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K9 handler Arin Siri doesn’t like taking orders, and she works best when it’s just her and her dog King out in the field. But when she discovers a wounded soldier of fortune during a Search and Protect mission, she has no choice but to get him to safety. The last time she and the roguish, sexy Jason Landon tangled, they were on opposite sides of the conflict, but this time, he’s claiming to need her help.
When Jason wakes up in a hospital on Hawaii’s Big Island, he’s shocked to discover Arin guarding him. She’s the last person he expected to see, but she’s also the only person who can help him bring down a kidnapping ring. As they draw closer to danger-and to each other-they must race against the clock to discover who the kidnappers are working for, or risk becoming collateral damage themselves.
Thank you to Madeleine Colavita for your amazing patience and your thoughtful feedback. It’s always a challenge, learning to work together and understand each other. Ultimately, Arin and Jason’s story is that much better with your help.
Thank you to Courtney Miller-Callihan for reminding me to be kind to myself.
Thank you to Christopher Baity, Executive Director of Semper K9 Assistance Dogs, for your insight into working dogs. Any exaggerations or errors are my own—because sometimes we writers need to stretch a few truths to make things work—but hopefully the story is plausible thanks to you.
Thank you to Katee Robert and Åsa Maria Bradley for calming me down in those moments of panic when imposter syndrome swallowed me whole. I’d be lost without you. Also, thank you to Christiana Ellis for the perfect phrase in a moment when my brain was completely frozen.
This book was written when my heart was far away, with Matthew. We started long distance and being long distance again this year was hard. Thank you for providing insight on all things action and military-related. Here, too, any exaggerations or errors are my own. And thank you for reaching out across the many miles and answering my calls when I randomly needed to say, “Hi.” Daisuke.
And finally, thanks to my readers. The True Heroes series is continuing because of you, and I hope you’ll enjoy.
This is…not exactly who we are looking for.” Arin Siri paused, cautiously approaching her German Shepherd Dog’s find.
King currently sat to one side, happily chewing on a tennis ball as his reward for the find. The unconscious man at her feet definitely had to have something to do with the people they were looking for—for one boy in particular—because her canine partner wouldn’t have signaled a find unless he smelled the target scent. But no one else was in sight and there was no immediate reason she could discern for why this man was here. He was too well-fed to be a worker on the farm they were searching, and he wasn’t dressed like a supervisor either. There were too many questions, and this man was not awake to answer them.
She took a few steps, cautiously circling to get a good look. He might need medical attention and she firmly believed it was worth the effort to save a life. There’d been plenty of times in her past career when she’d had to argue her stance with others on her team. Those were times best left to fade the hell out of her memory.
She studied the unconscious man, trying to make as quick an assessment as possible while keeping an eye out for nasty surprises. There was no sign of grenades or other party favors. Good.
The man lay belly down, unmoving. His face was turned away. She couldn’t see if he was breathing so she crouched close, her weapon ready in case he moved suddenly. With her left fingertips, she touched his neck for a pulse.
Lucky man; he was still among the living.
There were no bullet holes or obvious injuries on his back or limbs. To be honest, whoever he was, he was in excellent physical condition. He had very nice musculature showing even in his relaxed, unconscious, state. There was something vaguely familiar about him.
He was dressed in a thin T-shirt and the kind of lightweight pants hikers wore to protect their legs in dense brush and heat. He blended into the greenery and thick foliage along the edge of the nearby taro farm, so he was lucky she and King were on search in the area. Depending on what the hell was wrong with him, he could’ve lain here undiscovered until he really did die.
Speaking of which, she pulled out her smartphone and checked for a signal. Amazingly, she had just enough to send a text message requesting medical evacuation. She’d follow up with the satellite phone once she had more information.
She rose and made her way around to his other side, hoping to get a look at his face. Until she knew what injuries he had, she wasn’t about to flip him over.
King remained where he was, a few feet away, jaw dropped in a canine grin as he panted, tennis ball sitting between his paws. It wasn’t as hot as it could be. Hawaii’s Big Island was cooler in the valley at this time of day, but the humidity made the air thick and heavy. The big GSD was well acclimated to tropical climates at this point, but he still had to dissipate body heat however he could. That meant panting.
For her part, Arin was sweating. Everywhere. Her protective vest trapped sweat against her torso, even with the help of the light moisture-wicking shirt she wore underneath it. The heat and discomfort could be blamed for her irritability. Or maybe she needed a good cup of coffee to start her morning instead of the bitter muck they’d passed out earlier before deploying search teams for this mission.
There were two other search teams besides her and King, on a mission to find where victims of human trafficking were being housed and forced to work on this taro farm against their will. Once the search teams had the workers safely located and protected, they could take down the farm itself. At the same time, Arin had made a promise to look for a specific boy named Huy. There was a lot to accomplish and the longer she took here, the more worried she was about achieving the best possible outcome.
From her new position on the man’s other side, she studied his face and decided no amount of air-conditioning or coffee was going to improve her mood. She’d met him before, a little over six months ago.
She didn’t know his name, but she’d been curious about him ever since they’d faced off back on the island of Oahu. It’d been a different mission, different plantation, but the same human trafficking ring behind it all. He and his team had been privately contracted security on the perimeter, not aware of exactly what they were providing security for. He and she had come to an…understanding of sorts, and gone their separate ways.
His eyes, closed now, were burned into her memory. They’d been so dark a brown they were almost black, and the intensity in his gaze had left her breathless. He’d also been aiming a gun at her, with purpose. She’d had her rifle pointed at him in kind, so it’d been a fair situation, however tense.
She extended her left hand cautiously, sliding her fingertips into his dark hair. It was slightly longer on top, cut neatly short on the sides, and…soft. Almost silky. She pushed aside that tactile observation and continued to explore with her fingertips until she encountered the answer to his current state of unconsciousness. The man had a bump the size of a goose egg on the back of his head.
He probably wasn’t going to die, but he needed to be checked for a concussion. It was a nasty bump.
She pulled several zip ties from a cargo pocket on her pants. After binding him at the wrists and ankles, she stepped back a prudent distance. Her initial meeting with him had been decidedly confrontational. There may have been a tiny bit of violence involved. They’d both walked away from the encounter, but only by mutual accord. It wasn’t clear which one of them would’ve survived otherwise.
He was secured for the time being. As worrisome as it was to have found him out here, she had a promise to keep and a boy to find. She’d get this man medical attention, then move forward from there. It was the right thing to do and it was best to make it happen as quickly as possible. He was a private contractor, like she was, and if he was on contract to protect the farm they were searching, he could pose a serious threat to her current mission. It’d be best to get him away from here, someplace where he could be questioned about his involvement.
Even if this man remained unconscious, she had the feeling he was still going to be a serious pain in the ass. It was better to make him someone else’s problem.
She looked at King. Her partner had been watching her all this time, regarding her with a warm, alert gaze. He, more than any other living being in this world, was attuned to her. She retrieved the tennis ball and smiled. No need to call his name to get his attention. “Bewaken.”
King would watch their captive while she made her report. Next up, conversation with another actual human being. It was only a couple of hours past sunrise and that horrible cup of coffee. It was still too damned early in the morning for talking to people.
She cleared her throat and pulled out the satellite phone, enunciating clearly without raising her volume above a quiet conversational level. “Bravo, this is Charlie.”
“Copy.” On the other end of the line, Raul Sá’s voice sounded relaxed, but years of working with him let her pick out the hint of worry. “Received your text. Medical team en route to your position. Is one of the targets injured?”
Of the people she worked with on a regular basis, Raul was one of the few she could be reasonably nice to before noon. Well, at least she didn’t snap or snarl at him. Most of the time. He was a good friend, maybe her best, and they’d worked together back when they’d both been active military before going private. He’d joined the Search and Protect Corporation on Arin’s recommendation and she didn’t regret his addition to the team. He had a greater capacity for keeping the bigger picture in mind, where Arin tended to focus on a singular objective. Plus, he was just a better human being than Arin, as far as she was concerned.
“Negative. I didn’t find any of the targets yet.” She considered the unexpected situation. “We have a potential hostile in custody.”
There was a moment of pause.
“Charlie, this is Alpha.” Her team lead, Azubuike Anyanwu, or Zu when they weren’t on a mission, had one of those deep voices that could resonate in your sternum.
“Copy.” Oh, he was going to give an order she wasn’t going to like. He always gave those personally, rather than have someone else relay bad news for him.
This mission had been initiated by a task force sponsored by the Hawaiian government, but it was the Search and Protect team spearheading the actual search for the victims. An instance of government task force leveraging private contract resources, sure, but it meant she was coordinating with Raul, who was a liaison and advisor to that task force, and taking orders from her team lead, Zu, when she and King needed to get back to work. Her best came out when she was on her own, with only herself and King to consider. Coordination and taking orders didn’t come as naturally.
“Medical team is too far ahead to send in local law enforcement.” Zu sounded irritated. It wasn’t likely aimed at her so much as the unexpected situation, so she didn’t take it personally. “You’ll need to provide escort back out of the valley.”
“I’m only half-finished with my sector.” It was important to conduct the search in the same timeframe as the other search teams. Otherwise, the people they were searching for might move into one of the other sectors and be missed. These people were afraid, far from any kind of known safety, and probably even frightened of the canine partners doing the majority of the search. She didn’t normally question a directive, but this wasn’t the military and she did see a need to voice the consideration.
“Bravo team and I will expand our search sectors to cover the remaining ground.” Zu remained resolute.
Bravo. Raul had enough to do coordinating the search effort as the liaison to the task force. He’d have to stretch to finish searching her sector with his canine partner, Taz. The solution wasn’t ideal. She didn’t continue to question Zu’s decision, though. If Raul couldn’t handle it, it was on him to raise the issue. They were all big boys and girls, well past the need to needlessly push themselves past their limits.
Her mission had changed. Now, she needed to know what this man had been doing out here and determine whether he was going to pose a threat to getting any captives they found to safety. At minimum, he could be a distraction. At worst, he could actively be a danger to anyone they managed to rescue, and her team.
But there was a possibility he also had useful information on the human trafficking organization, which the authorities could use to further disable it.
She glared at the man, still out cold on the forest floor. “You had better be worth it. There are people out here who need us.”
As hospital rooms went, waking up in this one was one of the better experiences Jason Landon had had to date. The ceiling lights were off, thankfully, and the soft light filling the room was natural. It had a homey feel to it, as opposed to the sterile look of other places or the desperate wear and tear of more beleaguered facilities. He turned his head, cautiously, and found not a window but an actual lanai door on the wall to his right.
Caution amped up to full awareness.
This room was on the ground floor. Not good. He needed to get to a more defensible position. He started to roll off the side of the hospital bed.
The woman’s voice was pitched low but held every bit as much authority as any commanding officer or drill sergeant’s. He whipped his head around to find her seated in a chair against the opposite wall, within arm’s reach of him but as far away from the open door to the hallway as possible. He instantly regretted moving his head too fast as the rest of the room seemed to catch up in his vision and settle around her along with the onset of a steady pounding to the back of his skull.
“Tch.” She didn’t sound happy.
He stared at her, willing his vision to clear. Dark hair was easiest to see, tied back in a ponytail. Her face, fuzzy at first, was a light shade of golden brown. High cheekbones and soft lips registered in his brain as her face gained definition. Lips were a favorite feature to him, and he focused to pull his brain back online. Her top lip was delicately curved, and her lower lip was full and plump. Amazingly kissable. Her facial features came together in a sweet countenance completely at odds with the irritated tone of her voice.
Once his vision cleared, he reached for some memory of why she looked familiar to him and what the hell he’d been doing before he’d ended up here in the first place.
In reference to her, there’d been an encounter, someplace else, outdoors and…on top of a roof somewhere. Same fierce scowl, but it’d been partially hidden behind the scope of a rifle. The ache in his skull eased a fraction as he matched his recollection with the severe expression she was wearing now. Dire, but not menacing, she wasn’t an immediate threat.
She was striking. Not simply beautiful, and she most definitely was with that face and those curves, but vibrant with the kind of energy that would’ve made her stand out even in a crowd. Alone with her in a small room, she filled the space with a readiness for action that demanded he do the same.
Okay, yeah. Now he remembered her. Relief washed through him in a cool wave as he did. He hadn’t been sure he’d ever meet her again, thought he’d have to search for her, and here she was.
He’d been leading a team on a private security contract, protecting the outer perimeter of a plantation on Oahu. She and her people had successfully broken through all layers of security and infiltrated the main building complex. That had been a blow to his pride, and he’d been working to up his strategic planning skills ever since to make sure it didn’t happen again. Not that he was currently in a position to apply his improved skill set.
Despite his still aching head, he grinned ruefully at the memory, because that day had tossed his world upside down. He’d been angry as hell with his failure. Her team had been good, all of them, and they’d distracted him with an actual explosion out in the far fields where he’d thought the valuable crops were. But when he noticed none of his client’s personal security rushing to put out the fires, he’d checked back at the main building complex to find several of those resources neutralized and her on the roof with a sniper rifle.
Petite, dark beauty combined with deadly competence. He’d been captivated by her.
He’d confronted her until he saw the captives, the slaves, fleeing. He’d been completely ignorant of what the true property of value was on that plantation. Seeing those abused people had stopped him cold.
Now he had no idea what she was doing in a hospital room with him—months later and on a completely different island—seated as far as possible from both exits but with a clear line of sight out either of them.
“How many nurses have you scared?” At least his voice was working. His throat was raw and he could kill for a beer right about now. Hell, he’d settle for water.
His lady companion sighed and if anything, managed to look even more disgruntled just by drawing her brows together. “One was in here a full five minutes checking your records and fussing with your sheets before she looked around the room. The way she gasped and clutched her chest, I wasn’t sure if we’d need to hit the call button for her cardiac distress.”
He barked out a laugh despite the strain to his aching throat. “I have a few burning questions for you, but we need to get out of here.”
She raised one of those gently arched eyebrows, and her expression brightened. “Yeah? You have a concussion. You need to be under observation.”
Maybe, but it wasn’t a good idea to stick around here. Memories were coming back now, catching up as his brain engaged. Conversation helped. He remembered how long it’d been since he’d seen her, what he’d been up to in the meantime, and why he’d come to Big Island in the first place. Maybe he’d even explain it all to her, later.
“We’re on the ground floor. We both need to not be dead.” He scowled as he reached for his IV and realized the same arm was handcuffed to the hospital bed railing at the wrist. Maybe she wasn’t a companion so much as a keeper. “This is not a good start.”
“There’s only one level to this hospital, so ground floor was the only option.” She came to her feet, though, the motion fluid and graceful. He wondered if she danced. As she moved closer, there was an odd scraping noise and a large black and tan dog came into view, too. He must’ve been lying on the floor, almost under the bed. She glanced down the hallway first, then out the lanai. “This is an interior room, though. The lanai opens into an enclosed garden.”
“Copy that.” He glared at the handcuffs. “Look, I get the reason for these. I’m actually surprised there aren’t police officers in here. But I’m also somewhat surprised to be alive and would like to stay that way.”
“We have teams outside the room.” Now that she was standing, he saw the rifle and scope leaning next to her recently vacated chair. She also wore a shoulder harness with a handgun. “However, if you’re ready to start explaining what you were doing and what we might be expecting, chances of remaining secure in this location would be greatly increased.”
He forced himself to pause and think through the massive headache. It might be good to leave in the IV for a few seconds longer. Hydration wasn’t going to cure a concussion or the accompanying headache, but it could keep it all from getting worse. “You’re last line of defense.”
She didn’t respond.
Security wasn’t a simple thing. It was always set up in layers within layers, starting with some sort of outer perimeter and progressing inward. Sure, the hospital had its own alarm and surveillance systems for everyday safety, but she was here because she was watching him. If she and her team were protecting him, she was the final thing standing between potential attackers and their objective. He preferred that perspective, because the other way around meant she was the first line of defense to keep him from walking out of here. He still planned to leave and he’d like for her to let him. Hell, maybe even come with him for a bit.
“It’s been months, so the story is longer than we’ve got time for. I’m going for the highlights here.” He thought hard about what it would take for him to believe, if their positions were reversed. “Last time we met, you were in a rush. I’m going to point out that I took you at your word, with very minimal details, and I pulled back my team to let you and yours go on your way.”
She gave him the barest nod. “You can start with the highlights and I’ll decide if I need more before we move anywhere. Go.”
Not exactly what he’d asked for, but he’d take it and make the best of it. It was what he always did.
“Meeting you was a wakeup call for me. I told you back then I didn’t know about the captives on the plantation. Withdrawing, then letting the authorities come in, was the right thing to do.” He swallowed against the bitter taste in his mouth as he remembered his frustration. “Afterward, I reported back to my company and they didn’t agree with my decision. Maintaining their relationship with a high-paying client was more important than questionable ethics, as they put it. They considered my actions a dereliction of duty.”
It’d been a load of bullshit. What was worse, he had to admit he’d been inclined to turn a blind eye and give the same reasoning in other situations before that. Throughout his career, he’d been focused on contracts for the money and building his reputation in the private sector. He hadn’t thought beyond the immediate objectives in any given contract, mostly security, to what the client might be trying to secure. His integrity had been about being trusted to fulfill a contract, executing it with excellence. But that’d been for black market goods, inanimate objects or animals. He drew the line at the buying and selling of human life.
“I was reprimanded and demoted.” That’d angered him, too, because he’d worked hard to rise up in the organization.
She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, looking like she wanted to say something, but she didn’t.
He took a guess at what she was thinking and waved it away with his free hand. “I don’t regret it. I did the right thing. Then I gathered intel on you and your team, because I wanted to know more about who broke through my security plan.”
It’d been a point of pride and a warped sort of goal to find the team that’d bested him. He’d also been intrigued by her. He wanted to know more about how she fit into her team—not the lead but a strategic asset. She was a sniper but her team all worked with dogs and her dog hadn’t been with her when he’d first met her. Obviously, the GSD was with her now. Why had a sniper gone into search and rescue? How had she become a working dog handler? It was possible, just unusual, to change career paths that drastically and he was fascinated by the questions she inspired.
“Search and Protect Corporation.” Honestly, he didn’t like the name of their organization at all; too snappy. “You get paid to use dogs for search and rescue. Don’t people usually volunteer for that kind of thing?”
“We are contracted to locate and extract high-value hostages from extremely dangerous situations, the kind that require infiltration and a decent amount of firepower on the way out.” Her response was quick and pointed, but matter-of-fact. “Most of us have also volunteered in the case of major disaster.”
Cool and calm. He liked to poke until he got a glimpse of temper in people, figure out what it took to get them fired up and potentially distracted. She was not an easy target for teasing, and he liked the challenge she posed. “Uh huh. Back then, we never would’ve met if my client hadn’t started it all. I had to backtrack to figure it out since my team wasn’t part of it.”
She didn’t respond, didn’t even move.
He shook his head. “A group of scientists conducting interviews in Honolulu’s Chinatown, researching human trafficking on Oahu and in the Hawaiian islands, and the client couldn’t keep his cool. He made a bold move, snatching those scientists right off the street. He was lucky Hawaiian police were stretched thin at the time, or maybe he’d set up a distraction somewhere else. Either way, he didn’t take time to find out who any of the scientists were before he had them taken. If he had, maybe he’d have realized one of them had family on the island. And if he’d followed up, he’d have figured out that family was you. If he’d asked my team to look into it, we’d have advised him against that kind of activity. He brought you and the police down on his head and my team had no warning. Maybe it was sheer luck Mali Siri evaded his goons and got to you for help. But even if she hadn’t, I think you’d have come looking for her.”
She interrupted her roving vigilance of the approaches to the room to give him a hard stare.
- "Drake's fourth True Heroes romantic thriller sizzles with suspense and danger."—Publishers Weekly on Total Bravery
- "Plenty of action and heightened tension moves the story at a steady pace, making this book one readers will not want to put down."—RT Book Reviews on Total Bravery
- "With an action-filled plot riddled with suspense and tension, Drake's latest in her True Heroes series is the best one yet. Steady pacing, engaging storytelling and genuine, vulnerable characters (coupled with the endearing heroic dogs that protect and love them) make this romance shine."—RT Book Reviews on Absolute Trust
- "5 Stars! Top Pick! I loved it. It was one of those books I didn't want to end."—Harlequin Junkie on Ultimate Courage
"Drake's sharp storytelling shines with an engaging plot that's thick with tension..."
—RT Book Reviews on Extreme Honor
- On Sale
- Feb 26, 2019
- Page Count
- 304 pages