A RISK WORTH TAKING
"Packed with fast-paced action, treachery and deceit as well as redemptive love, this book never slows down." – RT Book Reviews
He can’t outrun himself…
Legionnaire Jamie Armstrong lives in the shadows. A medic haunted by his mistakes, he knows better than to hope for redemption. But his latest mission brings a threat he doesn’t see coming—an attraction as irresistible as it is dangerous. Hacker Samira Desta is a woman he swore to forget, but as a key witness to a deadly conspiracy, Samira is his to protect.
But the woman he rescues might be the one who saves him
After a year in hiding, Samira’s worst fears come true when her cover is blown and the unlikeliest of allies comes to her aid—the secretive Scot with whom she shared one unforgettable night. Hunted by lethal forces and losing the battle against their desire, Jamie and Samira make a desperate play to take the fight to their enemy—but those at greatest risk of ruin may be themselves…
A RISK WORTH TAKING
A dozen tiny spiders tiptoed up Samira Desta’s nape. She planted a placeholder finger on her file of evidence and blinked as her focus adjusted over the rolling red and gold fields, their folds in charcoal shadow like an unshaken quilt. Cypress trees: check. Cows: check. Paranoia: check. She rubbed her neck. Nothing there, of course. Not a Sangiovese grape out of place in paradise.
The buzz of a motor curled in on the breeze, echoing off the hills. Her breath stalled. Vehicle? Helicopter? Drone strike? What did a drone strike even sound like?
She tsked. A droning, presumably. And by the time you noticed it, would it be too late, like seeing a tsunami or hearing the rumble of an earthquake?
A red motor scooter bobbed up over a distant rise and ducked away under the next, appeared again, disappeared, appeared…rising and falling from view like a surfer in a swell. The rider wore a high-vis jacket. Il postino. Samira exhaled. Stand down, Sherlock.
Or could it be a mercenary masquerading as a postal worker? That would be a great cover.
Yes, she was losing it. Too much time alone.
Low morning sun bathed the courtyard but the air channeling down the neighbor’s vines was cool around the edges, sending leaves rattling and scratching across the terracotta tiles. From the speakers inside the rented cottage, Carole King and her piano were working through their problems. “It’s Going to Take Some Time.”
No kidding, Carole.
Coffee fumes wove into the decaying earthy scent of fall. Autunno, here. The world didn’t get more breathtaking but the beauty didn’t hit Samira in her chest as it might once have. One day, when all this was over, maybe that little skip would return.
With a sigh she tightened her ponytail and returned to the document. The letters seemed to float off the page and rearrange, like they were trying to edit themselves. Ah, who was she kidding? She’d memorized every word of her evidence for the special counsel investigating Senator Tristan Hyland’s terrorist links. No matter how often she revised, it got no stronger than circumstantial and hearsay. And no wonder people weren’t believing it. A wildly popular war hero orders a terror attack in Los Angeles that kills thousands, for political and financial gain? Preposterous. He could still wriggle out, proclaim it was a conspiracy to end his presidential ambitions—if Samira even got to testify before suffering a conveniently fatal accident, like her fiancé had.
Note to self: Google the sound of a drone strike.
Or would that send an alert to a gray-faced analyst in a monitoring center in some industrial park in America? A company with an ominously banal name—Tactical Security Associates or Virtual Monitoring Solutions. She wants to hear a drone strike? We’ll give her a drone strike.
No, she really wasn’t winning the concentration battle. She heaved the document shut, the echoing slap sending a cow thundering across a neighboring field. Scraping the chair backward, she pressed her knuckles into the middle of her back and arched. For many months it’d felt like a bubble of air was trapped there. She’d writhed and wriggled, twisted and stretched, bent backward over innumerable sofas and chairs in a blur of rented cottages and apartments, but the satisfying pop just wouldn’t come. If Latif were alive he’d gather her in his arms and yank her tight around the ribs. Just the right spot, just the right angle, just the right pressure. Her back would crack, the tension would release, she’d take a deep breath, they’d kiss…
She gave up on the back crack. Wishful thinking. The bubble had been wedged there since she’d read the newsflash about “collateral damage” in a drone strike in Somalia and known by the snap in her heart what it meant.
Nineteen months since his death. Thirteen months since she’d become a witness in the case against Hyland and disappeared underground on a self-imposed protection program. Thirteen months of fleeing from hiding place to hiding place, living under a series of assumed names, rarely reaching more length or depth in her conversations than “un cappuccino, per favore,” “un café crème, s’il vous plaît,” “ich möchte etwas kaffee.” Her Continental grand tour, from Africa to France, then Switzerland, Slovakia, Croatia… She traced a finger around the lip of the coffee cup. Where had she gone after that? The Milan apartment? The former monastery near Barcelona? All private, secluded rentals that didn’t require ID. Cash up front to cover a couple of months’ rent for a “writing retreat.” All the time with that bubble lodged in her spine, that prickly sensation of being watched. She shuddered.
Still, she had no right to complain—about anything. How much would Latif love to come back for this one day, as hollow as it was? Sunshine, countryside, starlings… It would all be pretty cool to a dead person.
She shook a twig off her foot and hunkered into her scarf. La couleur de minuit. A memory triggered—crunching through leaves alongside the River Loire, the scarf around her neck, hand in hand with a man she shouldn’t have been hand in hand with. But his palm was dry and warm and rough, and his voice was deep and mellow, and her grief was raw, and his kiss was…
A man who shouldn’t return to her thoughts as often as he did. Like right now, virtually pulling up a chair alongside her and nuzzling her nape, murmuring phrases that hadn’t been covered by her French tutors, his Scottish lilt blending with his throaty French R.
She tugged the scarf free and twisted its smooth cotton length through one loose fist, silver threads flashing in the deep violet. Memory or fantasy? She’d been living in her head so long…
Either way, it was unfair to force Latif’s fading ghost to compete with the all too vivid memory of Jamie. And futile. Both were entombed in her past and would stay there. She hadn’t replaced Latif with Jamie. Jamie had been a…what? Fling? Escape? Lapse of judgment? All of the above? It might as well have happened in her imagination, except for the scarf he’d bought her from the market below the Château de Langeais and the voice in her head, and the very real confusion twisting beneath her ribs. If it wasn’t grief over Latif, it was guilt over what she’d felt for Jamie. Still felt.
Was that really a year ago?
Her phone alarm trilled through the Bluetooth speakers. The A-Team theme. She caught the phone as it vibrated off the wrought iron table, and swiped it silent, her heart skipping. The music restarted. The scooter had turned onto her road—a dead end she shared with a boutique family vineyard and an organic farm—triggering the first of her motion sensors. She threaded the scarf around her neck and knotted it. The engine tapered from a hum to a chug as it neared her long driveway. Probably nothing, but she gathered up the file and the coffee cup.
The scooter disappeared behind a strip of strutting cypresses, its engine slowing, the sound sharpening as it turned. Samira’s pocket jumped. The second alarm—MacGyver. The scooter was in her driveway. With a few more swipes, she muted the alarm and Carole, midclimax of “It’s Too Late.” She grabbed her backpack from where it leaned against a whitewashed wall just inside the French doors—packed, always packed. She hadn’t left as much as a toothbrush out in a year. The scooter whined as it climbed the gravel drive. Breath catching, she drew the doors closed from the outside, coaxing them flat with her fingernails, and stole behind the fat trunk of an oak across the courtyard.
Probably just mail for a previous tenant, but the fewer locals she encountered the better. The only people who could feasibly mail her anything—and only through a trusted, off-the-radar intermediary—were her parents and the journalist who’d broken the story a year ago about Hyland’s connection to the LA attacks, Tess Newell. Her friend Tess Newell. Because she was seriously short of those. And they knew not to contact her unless it was vital. Too many ways to tip off the enemy.
She leaned against the trunk, tracking the scooter’s progress by its noise as it rolled into the turning bay and idled. Over the fence, several white cows stopped chewing and stared at Samira. She made a face but they didn’t get the hint. Footsteps crunched. A knock on the thin door frame, rattling the glass inserts. A pause. Another rap. More footsteps. The hiss of the rider reclaiming the seat, then the scooter decrescendoed down the drive. Samira waited several minutes then pushed off the trunk, strands of her hair pinching as they caught on the bark. A white stamped envelope lay beside the door.
The alarms triggered in the opposite order as the scooter resumed its rounds. Oh, for a life that simple. Deliver the mail in the morning, idle away the afternoon and evening eating panzanella and drinking Chianti…
Huh. Was any life really like that, or was this a case of greener grass in the other field—or whatever that English saying was? Her English was getting rusty. Heck, her native Amharic was rusty. Even her Italian wasn’t getting a workout.
The letter was addressed to her—at least, to one of her aliases. She scraped her teeth over one side of her lower lip as she crouched over the plain business envelope. Typewritten label, Helsinki postmark. Her shoulders settled. The trusted friend of her mother who was acting as her emergency contact—a retired former diplomat who had no sympathy for Samira’s enemies but was comfortably off their radar. Samira sent the woman a breezy postcard in a fake name every time she changed address. Laughably old school, but the irony of the twenty-first century was that every government, agency and criminal organization was too busy tracking electronic communication to bother with opening people’s mail. If it didn’t require a cryptographic exchange, who gave a damn?
Samira perched on a courtyard chair and tore open the envelope. Inside was another envelope, plain and brown. Inside that, like a nest of matryoshka dolls, a thick postcard and an unaddressed and unsigned note in her mother’s handwriting, in Italian, for good measure. Always thinking of you. Kisses. It would have killed her mother to leave it at that but Hyland would be a fool not to have her parents under surveillance, even at the Ethiopian Embassy in Ottawa, and their diplomatic protection went only so far. Her mother would have had an aide drop it in a distant mailbox. Sudbury, according to the postmark. Samira had been there once—it had to be a five-hour drive from Ottawa. She ran her thumb over the familiar looped handwriting, the bonded paper thick and rough.
The postcard showed a gleaming Arc de Triomphe. Who did she know in Paris? She flipped it. It was also unsigned, the handwriting unfamiliar, addressed to her mother at the embassy.
Hey, Janis, it began. Samira frowned. She hadn’t used that avatar since grad student days at Brown. Three scrawled lines followed. I have a gift that will change your life. Just what Jagger was looking for. Can’t wait to see your face when I give it to you. A good excuse for you to visit—soon! Luv, Vespa.
Samira tapped the edge of the postcard on the table. Vespa was the avatar of Charlotte Liu, her English university roommate from Brown—the Latin name for her favorite British football team. Jagger was Latif. The aliases they’d used playing Cosmos during all the late nights they should have spend studying.
It could only be Charlotte. No one else knew those names. Samira’s mother must have guessed the postcard was for Samira, that it was important enough to forward.
When had she last heard from Charlotte? Not since Latif had turned whistle-blower and the two of them had dropped off the earth, but Charlotte had to know he was dead—she worked for Britain’s biggest spy agency. Why contact Samira now? And why the secrecy?
The oxygen seemed to thin. Only one “gift” would change Samira’s life for the better—the elusive evidence that would secure Hyland’s prosecution. Then he’d have nothing to gain from her death—the cat would be out of the cage. Box. Crate. Whatever. Just what Jagger was looking for. The additional evidence Latif was chasing when he died? If anyone could get access to damning evidence, a GCHQ surveillance analyst could, but she’d have to be very careful how she shared it.
The card was postmarked in Paris two months ago. The white envelope was stamped a week later in Helsinki. It’d probably spent the seven weeks since stacked in some postal holding center in Italy. Charlotte could have delivered it on foot in that time—though when she’d mailed it Samira had been holed up in…Denmark? Had Charlotte crossed the Channel from London just to post it, assuming that Samira’s parents would know her whereabouts?
Whatever she’d found, it had to be big. Charlotte could be jeopardizing her job—and her life—and she was as cautious as Samira. Latif had been the risk-taker of their geeky trio.
Samira rubbed her thumb over the glossy Paris street and leaned back. The scooter was out of sight, its engine a faint hum. Suddenly that view looked a whole lot less suffocating. Can’t wait to see your face when I give it to you. A good excuse for you to visit… Meaning, Samira had to collect it in person from Charlotte’s London flat. But going to London meant crossing a border—with an untested fake passport. Having it as a precaution for an emergency was one thing. Using it to break into Fortress Britain?
Could Samira get Tess to collect the “gift,” seeing as Samira would only be handing it along, assuming it was the evidence they needed? Charlotte would know who Tess was, after all the coverage about her scoop on Hyland. Tess would know what to do. She was in contact with the special counsel investigating Hyland, she had the media at her bidding, she was a folk hero in certain circles in the United States—and public enemy number one in others—and she had ten times Samira’s courage. Like that was hard.
Not forgetting that Tess had a bulletproof French Foreign Legion boyfriend backed up by a squad of Legionnaire friends who’d do anything for each other. Like escort a stranger into hiding. And look after her a little too well.
Guilt poked Samira in the ribs.
Calm down, Conscience. It’d been an error of judgment at a stressful time that’d rightfully ended, abruptly and awkwardly.
So why had she thought about him every day since?
She hissed in a breath through her teeth. Because she had too much time to think.
Anyway. Small steps, and none of them involved Jamie… Jamie… Hell, she didn’t even know his surname. The others had just called him “Doc.”
Anyway. First, she had to break comms silence and contact Tess. Tess would come up with a plan that bypassed Samira, hopefully. She fished her Italy guidebook from her backpack—because pages read in a book couldn’t be tracked like pages on the web—and chose an internet café in Perugia, a two-hour drive in the opposite direction from the last one she’d used to contact Tess. Though they were communicating rarely and via a secure, coded system, they’d defaulted to extreme precautions after Samira’s carelessness had revealed Latif’s location to Hyland.
She pulled out her wallet and counted her shrinking pile of euros. The last of the money she’d saved for her wedding and a deposit on an apartment in San Francisco. A long-dead dream from a long-dead life.
From a distant field, a bull bellowed. She flinched. At least a lengthy drive would give her a break from the hell that was paradise.
By the time Samira returned, the hillside glowed amber in midafternoon sun. She parked her little white Fiat, as usual, between an overgrown olive grove and a derelict barn beside the neighbor’s vineyard, tucked back from the main road. It meant a cross-country hike through a steep field to the cottage, but better that than being stuck in her dead-end driveway when the shit spun in the—when the fan turned the sh—
She locked the car and pushed through the olive branches. At least paranoia gave her something to do with her many spare hours.
From the ridge, the cottage looked as lifeless as she’d left it. Such peace and beauty, yet the thought of locking herself away for another night… In the field the cows’ great heads nudged the scorched grass. They bolted if she as much as sneezed, so if they were calm, she was calm. They wouldn’t appreciate it when she got to the cottage and fired up the four Js on the speakers—Janis, Joni and the two Joans. You could bring the culture to the cow… She screwed up her face. No, that wasn’t nearly the expression.
She checked the motion sensor data on her phone’s security app. With one bar of Wi-Fi coverage from the cottage, it took its time loading. Several cars had passed along the road in her absence but none had entered the driveway and there’d been no movement in or around the cottage. She tapped the phone, tempted to check for a reply from Tess, but…no. The phone was only to control her security system—and play her music, because otherwise she’d go insane. No network connection, no calls, no data, no browsing.
She squeezed through the rickety wire fence, the sunshine a balm on her nape. After sending the message to Tess, she’d waited at the internet café as long as she could without raising eyebrows but there’d been no reply. She’d checked a couple of media sites, via an incognito connection. Hyland was still proclaiming his innocence. “Why the heck would I be involved in a ludicrous plot to kill American citizens in order to orchestrate a war? This is an outrageous conspiracy that robbed me of the chance to lead the country I love, and continues to haunt me and my daughter, who stands with me through this difficult time. Patriotic Americans everywhere should be alarmed about this threat to our democracy. I am confident that the special counsel will find no evidence of wrongdoing on my part, justice will be served to those who slander me and I will be free to continue doing what I’ve spent my entire adult life doing, as a marine, a CIA agent and now a senator—serving and protecting this great nation.”
Creep. As Samira followed the fence line, a rhino-sized cow jerked its head up and eyed her, freezing, as if she wouldn’t notice it if it didn’t move. One by one its sisters followed until half a dozen black-lashed brown eyes tracked her progress. “Va tutto bene,” she said, quiet and warm. “Non aver paura.” Right—because Tuscan cows were more likely to understand It’s all right, don’t be scared in Italian? The rhino’s head twitched and a smaller cow sprang sideways, but for a change they didn’t bolt en masse. Maybe they were getting used to her. Which had to be Fate’s way of warning her it was time to move on.
Well after dark, Samira jerked awake. The A-Team theme tune was squeaking out of her phone. She swiped it off, her chest tight. Definitely engine noise, but low. She swallowed. A car in the night was unusual but not unheard of.
Another alarm. The A-Team again. A second car on the road. She silenced it, shot out of bed, slipped on her waiting boots and coat and grabbed her backpack. Two cars on her little road at this hour? One hell of a coinciden—
The alarm shrilled again, followed immediately by the MacGyver tune. Shit. Three vehicles, one already on the driveway. Working on feel, she pulled up the bedcover, restored the pillows, scattered cushions over top and let herself out of the cottage, as she’d practiced a dozen times, keeping out of scope of her sensor lights. MacGyver started over. Multiple engines purred. Modern, expensive cars—two on the driveway now.
By the next repeat of MacGyver she was ankle deep in pasture, cows scattering before her. The cold whipped her bare legs. Her heart thumped with the shock of being slingshot out of warmth and sleep. With fumbling fingers, she set the phone to vibrate, blinking fast to force her eyes to adjust. Damn, she should have practiced her evacuation at night. The first engine muted. A car door clicked open. Her breath skittered as she stumbled uphill, looking over her shoulder. Her security lights burst on, flooding the courtyard and driveway, and setting her phone shaking again. A big black SUV had pulled up in the turning bay, headlights doused. Four darkly clad figures silently fanned out, their arms locked straight and pointed downward. Handguns. An identical vehicle pulled up alongside, leaving one more engine approaching. More people spilled out. Her phone kept vibrating. Or was that just her hand?
A crack, a smash—wood, and glass. Hoofs thundered, shaking the earth, the cows’ glow-in-the-dark flanks flashing past. Hell, they wouldn’t stampede her, would they? Between their flying bodies she made out the figures of two men down at the French doors, looking like they were pulling up from a shoulder charge. White-blond hair gleamed from one guy’s head. He braced for another go. She upped her pace but her foot shot into a hole. Her ankle buckled, pain flashing through it, and she sprawled onto the grass, her cry muffled by a crash as the door gave. She pushed herself up and tested the ankle. Just a strain. Cold dew coated her leg. Focus on what’s right in front. Small steps. If she didn’t capitalize on her scant head start, she was—what? Dead? Despite her efforts to make the cottage look deserted and as pristine as if a cleaner had just left, the goons might feel her body heat in the small bedroom. If they pulled back the covers, they’d discover the sheets were warm…
Her chest pinched. The world tipped, and she planted her feet wide. No. Not now. She squeezed her eyes tight. Don’t do this to me, brain. I know we’re in danger. Small steps, okay? One foot. Another foot. Another.
Fighting for every breath, she reached the fence to the olive grove, squeezed between the wires and scraped through the trees. Below, they’d switched on one set of headlights, aimed outward. Another set clicked on, directed into the field she’d just left. The cows bolted again.
Yep, use those lights, people. They’d be blind to anything outside the reach of the beams.
She pitched forward, groping in her coat pocket for the Fiat key. It rasped as it went in the lock. She eased the door open. The interior light flicked on. Shit. She scrabbled to disable it, panting. She threw the backpack on the passenger seat and her butt on the driver’s seat. Her hand shook as she jabbed the key at the ignition. Come on, come on. After a few wild misses, it slid in.
She froze. Oh God, she couldn’t start the car—they’d hear it. She covered her nose and mouth with both hands, which only amplified her struggling, squeaking breath. Her airways felt like they were narrowing. No. Why screw this up for yourself? Her assailants had to be fanning out. They’d find her in minutes. Her phone was still vibrating. She snatched it from her pocket and switched off the alarm. She was well alarmed.
She stilled, staring at the screen. She forced her trembling hands to navigate the unlock pattern. The Bluetooth signal was faint but it might be just enough. Lights zigzagged across her vision as she scrolled her playlist.
“I Knew You Were Waiting.”
“She Works Hard for the Money.”
“Because the Night.”
No, no, no, no.
Oh. She paused, scrolled back up a few tracks. Yes.
Swiping quickly, she hooked into the cottage speakers, slid them to full volume and pressed Play. From downhill, a snare drum hammered. She tapped along on the steering wheel—eight quick counts—and shakily started the engine as the drum and bass guitar joined, followed by the rhythm.
She automatically went for the headlights, stopping herself a second short of stupidity, and navigated out of the rutted driveway and onto the road, eyes open so wide they hurt. Joan Jett launched into her lyrics, echoed by half a dozen ghostly Joans glancing off the surrounding hills, half a second off the beat. The connection would cut out at the end of the track. Two minutes and fifty-five seconds. One song. One chance.
“I Love Rock `n’ Roll,” the hillsides sang.
“So do I, Joan,” Samira muttered. “But now what do we do?”
After a couple of minutes of driving, the tinny phone speaker kicked in, as the next song on the playlist uploaded. Out of range. The cottage would have silenced. Advantage over. Was it enough? She was in the next valley so the car sound would be difficult to pinpoint. No movement or lights in the rear-vision mirror, and her preplanned escape route had enough twists and turns they couldn’t easily track her. First chance she got, she’d contact Tess, nail down a new plan.
“Time Has Come Today,” squeaked out of the phone.
Indeed. Time to come out of hiding and end this, whether she liked it or not—and she definitely did not. But Hyland had just made her decision for her.
“Yes, Joan,” Samira said, swinging into a side road. “The time has come.”
© 2016 BRYNN KELLY, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. IMAGES USED UNDER LICENSE FROM SHUTTERSTOCK.COM.