Read Caught in the Crosshair Online
Authors: Barb Han
A determined sister. A jaded ex-special forces operative. The mission binding them together that threatens to destroy them both …
Caught in the Crosshair
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and the resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Caught in the Crosshair
COPYRIGHT © 2013 by Barb Han
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Cover Art by: Diana Carlile
First Edition, 2013
Published in the United States of America
First and foremost, I’d like to thank my agent,
, who is brilliant in her guidance and unfailing in her judgment. Many thanks to my editor, Vickie Taylor, whose dedication to detail and excellence has shaped this story into greatness, and to
for a final polish. Cover artist, Diana Carlile, designed an amazing cover. I’m blessed to have had the chance to work with her. I’d like to send a special thank you to my friend and critique partner,
, who is willing to read whatever, whenever and always manages to make me laugh in the process. I’d like to thank my buds
, Lisa Watson and Caroline York, whose camaraderie, support, and friendship are a few of the great blessings in my life.
On the technical side, I’d like to thank NAUI IT dive instructor, Raymon Bacchus, who was gracious enough to send materials on scuba diving and personally answer all my questions. Any mistakes or latitude I’ve taken in the dive scenes are mine. I’d also like to mention Colby P. at Frisco Physical Therapy for clarifying my many questions about dislocated shoulders.
My deepest gratitude goes to Brandon, Jacob, and Tori, who are the true sunshine in my life. And to my husband, John, who is the bravest person I know in every meaningful way.
PRAISE FOR BARB HAN:
“Her writing style and voice kept me riveted from beginning to end.”
“Barb Han is an author to watch and will soon be on many auto-buy lists I’m sure. From edgy suspense to flirty, sexy novels, she’s got a way with a story, writing with vivid words to make you feel right there among the characters.”
“Han’s writing is gripping, and beautifully executed. There were a few times when I just had to re-read a sentence because it was so perfect, or poignant.”
The Texas sun beating down on the white canopy over the fresh grave created a greenhouse effect, intensifying the triple-digit temperature. Jaden Dean loosened his tie. At five o’clock the heat had peaked. A half hour into the inferno, his shirt threatened to melt into his skin. He’d barely noticed.
His focus was Helena. Long after the attendees had gone home, she sat there, broken, looking lost and alone. A stark contrast to the deadly field operative she was.
Jaden couldn’t walk away, so he moved to the chair next to her. “There anyone I can call?”
She didn’t look at him. Only shook her head.
Jaden sighed sharply. “Talk to someone, then. A priest?”
Her gaze focused forward. She didn’t respond.
“Then take some time off. Hell, take as much time as you need. Your job will be waiting for you. ManTech can survive for a while without you.”
She glanced at him.
Damn, it was hard to look her in the eyes, see the pain there. Pain that was his fault.
She shook her head again. “I need to keep busy. Work is all I have now.”
Right. She’d been orphaned as a child. A wrench tightened inside Jaden’s gut at remembering the details of her abusive past. There was no family to surround her. Tim had been everything to her. He was her love. Her redemption. Her life.
And now he was dead.
Freakin’ South American cartels.
Her chin came up. “And those bastards have to pay.”
The hollow look in her eyes was a knife to his chest. Something inside her was broken. Would she ever be the same?
Would he ever be the same after sending her fiancé on the mission he should’ve taken himself?
Jaden knew all about losing someone close. The unspeakable pain. The darkness and anger that settled in the soul. The hopelessness. Everyone that had been close to him was dead. His operatives were all the family he had. And they were being killed. He was beginning to think he was cursed.
If she insisted on working, he’d keep a close eye on her.
Lauren James had learned the hard way that sometimes the best childhood was a brief one, that there was a direct link between determination and success, and it only took one phone call to unleash hurt and memories she’d spent the past decade trying to suppress.
“H-h-elp me,” a man’s voice choked out. It was strained and cracked, and he gasped for air when he spoke. Even so, his identity was unmistakable.
She drew a breath, forcing air into her lungs.
“L-l-isten.” He made a strangled noise before his mouth must’ve moved away from the receiver. She heard a train and more voices. One … two … three … she counted, identifying at least three men with terse South American accents.
A crack followed by a pained grunt dropped her stomach to the floor, scrambling her nerves.
“Max. Max? Are you there? Are you hurt? Who’s doing this to you?” The words fired off like buckshot.
More muffled noises, and then a tortured scream seared her eardrums.
, if you want
alive, you pay.”
“Pay? Pay what? Pay whom?” Should she call the police? Maybe she could reach her cell phone and dial 911 now while she still had them on the line?
“Pay or we cut him into pieces.”
Icy regret stabbed her chest. Why hadn’t she taken any of his calls in the past six months? Because the last time he called four years ago, he wanted to use her for money.
“No. Don’t hurt him. Tell me what to do,” she said, trying to keep panic out of her voice.
Her cell was in her purse in the kitchen. Could she get to it?
“You bring in the cops, lady, we cut him up and mail you the pieces.”
No police. Of course they would have anticipated that. She’d have to go alone.
. Panic brought bile to the back of Lauren’s throat. It burned.
Scuffling noises came through the line before another loud crack sounded.
“Then we come looking for you.”
“No. No police. I’ll be there.”
Max screamed in agony, then shouted, “Don’t do it, sis. Don’t listen to them. Go far away and don’t come back. They’ll kill you too. I’m already dead.”
She’d sworn she would never allow herself to be pulled back into Max’s world again, but she couldn’t turn her back on him. Not like this.
“Please. Stop. Don’t hurt him. I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll go wherever you say. Just tell me what to do!”
“You better pay,
. If you don’t want to glue his body parts back together. One hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”
“Wait! I can’t —”
Another crack sounded, followed by more moaning.
“Please. Stop. I’ll. Do. Anything.” Where she would get that kind of money, she had no clue. It didn’t matter. She had to find a way. A throb ricocheted between her temples.
“Antigua Bay Resort. In two days. On the beach at noon.”
“Oh. God. No.”
Lauren didn’t hang up. Not even when the dial tone sounded.
. She had a little money in savings. Her business was doing well. Maybe she could secure a loan for the rest? But how? There was no time. Where on earth would she get that kind of cash?
Knees weak, she sank to the kitchen floor. Her body quaked. A slow ripple that arose deep in her belly moved through her chest, her arms, her hands, her fingers.
Tremors vibrated down her legs, all the way through her feet.
She didn’t move. Or cry. The fight drained from her.
But she shook so hard it felt as though her bones might fracture, splinter through her skin, and explode into a thousand tiny flecks of dust.
An untraceable call. A hundred-fifty thousand dollar loan. An express ticket to a money launderer’s favorite drop spot. And an innocent woman caught in the middle.
And the dog really ate your homework, didn’t it, sweetheart?
Jaden Dean raked his fingers through jet-black hair, ignoring the icy chill running down his spine. This was supposed to be nothing like his last assignment, and yet the early warning signs screamed otherwise: a so-called innocent woman trapped in a sting by a family member. Experience had taught him there was no such thing as straightforward when it came to family ties and criminals.
A month ago, one of his best operatives had been killed in South America. A week later, Smith took a bullet. Jaden should be dead too. He ran his hand over the stubble on his chin. What the hell was happening? He’d spent the past couple of weeks recovering while trying to connect the dots. Something big was going down.
He picked up Lauren James’s picture from the file of intel and studied it intently. Jogging shorts and a tightly-fitted tank revealed flawless ivory skin. Her curly mane of red hair was pulled back into a ponytail exposing her bare neck.
Her body? One look at her perfect, long runner’s legs said she’d picked the right sport. Her lean taut body was built for the track. To say she was attractive was a lot like saying a motorcycle had two wheels.
Under normal circumstances, she looked exactly like the kind of woman Jaden would want to get to know better. Except he felt another niggle of déjà vu along with a very real surge of attraction.
The flight attendant was working her way toward him on her third round to see if he needed anything, emphasis on the word
, while flashing him another seductive little smile.
His athletic height and rugged good looks elicited more than a few second glances from women. His legendary charm proved immeasurable in getting information he needed from the opposite sex. He was ManTech’s best operative as well as its owner. In part, because he didn’t leave any loose threads. His best trait? Not being noticed when it served his purpose. It didn’t matter on this flight.
He fired off a wink and thanked her, leaving no question about her dismissal in his tone.
The rush of color to her face outlined her embarrassment at her failed attempt to strike up a conversation, as the captain’s voice sounded over the PA. Local time was ten after eleven. VC Bird International Airport was their final destination. They had an expected arrival time of eleven fifteen.
The attendant sauntered off with a calculated look back. It scarcely registered with Jaden. His thoughts were locked on the contents of the manila file folder sitting on his lap.
If Lauren James wasn’t mixed up with her brother, why had she just secured a sizable loan and dropped everything at a moment’s notice to run off to the Caribbean after receiving an untraceable phone call?
Jaden sighed sharply.
“Like hell, you’re not involved,” he said under his breath, tucking the folder beneath his arm and stretching long, lean legs after the four-and-a-half-hour flight from Dallas. The memory of his recent encounter with his buddy’s wife when he’d had to deliver the news that her husband had died on assignment rolled around in his thoughts. The anguish, the crying, the whole scene had nearly done him in. He did emotion about as well as he did family. In his line of work, there was room for neither. Smith mistakenly thought he could have it both ways. He left behind a heartbroken wife and two kids in diapers. Jaden’s shoulders tensed and his heart squeezed. It had been his responsibility to deliver the news. He tucked the picture back in the file and closed the folder of intel marked with Lauren’s name.
The plane bustled with activity as soon as clearance came for passengers to move around the cabin.
Jaden’s hand instinctively went to his sore shoulder as he reached for his bag in the overhead compartment.
He cursed again as he tightened his grip on the handle and deplaned. His brain looped another thought he wished he could bury — watching Lauren James had been meant to give him a chance to catch his breath, to regroup and relocate his senses after the last one, the one that nearly left him dead in the street bleeding out.
And he’d be damned if he tripped that wire twice.
He knew his asset would have landed a few minutes before him. He didn’t mind losing visual with her. Bryce, his spotter, was already on the ground waiting.
Immediate radio contact informed Jaden she’d taken Burma Road to the north until she reached Dickenson Bay on the northwest corner of the island.
Jaden also learned that Lauren had spent fourteen minutes inside the hotel before setting foot on the sand, which he figured was about how long it would take him to reach the beach and locate Bryce.
His timing was spot on.
“Love the hat. Nice shirt too,” Jaden said sarcastically as he edged behind Bryce, who wore a straw hat and one of those obnoxiously loud Hawaiian shirts with the requisite beer gut to match. Being loud was sometimes the best way to blend in. It was working, because not one person on the teaming beach gave him a second glance. His get-up screamed “tourist.”
“Damn.” Bryce clutched his chest. “Why’re you always sneakin’ up on me like that?”
Jaden quirked a smile. “I didn’t.”
Instinct had him surveying the area before getting too comfortable. The hotel was shaped in a horseshoe, wrapping around a private piece of white sand beach the size of a football field. He glimpsed metal twinkling in the sunlight from the top window of the building to his left. Another on the right. There were two shooters in the building and three on the ground.
Wasn’t exactly afternoon tea with the Queen, but he didn’t figure he’d break much of a sweat if anything went down.
Jaden was used to working alone in worse situations. His odds doubled having Bryce as backup.
And yet, a little voice in the back of his head fired off a warning bell.
“Besides, what do you have against birds?”
“Nothing. I just didn’t want to see every species crammed on one sleeve.” Jaden was more of a white V-neck Hanes T-shirt and faded blue jeans guy. His compromise? Flip-flops.
“I’m like the woodwork. Besides, this one here,” Bryce said, pointing in the center of his chest, “is an African gray parrot. Pretty ain’t she?”
“She’s friggen Miss America. Too bad there’s no sunshine to go with a shirt like that,” Jaden said with a wry smile. What was it about sunny places that made grown men want to wear shirts they wouldn’t be caught dead using to wash their cars with back home?
Bryce glanced up at the skies. “Hurricane’s moving in. Supposed to be a bad one. Wouldn’t want to have to stick around here longer than I had to.”
“Maybe we’ll be outta here by lunch. We figure out what she’s doing in the mix, and maybe she’ll lead us to who’s in charge.”
“I hope. I’m hungry,” Bryce said, patting his stomach and planting himself on a beach towel.
The small folder with intel about Lauren James’s life pointed toward her innocence. Business owner. Successful entrepreneur. Tough childhood, yes, but she’d distanced herself and made good. On the surface, she was someone Jaden could even respect.
Was she a simple small business owner who just happened to be related to an international money launderer? Was she the unfortunate recipient of bad shared genes? Or was she involved and just
A small business made for a perfect front. And nothing involving South American cartels was straightforward.
“So it’s two against five?” Jaden said aloud, not minding those odds.
“Looks so. For now. More’s on the way. I can’t hang around for long.” Bryce looked glum as he checked his watch. “Our guys should’ve been here already.”
“What? You got a problem with the numbers?”
“Like it better when they’re flipped,” Bryce said truthfully.
“Think this situation’s about to blow?”
Jaden rolled his shoulders. “Hard to say.” He paused, thinking how it would be nice to have at least one friend to watch a game with sometime. “You know, when this is over, we should grab a beer.”
Jaden leaned forward until he located the asset, Lauren. Not like he could miss that shock of long red hair against white sand anyway. In the sun, her hair shimmered like crystals.
She sat on the edge of a bright blue lounge chair in the middle of a hundred yards of oceanfront property. There was beach out in front of her, hotel around her, and a row of palm trees on either side. Her small overnight bag was tucked under the lounger. Based on the size of her bag, she didn’t expect to be here long. Or it was filled with money.
She was beautiful. He didn’t need to be any closer than five feet from her to tell that. Her pale green tank pressed against full breasts, a white cotton skirt fell to her calves. Looking through binoculars, he could see her face clearly for the first time. The picture in her file didn’t do her justice. Her fiery hair framed an almond-shaped face and brown eyes with gold flecks in them. Her lips were full, pink and kissable … he stopped himself right there. Her lips were none of his damn business. He dismissed the thought as a side effect of going too long without female companionship. Another job casualty.
Besides, all the color had drained from her face, and she was blinking rapidly. Meant she was anxious. Nervous. If she was involved, she didn’t normally take meetings.
Her folded arms and squared shoulders told him she was ready to jump out of her skin if someone yelled, “Boo.” And yet, he had to give it to her, she was being brave enough to sit there anyway. Of course, he couldn’t tell if she feared the men watching her or just the possibility of getting caught in general.
Jaden glimpsed someone moving from around the side of the hotel and heading toward a cluster of palm trees. The man moved stealthily along the row of palms, crouched low enough not to draw attention to himself.
Tension permeated the beach, powering the heat and humidity times ten. Jaden’s blood was finally pumping again. Adrenaline. He wouldn’t feel this alive sitting behind a desk nursing his injuries.
The ominous storm clouds that had been threatening thickened as a light sprinkle began. The heavy clouds blocked the sun, making it dark as night. The rain shooed tourists back into the hotel, their fists full of rainbow-colored drinks with chunks of pineapple stabbed by toothpicks and set on the rims of the glasses.