? Damn the senator for refusing to let her carry a gun. She eyed the radio, biting her lip. No time for a call–if these guys cornered her down here, there’d be no escape. She sprang back up the ladder. The inflatable drew up to starboard, the men silent. Balaclavas. They wore balaclavas. Shit. She spun around. Come on, come on. Her gaze landed on the winch handle. She wrenched it out of its socket, tested its solid weight. Good old-fashioned heavy metal.
As one man tied up and pulled the boats alongside, another stepped onto the yacht’s stern, wobbling as if he straddled a tightrope. He was burly but perhaps not a sailor. That could work in her favor. She moved the winch handle behind her, out of sight.
“What do you want?“ she asked, sounding more confident than she felt.
“We don’t want to hurt you.“ The deep voice came from the bow of the inflatable, in thickly accented but precise English.
Her cheeks iced over. In her experience, people who said that usually did the opposite. The burly man advanced, feeling for his balance. Was that seriously an Angry Birds T-shirt?
“Who are you?“
“We are taking you with us.“ The guy on the inflatable again. He said something to his crew in a language she couldn’t place. His voice was authoritative, but at ease. She chanced a look. He leaned against the console, arms crossed. Confident, but casual with it–like he’d done this a hundred times. He was even bigger than the guy coming for her, but more athletic. Not good.
“You won’t be harmed if you cooperate,“ he continued.
Her blood chilled. “You’re pirates? You’ve got to be kidding me.“ She was almost halfway through this job, halfway to her new law-abiding life. Not even Blackbeard was going to ruin that.
He laughed, deep and calm. “I wish I was joking, Laura.“
Laura. This was no random heist. What was his accent–Russian? Eastern European? Not one of the notorious Indonesian lanun pirates who patrolled the Strait of Malacca. This archipelago was far enough south of the main shipping lanes that thieves weren’t supposed to consider it profitable. So much for sticking to safer waters.
It was a long time since she’d had to fight a man. She had one advantage–they thought she was a helpless socialite. They weren’t expecting trouble, and if they were kidnapping her for a ransom, they wouldn’t want to kill her–yet. She swallowed. She could play the frightened girl, give them false confidence and try to escape. In what–her tender? That thing wouldn’t win a race with a jellyfish.
She could tell them the truth, but why the hell would they believe her? Even if they did, what then–they’d apologize gracefully and be on their way? Fat chance.
“No, please, you can’t do this to me.“ She let her nerves show in her voice. The Angry Birds guy was five feet away. Another few steps… “I’ll scream, I’ll…I’ll… My daddy’s a United States senator, a retired Marine. A webcam is broadcasting your every move. He’ll track you down in minutes.“ She cringed, inwardly. Too much?
“Nothing to be worried about,“ said the man on the inflatable. “We’ll take you somewhere comfortable for a few days, your father will pay a ransom, you will be freed.“
Angry Birds jumped down onto the deck. Holly sprang backward, onto the bow. She slid her legs apart for stability, her bare feet compensating for the yacht’s movement. The man on the boat growled something. Angry Birds shouted back. One word was clear: Capitaine. He approached gingerly, his palms up, placating her. She cowered, as if bracing for the moment of contact, her pulse pummeling in her ears.
He inched closer. Patience. She tightened her grip on the winch handle. Her days of being someone’s punching bag were long dead. She waited until he was within a yard of her then pivoted her torso, letting her hand whip with the momentum, and bashed the handle into his face with a dull, meaty crack. He wobbled, forced to prioritize regaining his balance over capturing her. Yelling from deep in her chest, she drove her heel into the side of his knee, buckling it. As he collapsed, she shoved him backward. The boat tilted with his weight and he slid into the water, one hand clutching the grab line. Her leg muscles clenched, finding equilibrium, her soles clinging to the deck like limpets. Gasping for breath, she cracked the handle onto his fingers. He splashed into the inky water with a howl.
The boat rocked, and she jumped backward to avoid following him in. Hands grabbed her biceps, from behind. Damn. When had a second man come aboard? She bent her knee and rammed a heel into his groin. Awkward, but effective–he grunted and eased his grip, just enough for her to swivel out of it. It wasn’t the capitaine, just the other goon, now bent double and panting. Before he could straighten, she clutched his head and rammed her knee into his face. Bones crackled, he yelped. She sprang back.
Instinctively, he brought both hands up to his face. Holy crap, she’d broken his nose? She wasn’t as out of practice as she’d thought. She launched a flying kick into his stomach, but it glanced off. Damn. He flailed but regained his balance, shook himself and fixed his hooded eyes on her. She retreated, panting. What now–the knife? She didn’t want to risk getting close enough to use it–and bloodshed wasn’t her thing. Angry Birds splashed about below, no doubt fighting the pull of his heavy boots.
Stern instructions came from the boat. The capitaine sounded frustrated with his men but bored, like he knew capturing her was just a matter of time.
Not if she could help it. She sprang behind the boom, her free hand fumbling to loosen the mainsheet. The pirate inched forward, a dark stain spreading across his gray balaclava. She swept the boom toward him. He stumbled, and shot out his hands to catch it. Before he could recover she hurled the handle. It clocked his broken nose. Bingo. He roared, and reeled back, but righted himself. He spat indecipherable words, blood and saliva dripping from his mask, his arms spread out for balance, hands clawed.
Damn. She should have thrown the knife–who knew her aim would be that good? She didn’t trust her chances now. She zipped her pocket, spun and plunged into the sea. Once the cool water swallowed her, she jackknifed and propelled herself under the yacht, kicking and pulling against the tug of the swell, feeling her way around the keel’s smooth curve. Her chest ached for air. She surfaced silently on the port side, in the moon’s shadow, and devoured oxygen as quietly as she could.
Urgent voices sounded above her. How long could she tread water and wait for rescue? Could she fool them into thinking she’d drowned? Laura’s website must be getting a million hits with this on the live stream. The woman’s craziest fans watched twenty-four-seven, keeping up a constant social media commentary. When Holly had sunbathed on the deck in Laura’s bikini she’d nearly broken the internet, even though the images were kept low-res to cover for the body switch. Help could already be on its way.
“Laura, you can’t stay down there forever. We will find you.“ The capitaine switched languages and spoke sharply to the other men, his voice ringing out from the deck of the yacht. Two men on the yacht and one in the water equaled none in the inflatable. What were her chances of slipping away in it? Better than her other options.
She filled her lungs, pulled herself underwater and followed the hull out in the direction of the men’s boat, coming up for air in the shelter of the yacht, blinking her stinging eyes clear. The inflatable’s bowline stretched above her head, tied alongside. She retrieved her knife and popped the blade.
Clinging to the yacht’s grab line, she hauled herself up as far as she dared. The yacht shifted with her weight. She froze. Deep voices murmured as the men searched. They’d find her in seconds. She stretched up. Moonlight winked off the blade. The line was inches out of her reach. Shit. Footsteps approached.
She dived, and felt her way under the inflatable. The hull was metal and shaped into a deep V–no ordinary rubber boat. If she could steal it, she could get to the other end of the archipelago, at least. She’d passed a couple of inhabited islands that morning.
She popped up on the far side and clutched a cleat, forcing herself to suck in air as if through a straw. Could she sneak aboard and release the bowline before they got to her? She’d have to get in from the stern–the sides of the hull were too steep, and heaving herself up would draw attention.
Something brushed her bare calf. She gasped, drawing up her legs. Had Angry Birds found her? Nobody surfaced. Her heart thundered. If it wasn’t the man, what was–?
A nudge, then something rough skimmed her leg. Not human. A white-tipped dorsal fin sliced through the black water. Holy crap, a shark. One of the oceanic whitetips she’d seen earlier? It’d be testing her, trying to figure out if she was prey. Oh, God. She gripped the knife with one hand and the cleat with the other, forcing her legs to still. It’d expect prey to thrash, to swim away. Stillness would confuse it, right? She fought the urge to hyperventilate. From the port side of the yacht came splashing. Angry Birds. Doubly bad–he was closing in on her and baiting the shark. Her arm shook with the strain of holding herself steady.
A panicked shout burst from the yacht. Had they spotted the shark, or her? She caught movement to her left. Angry Birds slogged through the water with clumsy strokes. Blood trailed from his nose, where she’d clocked him with the winch. He flinched, and his gaze darted below. Was the whitetip scouting him out, too? Or were there more than one? She fought an urge to order him to be still.
He yelled, suddenly thrashing. Holy shit. Fast footfalls and shouts responded from the yacht. Didn’t they have a gun? The man’s body lurched downwards, his scream splitting the air. Her hand spasmed, her muscles burning. Ah, crap, she couldn’t just watch.
“Get a life preserver,“ she shouted. “If he can grab it you can pull him up.“
“Where is it?“ The capitaine’s tone was urgent, but not panicked, like a shark attack was a minor distraction.
“The stern, starboard side.“
She didn’t stay to watch. With shark and men occupied, she swam as smoothly as she could to the stern of the inflatable, fear clawing her stomach. She pocketed the knife and reached for the ladder, her arm still shaking. The boat swung away. Her fingers slipped off the rung, and she splattered into the water. Crap. Sandpapery skin brushed her sole. Her blood froze. A wave rocked the boat, smashing the outboard into her forehead. She swallowed the flare of pain. Ten yards away, the water churned. A feeding frenzy? The man had stopped screaming. A cry rang out, followed by a splash–too big to be the life preserver. Jesus, had another of the men gone in? Shouts echoed from everywhere–in the water, on the deck.
Another nudge on her leg, harder. She flailed for the ladder, forcing her eyes open against the water slapping her face. How many sharks were there–a whole school? Did they even travel in schools? Did it freaking matter?
A wave dunked her, sweeping her from the boat. She fought her way back, her lungs ready to burst. Her hand hit the rung and she caught it with one finger, lurched forward and clamped the palm over it. Roaring with effort, she anchored her thumb underneath and held on, the bitter burn of salt water in her throat. With the current dragging her away, she had no chance of hauling herself up. Her forearm strained near to snapping. The water swished with the force of something big shooting up underneath her. Her every muscle clenched. She hadn’t survived twenty-nine years of crap to die like this.
© 2016 BRYNN KELLY, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. IMAGES USED UNDER LICENSE FROM SHUTTERSTOCK.COM.