New York Times Bestselling Author

Chapter 1

Archer “Arrow” Kane couldn’t believe the luck of the woman at his side. The Mountain Mercenaries had been sent to the Dominican Republic to rescue a kidnapped little girl, and had left the dilapidated home they’d found her in with an additional hostage. A woman. A very famous missing woman at that.

Arrow kept his hand on Morgan Byrd to keep her near him. At times he merely rested it on the small of her back; at others, he gripped her arm to help her over debris. She didn’t look at him, didn’t thank him, didn’t acknowledge his touch in any way, but it seemed that she welcomed it. Whenever they stopped so Black could scope out the area to make sure they weren’t being followed, she leaned toward Arrow. She was subtle about it, but since Arrow was hyperaware of her, he noticed.

Ball was carrying the little girl they’d come to the Dominican Republic to rescue. She was five years old, and her noncustodial father hadn’t returned her after his court-approved visitation weekend. He’d fled to his home country with the child. That had been three months ago, and her mother had done everything possible to get her little girl back. When Rex had gotten wind of the situation, he’d immediately asked for volunteers to head to the small Caribbean island to bring Nina home.

Black, Ball, and Arrow had agreed to come. Ro was on his honeymoon, Meat was down and out with the flu, and Gray’s girlfriend was dancing in a special performance in Denver, so he’d passed this time. It was supposed to be an easy job, especially since Rex had information on the general area where Nina’s father was keeping her. But finding Morgan at the same location complicated things.

Arrow was still in shock. Morgan Byrd had been missing for a year or so. She’d disappeared from Atlanta one night, and despite several credible clues and surveillance video showing her dancing and having fun at a nightclub, there hadn’t been any movement in the case. Until now.

How in the world she’d come to be in the run-down house in Santo Domingo, Arrow had no idea, and right this second wasn’t the time to question her. But she’d obviously been through hell. She was covered in dirt, and her blonde hair was matted and filthy. She smelled like she hadn’t showered in weeks—which was probably the case.

Regardless, there was something about her that drew Arrow. It wasn’t her looks—because God knew she was looking rough right about now. It was her . . . resilience. Whatever she’d been through should’ve broken her.

Arrow had rescued his share of women and children from horrible situations, and many had been broken almost beyond repair. But when he’d entered the pitch-dark room, Morgan hadn’t been cowering in a corner. She’d been protecting the little girl she’d taken under her wing with a crude knife. The weapon wouldn’t have done much damage, but that didn’t matter. She’d put herself between the child and whoever had entered the room.

She hadn’t cried and begged to be taken away from her prison. Even now, she wasn’t clinging to him. Wasn’t hiding behind him. She was standing stoically next to him with one hand on Nina’s back[PR1] [SS2] , trying to reassure and comfort her.

He was extremely impressed with Morgan. She was different from all the other women he’d saved over the years. It was as if he could sense her determination. He was proud of her. Proud of how she’d stuck up for Nina. Proud that she hadn’t been broken. He also felt more protective toward this woman than anyone else he’d rescued. He couldn’t identify all the reasons why, but the feeling was definitely there.

Arrow could’ve probably resisted the emotions he could feel bubbling under the surface if she weren’t unconsciously leaning into him every chance she got. She might be tough and composed on the surface, but that slight telltale movement offered a very different story.

Underneath her bravado, she was scared to death. Arrow wanted to take her in his arms and reassure her. Tell her that he’d get her home to her father, to safety. But he knew from experience that showing even the slightest amount of sympathy right now could undo her. So he restricted himself to small touches, making sure he stayed by her side, giving her what comfort he could while still being on alert for the smallest signs of danger.

After what she’d been through, whatever that was, he wasn’t going to let anyone or anything hurt her again before he got her home.

“All clear,” Black said in a toneless whisper as he reappeared next to them without another sound. The man had been a Navy SEAL and could move silently through any kind of terrain. Arrow had long since gotten used to it, but next to him, he felt Morgan start violently as Black’s presence surprised her.

But she didn’t make a sound. She’d trained herself well to keep quiet. He’d noticed that in the room where she and Nina had been held captive. When he’d hit her arms to knock the knife out of her hand, she hadn’t cried out. When the little girl had thrown herself at her, Morgan hadn’t let out even the smallest umph as she’d landed on her ass. It had surprised him at the same time it impressed the hell out of him. He and his teammates had learned to move absolutely silently, but it had taken him years of training in the Marines and more dangerous missions than he could count. The mystery of how and why Morgan had learned to be silent, no matter what, bothered him.

“We need to move quickly,” Black went on. “The safe house is roughly half a mile away, but we’re about thirty minutes later than we’d planned. The city is waking up, and the last thing we want is for someone to see us and get curious.”

Arrow pressed his lips together. Three Caucasian men wandering around the city wearing all black, with a woman and child in tow, would definitely attract attention. The kind they didn’t need. He opened his mouth to speak, but Morgan beat him to it.

“We should split up,” she said quietly. “We’re slowing you guys down. If we split up, you can move faster with Nina,” she told Ball, nodding at the child now sleeping in his arms.

Arrow could see how much the suggestion cost her. She was gripping Nina’s shirt in her fist so hard her knuckles were white.

Black looked toward Arrow with one brow raised. From the second they’d stepped outside the hovel where they’d rescued the pair, his teammates had realized he had a connection with Morgan. It worked like that sometimes on their missions. They were trained to watch the reactions of the women and children, and if they showed the slightest inclination to trust one of the men over another, the team did what they could to encourage that. Trust was a huge issue when rescuing kidnapping victims. And having a victim trust even one of them made the mission that much easier.

They’d read Morgan’s body language as easily as he had. Not to mention the way he’d been hovering over her. Black was asking, without words, for Arrow’s opinion on splitting up. There was no doubt that he’d be the one going with Morgan.

Arrow turned to the woman at his side. He towered over her slight five feet three inches. At an inch over six feet, he was used to being taller than the people they rescued, but her diminutive height was one of the things that made his protective instincts rush to the surface more than usual.

He slowly moved his hand and lightly brushed his fingertips against her upper arm. It was covered with a ratty gray T-shirt, but he could feel the heat of her skin through it. “Are you sure?” he asked. “It would make things easier, but if you don’t want to be separated from Nina, we can make it work.”

She tilted her chin up to look him in the eyes, which Arrow loved. She was scared and nervous, but hadn’t been beaten down to a point where she refused to meet his gaze.

“I want to do whatever will get Nina safe the fastest.”

Arrow had known that was what she’d say. He turned to Ball. The former Coastie was standing patiently next to them. He was a foot taller than Morgan, and he held the child in his arms easily. “We’ll meet you there.”

The hair at the back of his neck stood on end, but Arrow ignored it for the time being. He didn’t like being separated from his teammates, but splitting up was the right thing to do at the moment. Once they were ensconced in the safe house, they could figure out their next steps. They needed to get in contact with Rex and let him know that Nina was safe, but also that they had a surprise addition.

They had the proper paperwork to get Nina out of the country, including her passport, among other legal items, but they had nothing for Morgan. They had chartered a jet to get home, but even so, they couldn’t just plunk a mysterious, unidentified woman on the plane and expect authorities to be okay with it.

“Be careful,” Ball said, his gaze intense.

Arrow knew what he meant. They had no idea about Morgan’s story. Who took her. Why she was being held. What had happened to her. She was a total unknown in this scenario. Nina’s father, they knew well enough. Rex had researched him and shared everything he’d learned before they’d left. But Morgan was a mystery.

He nodded at his friend.

“Got your radio?” Black asked.

Arrow nodded again. Each of them had a radio[PR3]  that they used to communicate with each other. They had a range of a couple of miles, but for anything beyond that, they had to use specialized satellite phones.

Morgan took a step toward Nina and Ball, but hesitated when Arrow’s hand fell from her arm. Knowing she needed the reassurance, Arrow followed her and put his fingertips on the middle of her back. He could feel how tight her muscles were, but she merely approached Ball and stood up on tiptoe. She still couldn’t reach the sleeping child’s face, so Ball leaned down.

Morgan brushed her lips against Nina’s cheek and stepped back. “Take care of her,” she whispered. “She’s been through a lot.”

“Does she need a doctor?” Ball asked, putting one of his large hands on the back of Nina’s head, holding her securely to him as he straightened.

Morgan shrugged. “Probably. She hasn’t been eating too well, and she’s been complaining that her tummy hurts. I figured it was probably just upset because of stress and not eating all that much, but I don’t know.”

Ball nodded. “Black’s got medical training. He’ll take a look at her, and I know her mom will have a doctor waiting for her when we get back to the States.”

“What about you?” Black asked.

“Me?” Morgan asked.

“Do you need a doctor?”

Arrow saw the instant change in her demeanor—and blinked in surprise. All emotion disappeared from her face as she shook her head.

“Not right this second, no.”

He wanted to argue. Wanted to reassure her that whatever had happened wasn’t her fault. That he’d make sure she got all the medical attention she needed. But her closed-off expression and the blankness in her eyes, not to mention the fact that it was getting lighter and lighter the longer they stood around talking, kept him silent.

Black didn’t look any happier with her answer than Arrow was, but his teammate didn’t comment. He merely nodded and gestured to Ball with his head. Within seconds they were gone, blending into the shadows of the extremely run-down neighborhood.

“Come on,” Arrow said, reaching down and taking her hand in his. Once more, he was struck by the difference in their sizes. Her fingers were slender and dainty, while his were large and calloused. He’d removed the gloves he had on earlier, and he could feel how clammy her palm was. Another nonverbal sign of her nervousness, unease, and fright.

Without a word in protest, Morgan nodded and followed him as he headed in the opposite direction from where Black and Ball had gone. They’d circle around the neighborhood and get to the safe house from the north rather than the south, the direction his teammates were headed. It was the longer route, but he could move faster since he didn’t have to worry about jostling a child.

Morgan stumbled a bit behind him. She couldn’t see as well as he could since he’d pulled down his night-vision goggles, but once again, she didn’t make a sound. She merely held on to his hand tighter and trusted him as he led her through dark alleyways and trash-filled streets.

He had no idea what had happened to her in the last year, but he made a mental vow right then and there to do everything in his power to make her feel safe once more . . . no matter what it took.

 [PR1]AU: On the previous page, Nina is being carried. Would she be in a position for someone to put their hand on her back?

 [SS2]I think so.

 [PR3]AU: As they each have one radio, and not several.

Defending Morgan 

Protection leads to passion in New York Times bestselling author Susan Stoker’s dangerously hot Mountain Mercenaries adventure.

Dispatched to the Dominican Republic to rescue a kidnapped child, former Navy SEAL Archer “Arrow” Kane makes a startling discovery: another hostage—Morgan Byrd, a very beautiful and very well-known missing person who disappeared off the streets of Atlanta a year ago. She’s brave, resilient, and unbroken. All Arrow wants to know is why she ended up in a shack in Santo Domingo. All he feels is the desire to protect.

Morgan is done being the victim and is determined to find out who hates her so much that they want her gone—but not dead. Until then, she has Arrow, an alpha stranger who’s offering a warm and safe place to hide. But as the passion between them flares, so does the fear that whoever took Morgan will do anything to get her back. For Arrow, protecting this woman with a mysterious enemy is the most dangerous mission of his life. And it’s worth every beat of his heart.