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Jiang Ying Yue assumed her kidnapping was random, that she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. After all, who would want to harm her? But then her rescuer—a charismatic former soldier who takes her breath away—uncovers a traitor in her father’s organization. Now, Ying Yue realizes that she’s become a pawn in a dangerous game, and her kidnapper won’t be satisfied until she disappears for good.
Zu Anyanwu’s work with Search and Protect and his canine partner Buck have always been his first priority . . . until he’s tasked with keeping Ying Yue safe. To him, the brave and resilient investment expert is more than just another client. But with danger closing in, Zu can’t let his emotions get in the way of the most important job he’s ever had—protecting the woman he loves.
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Thank you, Miss Jiang. Your statement has been very helpful. You’ll be contacted if you can be of any further help.”
Jiang Ying Yue closed her eyes and allowed herself to fully exhale. Sure. Relive the most terrifying time of your life, not once, but as many times as needed to dredge up anything she might have seen that could possibly be of help to the authorities. She’d thought her first statement had been detailed, but she’d found herself adding more today as the police asked her to clarify portions of what she remembered of her kidnapping and captivity. The only thing stopping her from cracking into a million pieces and laughing, or crying hysterically, was the desperate thought that she’d been helpful to someone. Maybe it’d been helpful to her, too, but it didn’t feel that way at the moment.
As she took in her next breath, she opened her eyes and lifted her chin. “I’d like to be kept up to date on the progress of your investigation.”
She clung to the calm she heard in her own voice. If she sounded sane, she could stay that way.
Officer Kokua nodded. “I’ll be honest. We can’t give you all the details from an ongoing investigation, but I will keep you apprised as much as I can. We’ll find the people who kidnapped you.”
She gave him a smile because it was what was expected. Truly? They both knew her kidnappers might never be found or brought to justice. She’d been plucked from the streets of Singapore on her way home from overseeing a charity event. When she’d regained consciousness, she’d been in a tiny cabin on a cargo ship crossing the Pacific Ocean. She hadn’t even known that much until she’d been rescued just yesterday and gotten a look at the ship as her rescuer hustled her to a huge helicopter along with a large group of other captives.
After a night at Queen’s Medical Center on the island of Oahu for observation, she’d been escorted to the nearby police station. Even with the detail she’d been able to add this morning, she’d only been able to give the police information on the appearances of her kidnappers. She hadn’t heard any names. It’d be an impossible search without more.
“In the meantime, we’ve contacted your father.” Officer Kokua might have been trying to sound reassuring, but bits and pieces of rationale were crumbling inside her head now that she was done giving her statement. She struggled to breathe past the fluttering in her chest as she fought to remain steady for a little longer.
Thankfully, he didn’t reach over to pat her hand or make any other comforting gestures. She could keep it together if no one made sudden moves or tried to reach for her. Going through her kidnapping over and over again in increasing detail had left her wrung out and exhausted. Mentally, emotionally, and physically. She wanted to cry, but if she did, she’d also be embarrassed. Then she’d yell at herself for having any kind of shame for a perfectly justified reaction, and she’d feel even more out of control as she fell into a spiral of logic versus…all the feels.
There was more. Intellectually, she knew her captors could have done unspeakable things to her. They hadn’t, at least not by the time her rescuer had burst through the door to the cabin. But the people who had taken her could have. Her living nightmare could’ve been a hundred, a thousand times more awful. Part of her was relieved. Another part of her felt guilty for being so lucky. She’d gotten a look at the other captives rescued from the same ship. They’d suffered far worse.
“My father was scheduled to be here, in Hawaii.” She clung to the remembered detail from her father’s itinerary, something she only knew because he’d mentioned it in passing during a perfunctory phone call. Their monthly chat was a habit started years ago, carried on through undergrad and graduate school and now maintained as she established her career. It was a fortunate coincidence it’d happened right before she’d been taken, and she was thankful. She was fully capable of returning to her apartment in Singapore on her own, but she’d like to at least see him before she tried to go through the process of returning to normal life. Whatever that was going to take.
It wasn’t going to be as simple as getting on the next available flight, and she hadn’t yet begun to figure out what she actually needed to do. Her father was the closest family she had, geographically speaking. Her mother was touring Europe while her father was on business. She wanted to see him, wanted to be held and know he’d been worried for her. A terrible fear lurked in the pit of her stomach, and she tasted bile as she considered the possibility that he’d been too busy to miss her.
“He’s right here on Oahu,” Officer Kokua confirmed with a broad smile. “We reached out to him as your emergency contact. His personal aide has made arrangements for you at the same hotel as your father.”
She clenched her teeth but kept her smile frozen in place. “Of course.”
The officer had spoken not to her father, but his aide. Her father hadn’t had time to speak to the police, not even after she’d been kidnapped and rescued. A familiar blend of hurt and anger churned in her stomach to mix with her fear. Perhaps she should have made his aide her emergency contact rather than her next of kin, the head and patriarch of her family. Bitterness joined the twisting mess of emotions until she wondered how terrible she could feel in a single moment.
Something wet and cold pressed against the back of her hand. She blinked and relaxed her curled fingers. She hadn’t realized she’d clenched her hands into fists on her lap. The black nose belonged to a large dog, who looked up at her with soulful golden-brown eyes. He withdrew and sat beside her, apparently satisfied he had her attention. He was a deep brown all over, almost burnished red, and his long tail brushed the ground once in greeting. Such a somber dog.
Recognition blossomed in her chest and spread through her in a cool, soothing wave. She was inordinately happy to see the dog. Her nausea eased as her lips curved into her first smile in forever. She reached out and gingerly patted the side of his neck, then crooked her fingers to scratch the base of one ear as he leaned into her hand. He’d been with her rescuer yesterday.
“Hey, Buck.” Officer Kokua rose from his seat behind his desk. “I guess Zu is around here somewhere, then. Funny, usually Buck doesn’t leave Zu.”
Maybe her heart beat harder at the mention of the man, the owner of this dog. Maybe. She wasn’t about to admit it if anyone called her on it. All she was experiencing was a natural reaction to the person who’d helped her get out of her dangerous captivity. She remembered someone larger than life, powerful and full of vitality, the memory influenced by the stress of her situation.
Still, she stood and turned, intending to follow the police officer in search of Buck’s human. She wanted to thank the man who’d saved her. She also wanted him to see her calm and collected after a night’s rest to restore her so he wouldn’t have the memory of her afraid and captive. She wanted that version of her gone from existence, replaced by the real her, even if it had existed just in the mind of one man.
“Zu, there you are.” Officer Kokua stopped short, and Ying Yue halted to avoid walking into the taller man’s back.
She peered around the officer and caught sight of Zu, Azubuike Anyanwu. He’d told her his full name yesterday, when he’d found her. He stood in the doorway to the open office area—filled it, really. It wasn’t just about his height, either. His shoulders and even his chest and torso were wide and heavily muscled, easy to see under the simple T-shirt he wore. He was a wall of intimidation.
Or, he was the first time she’d seen him. Now, she took in the sight of him like another dose of the same relief she’d experienced when she’d seen Buck. Here was someone who could manage to look at her without the pity that set her teeth on edge when she’d been dealing first with hospital staff and now with the police. She felt sure he’d take in the calm she’d gained and recognize the progress she’d made in processing what she’d been through. If she was surrounded by these other people for much longer, all of their careful sympathy would drag her down and keep her from moving forward.
Zu’s gaze took in the room first; then Officer Kokua dropped lower to Buck as the dog returned to his side and then rose again to find her. She swallowed hard. His eyes were so dark they seemed to trap light, like polished obsidian, set below a heavy brow, and his lids were dropped halfway down in what might have been mistaken for a sleepy look if not for the sharp intelligence that sliced through her as he studied her.
“Miss Jiang.” He nodded as he addressed her.
She’d lost her words despite all the thoughts running around in her head, so she opted for a nod in greeting rather than have something crazy pop out of her mouth.
“Ah, yeah.” Officer Kokua stepped to the side so she could walk forward unimpeded. “We were taking her statement, now that’s she’s been released from the hospital.”
Zu made a sound of acknowledgment.
He hadn’t said much on the helicopter ride back from the cargo ship, either.
Questions bubbled up. She still wanted to know why he and his team had been out there in the middle of the ocean in the first place. Had her father sent them? Had someone else? Who was he? Here was something—or rather, a very interesting someone—to focus on rather than the questions people had been asking her. “Are you here at the police station often?”
She snapped her mouth shut. Of all the questions she had in mind, that hadn’t come out sounding anywhere near as composed as she wanted, or even relevant.
His severe expression didn’t change. If anything, he seemed to scowl. “No.”
She stared at him. He stared back. Okay, then.
“I checked in at the hospital with the other people rescued from the cargo ship,” he said finally, “and the hospital said you’d come here to give your statement and wait for family to pick you up.”
“You came to check on me? That’s appreciated.” Tingling warmth filled her chest. She didn’t want to make more of it than it was, though. “Did you check on all of the people you rescued from the cargo ship?
Disappointment extinguished the warmth in a tepid splash. She tried to rally, caught by surprise as she realized she’d wanted him to be interested in her. She’d been fishing. Heat burned her cheeks. He was a good—actually amazing—looking man with a chiseled jaw and close-cropped black hair, dark-skinned and built like a legendary warrior, but she didn’t need to fall in a puddle at his feet. “Can’t imagine the kind of people who hire you pay you for following up on people, too.”
After all, he didn’t serve his country or any noble cause. He was a private contractor, a mercenary. She’d realized he wasn’t law enforcement or military last night when he hadn’t stayed as the police took over the situation at the hospital with all of the rescued captives, including her.
“No.” He didn’t seem bothered by her reference to money at all. “It’s just the right thing to do.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “Do you always do the right thing?”
He lifted an eyebrow in response. “When possible, yes.”
She mentally checked herself, hard. She’d been headed down a haughty, judgmental path to hide from her embarrassment. Not only was she not attractive to him, she wasn’t liking herself much, either. She felt worse than off-balance. She was oscillating in unexpected directions, emotionally and mentally, and what was coming out of her mouth either didn’t make sense or wasn’t what she intended. She was a better person than this, not that he’d find out at the rate she was going.
Officer Kokua cleared his throat. “Hey, Zu. Can you escort Miss Jiang over to her hotel? Her father’s people said accommodations had been reserved there for her.”
Of course, not only was her father too busy to come and check on her, but his aide was, too.
“Considering what she’s been through, they didn’t want to send a car, so I was going to drive her over,” the officer continued. “But they wanted to personally thank you, too. Her father’s aide will be waiting for her at the hotel with some things for her comfort.”
Zu wasn’t looking at Officer Kokua as the man spoke. Instead, Zu was watching her.
She lifted her chin. “I can go to the hotel on my own.”
She was thirty-two, and before this insane kidnapping had happened, she’d been an accomplished community investment professional with a background in grants administration and nonprofit capacity building. She’d been establishing herself as one of the best in the fields of philanthropy and social innovation. A simple taxi ride to a hotel was no big thing.
“You could,” Zu confirmed. “But given recent events, it makes sense for me and Buck to give you a lift.”
She opened her mouth and closed it again, undecided. Now that he’d said more than a couple of words at a time, the deep resonance of his voice distracted her. She felt it all along her sternum, pulling at her, and she wanted to hear more. And even if she could do just about anything she needed on her own, she didn’t particularly want to just yet. It didn’t hurt to accept a ride. “Thank you.”
* * *
The drive from the police station to the hotel was only a couple of miles, but at this time of day, there was a lot of traffic. Zu didn’t enjoy the stop and go of downtown Honolulu ever, and it made him irritable behind the wheel. Buck had curled up in the back of Zu’s SUV readily for a nap. Normally, the two of them would’ve made a trip like this in relaxed quiet.
But their passenger might find the silence awkward. A lot of people did, in Zu’s experience, and he didn’t know enough about her to know whether it’d be more helpful to leave her to her thoughts or provide some kind of entertaining conversation. He was also a terrible conversationalist.
For her part, Ying Yue had sat quietly in the passenger seat for the past minute or so. As far as Zu could tell, she was people watching.
“Is it just me, or do you not talk much in general?”
He chuckled. She wasn’t the first to point it out, but he liked hearing it from her better than others. She sounded genuinely curious and not accusing or in search of a fight. “It’s not just you.”
“Okay.” She paused. “Do you not like talking or is it that you don’t usually initiate conversation?”
Good question. He hadn’t thought about it. “It’s easier to answer questions when I don’t know a person.”
There were too many ways a conversation could go sideways or be misinterpreted. If a person asked him about what they wanted to know, he didn’t have to do any guessing about what information they needed from him. Then, it took less time to decide what he actually wanted to share.
From the corner of his eye, he saw her square herself in the passenger seat and nod. “So, I’d like to know a few things.”
He’d bet. She’d probably spent the time at the police station doing all the answering. It couldn’t have been a pleasant experience, no matter how nice the officers tried to be. He’d been there a few times himself, and it was frustrating not to receive answers in return. If it helped Ying Yue, he’d be glad to share what he could. “Ask. I’ll answer if I can.”
“Tell me about your team, please.”
“That’s not a question.” Damn. And he wasn’t being helpful, but the observation came out before he thought to stop himself. This was one of the reasons why he kept his talking to a minimum.
She wasn’t deterred, though. She even fired back. “But your response will answer quite a few at the same time, I think.”
Fair. He came to a stop at a traffic light and checked all approaches. “Search and Protect is a private contract organization.”
“Freelance? Like the kind governments hire to supplement their military?” she asked. “Or the kind large corporations and wealthy people hire for private security?”
“Both, yes, but we have focused skill sets.” He liked that she was going for the nuances right away, instead of trying to apply broad definitions to things. “I and my team work with canines trained for a type of search and rescue. We specialize in infiltrating difficult areas and extracting high-value hostages.”
“So political figures or their families.” She sounded thoughtful.
“There are a lot of possible scenarios.” He navigated the stop-and-go traffic, keeping an eye on not just the vehicles around him but also the pedestrians on the sidewalks. Ying Yue’s rescue hadn’t been released to the news, but whoever had been expecting her had to know the cargo ship had been intercepted. It would be good when she was safely with family and had private security in addition to local law enforcement. “Could be politicians or their family. It could also be journalists or scientists, executives or other key business representatives. A government or company might have a policy never to negotiate with terrorists or kidnappers but still want to take action to retrieve their people. So they hire us.”
“But no one hired you to rescue me?” She turned her head to look out the passenger side window.
Ah. He shook his head. “No, Miss Jiang. My team and I were searching that cargo ship for other reasons.”
There was a long pause and he started to worry. Sometimes the truth wasn’t what a person wanted to hear. He didn’t want to cause her hurt, even disappointment. She’d already been through enough. He might not have been around today for the full debrief, but he’d remained near her last night when they’d first arrived at the hospital and she’d given her initial statement to the police. He reached for something, anything, to say to ease the anguish he imagined might be on her face.
“Ying Yue,” she said, quietly. “There’s no need to call me Miss Jiang.”
“Thank you.” Awkward. He’d told her his name on the boat when he’d found her. She knew his nickname, even knew Buck. She’d offered him something in giving him permission to be familiar with her, and he didn’t know how to reciprocate.
In every other aspect of his life, running Search and Protect or managing his private time, he considered himself competent. He had extensive experience in both the military and private sectors. He’d been a part of some of the most effective teams in the world and led more than a few of them. But one-on-one with civilians, particularly those who might benefit from more compassionate interaction, was most definitely not his forte.
“It won’t be much longer to your hotel.” Status updates always helped to move things forward. “You can see it up ahead.”
“Okay.” She straightened, looking forward, and from his perspective he saw no signs of tears.
“One of the taller ones, I’m guessing.” She didn’t sound impressed.
The hotel her father was staying in was part of a resort commanding a serious chunk of prime location right on the beaches of Waikiki. The hotels on the property were some of the tallest in the area and designed to catch the eye from a distance.
“Not your style?” He wondered if she was jaded in some way when it came to hotels and resorts. He’d gathered her father was an affluent businessman with interests in quite a few countries around the globe.
“I love any kind of hotel, actually. Big ones, small boutique places, bed-and-breakfasts. I love seeing what they do to make the stay an experience.” She let out a small laugh. “Staying with my father when he’s on business tends to take some of the simple pleasure out of it.”
Conversation came easier with her than anyone else he could remember in a long while, but that was too complex to explore when this car ride was going to be over in the next couple of minutes. Except that he’d welcome the chance. He wanted to hear her laugh again and see a real smile reach her eyes. He tightened his hands on the steering wheel as he resisted the irrational impulse to turn off on a detour to get more time with her.
Yeah. He should not kidnap the kidnap victim as a means to get to know her better. Way to go, ancient part of the brain. No more great impulses for the rest of this mission, however informal.
The hotel had a curved drive to accommodate drop-offs and a taxi line. A few tourists walked down the middle of the drive, displaying some very low survival skills, so he slowed to let them clear out before he continued forward.
Ying Yue reached over and clamped her hand down on his right wrist. Energy zinged up his forearm with the contact, through his shoulder, and hit him in the chest. She had a solid grip and wasn’t digging in with just her fingertips, instead exerting pressure from her palm and fingers. It felt good. He glanced at her and registered the way the shell-pink flush had gone from her cheeks and her eyes had widened. Even her delicate nostrils flared as she stared hard at something in front of them. Something was wrong.
His attention sharpened and expanded outward at the same time, assessing every available input to detect what might be out of place.
He followed her gaze and took in the very obvious contingent of private security waiting at the top of the drive, a handful of men, all dressed in suits, each projecting an air of fit intimidation. Very impressive to most, Zu guessed. “Your father’s security detail, I assume.”
She nodded in a jerky way, then shook her head side to side too fast. “He’s one of them. One of my kidnappers. He’s there.”
The words dropped like ice on Zu’s skin. React now, ask questions later. “Down. Now.”
He freed his wrist from her grip and reached out, cupping his hand behind her head and encouraging her to lean forward until she was out of sight. He dropped his foot down on the gas pedal and carried them past the security detail in a burst of speed before they could approach his vehicle.
“Hey!” One of the security people had shouted loud enough to be heard despite the windows closed. Good set of lungs on that one.
Zu caught sight of a suit in the rearview, hand to his ear, probably reporting in to his superiors.
Didn’t matter. Zu focused on getting clear of the building. He shot down the drive and turned onto the main road, cutting off some poor car on the way out. There was a screech of brakes and a horn, but no sound of a crash. Lucky. He continued driving.
At the corner, a few suits ran out from the side of the hotel. One came to a stop and raised his weapon. Zu turned the wheel slightly in a controlled lane change as shots rang out. He made a sharp left turn onto a cross street, putting buildings between his vehicle and their pursuers coming on foot. He made several more turns, then shot across traffic and into the big mall parking deck.
When he brought the SUV to a stop, Ying Yue groaned. “What are we doing?”
But she didn’t straighten, still bent over her knees with her hands over her head. He admired her intelligence. Too many television shows featured the plucky person who needed protection popping up in their seat at the wrong time, before anyone told them it was safe to do so.
“We’re disappearing until we can straighten this out with Kokua. Best to leave behind the SUV. They had enough time to see the license plate.” Zu stepped out of his car and circled around, letting Buck out of the back. Buck hopped out and sat as Zu hooked the big dog’s short lead onto his collar. Buck didn’t need it to know to stick with Zu, but having a leash on a working dog helped calm people who might otherwise be alarmed by a big dog walking through a public area. Then Zu headed around to the passenger side and opened the door. “Please come with me, and try to look like you’re about to enjoy a shopping trip.”
Ying Yue stared at him for a long moment, eyes narrowed and lips parted in an incredulous expression. “Shopping?”
“The first thing they’ll do is search the streets to find us. Hopefully I got us out of the public eye before they reestablished line of sight on us. The next step will be to search for this vehicle. We don’t want to be in it, so we’ll go someplace where we can blend until another ride can pick us up.” Zu held out his hand. Her gaze darted around the parking deck; then she placed her hand in his.
As they walked toward the mall with Buck, Zu pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Pua, this is Alpha. We’re going to need a pickup at Ala Moana Center. Stat. Send Bravo for pickup and have Charlie cover. There might be a call from Officer Kokua, high priority. We’ve got a situation to clarify.”
- "This smart, suspenseful novel is sure to please."—Publishers Weekly
- "Drake delivers a fast-paced and endearing fifth True Heroes romantic thriller [that will] delight series fans and newcomers alike."—Publishers Weekly on Fierce Justice
- "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
- Jan 28, 2020
- Page Count
- 304 pages