New York Times Bestselling Author

Dakota James’s life has become the stuff of nightmares. The leader of the Ansar al-Shari’a terrorist group has become obsessed with her, determined to take her as his wife. On the run, she’ll have to pin her hopes on the retired SEAL charged with finding and stopping Aziz Fourati before he can carry out plans to bomb more US airports.

Recently recruited to join a sleeper SEAL team tasked with fighting terrorism on US soil, Slade “Cutter” Cutsinger, with the help of some Special Forces friends, has located the one woman who can identify the deadly Ansar al-Shari’a leader. That was the easy part. Keeping her safe proves more difficult than anyone ever imagined.

When she and her new friend, Caroline, are kidnapped by the terrorist group, Dakota can only pray Cutter and the SEALs will reach them before they’re taken out of the country—and away from Cutter forever.  

** Protecting Dakota is a part of the SEAL of Protection Series. It is also in the “Sleeper SEAL” connected series. Each book is a stand-alone, with no cliffhanger endings.
Each book in this multi-author branded series is a standalone novel, and the series does not have to be read in order.

Find out more about this unique inter-connected series here.

Protecting Dakota

Keep reading for a special sneak peak of Protecting Dakota!


Prologue

Retired Navy Commander Greg Lambert leaned forward to rake in the pile of chips his full house had netted him. Tonight, he would leave the weekly gathering not only with his pockets full, but his pride intact.

The scowls he earned from his poker buddies at his unusual good luck were an added bonus.

They’d become too accustomed to him coming up on the losing side of Five Card Stud. It was about time he taught them to never underestimate him.

Vice President Warren Angelo downed the rest of his bourbon and stubbed out his Cuban cigar. “Looks like Lady Luck is on your side tonight, Commander.”

After he neatly stacked his chips in a row at the rail in front of him, Greg glanced around at his friends. It occurred to him right then, this weekly meeting wasn’t so different from the joint sessions they used to have at the Pentagon during his last five years of service.

While the location was now the Secretary of State’s basement, the gatherings still included top-ranking military brass, politicians, and the director of the CIA, who had been staring at him strangely all night long.

“It’s about time the bitch smiled my way, don’t you think? She usually just cleans out my pockets and gives you my money,” Greg replied with a sharp laugh as his eyes roved over the spacious man cave with envy before they snagged on the wall clock.

It was well past midnight, their normal break-up time. He needed to get home, but what did he have to go home to? Four walls, and Karen’s mean-as-hell Chihuahua who hated him.

Greg stood, scooted back his chair, and stretched his shoulders. The rest of his poker buddies quickly left, except for Vice President Angelo, Benedict Hughes with the CIA, and their host tonight, Percy Long, the Secretary of State.

Greg took the last swig of his bourbon, then set the glass on the table. When he took a step to leave, they moved to block his way to the door. “Something on your minds, gentlemen?” he asked, their cold, sober stares making the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

It wasn’t a comfortable feeling, but one he was familiar with from his days as a Navy SEAL. That feeling usually didn’t portend anything good was about to go down, but neither did the looks on these men’s faces.

Warren cleared his throat and leaned against the mahogany bar with its leather trimmings. “There’s been a significant amount of chatter lately.” He glanced at Ben. “We’re concerned.”

Greg backed up a few steps, putting some distance between himself and the men. “Why are you telling me this? I’ve been out of the loop for a while now.” Greg was retired, and bored stiff, but not stiff enough to tackle all that was wrong in the United States at the moment or fight the politics involved in fixing things.

Ben let out a harsh breath then gulped down his glass of water. He set the empty glass down on the bar with a sigh and met Greg’s eyes. “We need your help, and we’re not going to beat around the bush,” he said, making Greg’s short hairs stand taller.

Greg put his hands in his pockets, rattling the change in his right pocket and his car keys in the left while he waited for the hammer. Nothing in Washington, D.C. was plain and simple anymore. Not that it ever had been.

“Spit it out, Ben,” he said, eyeballing the younger man. “I’m all ears.”

“Things have changed in the US. Terrorists are everywhere now,” he started, and Greg bit back a laugh at the understatement of the century.

He’d gotten out before the recent INCONUS attacks started, but he was still in service on 9/11 for the ultimate attack. The day that replaced Pearl Harbor as the day that would go down in infamy.

“That’s not news, Ben,” Greg said, his frustration mounting in his tone. “What does that have to do with me, other than being a concerned citizen?”

“More cells are being identified every day,” Ben replied, his five o’clock shadow standing in stark contrast to his now paler face. “The chatter about imminent threats, big jihad events that are in the works, is getting louder every day.”

“You do understand that I’m no longer active service, right?” Greg shrugged. “I don’t see how I can be of much help there.”

“We want you to head a new division at the CIA,” Warren interjected. “Ghost Ops, a sleeper cell of SEALs to help us combat the terrorist sleeper cells in the US…and whatever the hell else might pop up later.”

Greg laughed. “And where do you think I’ll find these SEALs to sign up? Most are deployed over—”

“We want retired SEALs like yourself. We’ve spent millions training these men, and letting them sit idle stateside while we fight this losing battle alone is just a waste.” Ben huffed a breath. “I know they’d respect you when you ask them to join the contract team you’d be heading up. You’d have a much better chance of convincing them to help than we will.”

“Most of those guys are like me, worn out to the bone or injured when they finally give up the teams. Otherwise, they’d still be active. SEALs don’t just quit.” Unless their wives were taken by cancer and their kids were off at college, leaving them alone in a rambling house when they were supposed to be traveling together and enjoying life.

“What kind of threats are you talking about?” Greg asked, wondering why he was even entertaining such a stupid idea.

“There are many. More every day. Too many for us to fight alone,” Ben started, but Warren held up his palm.

“The president is taking a lot of heat. He has three and a half years left in his term, and taking out these threats was a campaign promise. He wants the cells identified and the terror threats eradicated quickly.”

These two, and the president, sat behind desks all day. They’d never been in a field op before, so they had no idea the planning and training that took place before a team ever made it to the field. Training a team of broken-down SEALs to work together would take double that time, because each knew better than the rest how things should be done, so there was no “quick” about it.

“That’s a tall order. I can’t possibly get a team of twelve men on the same page in under a year. Even if I can find them.” Why in the hell was he getting excited, then? “Most are probably out enjoying life on a beach somewhere.” Exactly where he would be with Karen if she hadn’t fucking died on him as soon as he’d retired four years ago.

“We don’t want a team, Greg,” Percy Long corrected, unfolding his arms as he stepped toward him. “This has to be done stealthily because we don’t want to panic the public. If word got out about the severity of the threats, people wouldn’t leave their homes. The press would pump it up until they created a frenzy. You know how that works.”

“So, let me get this straight. You want individual SEALs, sleeper guys who agree to be called up for special ops, to perform solo missions?” Greg asked, his eyebrows lifting. “That’s not usually how they work.”

“Unusual times call for unusual methods, Greg. They have the skills to get it done quickly and quietly,” Warren replied, and Greg couldn’t argue. That’s exactly the way SEALs operated—they did whatever it took to get the job done.

Ben approached him, placed his hand on his shoulder as if this was a tag-team effort, and Greg had no doubt that it was just that. “Every terrorist or wannabe terror organization has roots here now. Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, Isis, or the Taliban—you name it. They’re not here looking for asylum. They’re actively recruiting followers and planning events to create a caliphate on our home turf. We can’t let that happen, Greg, or the United States will never be the same.”

“You’ll be a CIA contractor, and can name your price,” Warren inserted, and Greg’s eyes swung to him. “You’ll be on your own in the decision making. We need to have plausible deniability if anything goes wrong.”

“Of course,” Greg replied, shaking his head. If anything went south, they needed a fall guy, and that would be him in this scenario. Not much different from the dark ops his teams performed under his command when he was active duty.

God, why did this stupid idea suddenly sound so intriguing? Why did he think he might be able to make it work? And why in the hell did he suddenly think it was just what he needed to break out of the funk he’d been living in for four years?

“I can get you a list of potential hires, newly retired SEALs, and the president says anything else you need,” Warren continued quickly. “All we need is your commitment.”

The room went silent, and Greg looked deeply into each man’s eyes as he pondered a decision. What the hell did he have to lose? If he didn’t agree, he’d just die a slow, agonizing death in his recliner at home. At only forty-seven and still fit, that could be a lot of years spent in that chair.

“Get me the intel, the list, and the contract,” he said, and a surge of adrenaline made his knees weak.

He was back in the game.

 

 
Chapter One

 
“Hey, Wolf, how’d it go?” Slade “Cutter” Cutsinger asked the SEAL as he entered the office on the Naval base.

“I’d tell ya, Cutter, but then I’d have to kill you,” Wolf joked as he smiled at Slade.

It was a long-running joke between the two men. Slade was a retired SEAL himself, now working as a contractor for the Navy. He worked directly under Patrick Hurt, Wolf’s commander. Slade probably knew more about the mission Wolf and his team had been on than Wolf did himself.

“The commander’s waiting in his office for a debrief,” Slade told the other man with a chin lift, indicating the door to his right. “All good at home? Caroline okay?”

“She’s good,” Wolf told him. “Thanks for asking. And I should’ve said something before now, but I appreciate you checking on her during that last mission. She’s used to them, as much as she can be used to her spouse leaving for who-knows-where for who-knows-how-long. She told me you helped make her and the others feel better about that mission. You know if you ever need anything, all you’ve got to do is ask.”

“I do know, and it’s appreciated,” Slade told him.

He hadn’t ever worked in the field with Wolf or the other guys on his team, but he respected the hell out of all of them. They were extremely successful on their missions, didn’t take absurd chances, and most importantly to Slade, all took care of their families. And by “take care,” Slade meant they realized how precious their women and children were and worked their asses off to make sure they knew it. They didn’t sleep around on them. If they were running late on a mission, Wolf always made sure Slade checked up on their families. And they had tracking devices on their women, just in case.

Slade wasn’t supposed to know about the trackers, but his friend, Tex, had let that little gem slip one night when they were shooting the shit on the phone. Slade had worked on a team with Tex before he’d been medically retired, and hadn’t ever found another man for whom he had more respect. When he’d found out about Tex marrying, and then adopting a child from Iraq, he’d been almost as proud for the man as Tex probably was himself.

They’d been talking on the phone one night and Tex had told him that his wife, Melody, had given birth to a little girl named Hope, then he’d told Slade that he’d be damned if any of their enemies got their hands on his baby. With his wife’s approval and encouragement, he’d had a bracelet made for his daughter to wear with a tiny tracking device. That’s when he’d let the cat out of the bag about the women who belonged to Wolf’s team also voluntarily wearing similar jewelry.

Slade had felt a little melancholy that he hadn’t ever found a woman he cared about enough to want to protect like that…and who would let him. His ex, Cynthia—not Cindy; God forbid someone call her Cindy—didn’t have much interest in anything he did and by the end of their four-year marriage, the feeling was definitely mutual.

All his life, he’d wanted to feel a special connection with a woman. For some reason, he had a feeling he’d just know when he met her. In his twenties, he hadn’t been too anxious to find her because he’d been young and eager to make a difference in the Navy. In his thirties, he was ready to settle down, even though he was neck deep working on the SEAL teams. And now, in his late forties, he felt way too old to try to start a serious relationship. He figured he’d lost his chance.

So now he was a confirmed bachelor who kept tabs on the families of the SEALs that worked for Commander Hurt instead.

Mentally shrugging, Slade tried to concentrate on the paperwork in front of him. He missed the action of being on a SEAL team, but he was definitely too old to do the work of the younger men anymore. He gladly left it to them.

The phone next to him rang, and Slade answered. “Cutsinger. How may I help you?”

“I’m looking for Slade Cutsinger. Is this he?”

Slade didn’t recognize the voice, but he definitely recognized the authority behind the words.

“Yes, Sir. I’m Cutsinger.”

“This is retired Navy Commander Greg Lambert. Is this line secure?”

Slade was taken aback. He didn’t remember ever working with a Greg Lambert, and he had a good memory. “No, Sir, it is not. If you need to talk to Commander Hurt, I recommend—”

“It’s you I need,” Greg interrupted. “I’m going to give you a phone number. I expect you to call me tonight from a secure line. I have a proposition for you.”

“No disrespect, Sir, but I don’t know you,” Slade said, having trouble keeping his tone professional. He didn’t mind taking orders, but usually he knew the person who was giving those orders.

“You don’t, but we have a mutual friend who speaks highly of you.”

When he didn’t continue, Slade asked, “A mutual friend?”

“John Keegan.”

Fuckin’ A. Tex. What the hell had the man gotten him into now? “He’s one of the best men I’ve ever met,” Slade told Greg honestly.

“Ditto. Got a pen?”

“Yeah.” Slade dutifully jotted down the number he was given.

“Needless to say, this is a highly sensitive matter. John assured me that you were discreet and would be extremely interested.”

“At least he’s half right,” Slade mumbled, and ignored the chuckle on the other end of the line. “I’ll call around nineteen hundred, if that’s all right.”

“I’ll be waiting.” And the former commander ended the call without another word.

Slade slowly hung up the phone on his end, lost in thought. He tried to quash the spark of interest that flared deep in his belly, but didn’t quite succeed. Working as a contractor for the US Navy kept his toe dipped into the dangerous waters he used to swim in, but it wasn’t the same. Somehow, he knew that whatever Lambert had to say to him tonight would change his life. Whether or not it was for the better remained to be seen.

                                                                               * * *

“What the fuck have you gotten me into now, Tex?” Slade asked as soon as his friend picked up the phone.

“Hello to you too, Cutter. How’s the weather out there in California? Let me guess, you’re sitting on the balcony of your apartment watching the ocean and wishing you weren’t bored off your ass.”

“Asshole,” Slade said with a smile. Tex knew him too well. That’s what happened when you worked side by side, getting shot at and saving each other’s lives too many times to count. “I got a call from a former Commander Lambert today. He said you two talked about me.”

“Not beating around the bush, I see,” Tex said.

“I’m supposed to call him back in thirty on a secure line,” Slade told his old teammate.

“Gotcha. Lambert is one of the good guys. Worked with him a few times. He has a new job, under the table, and wanted the names of some of the best of the best former SEALs I knew. You were at the top of that list.”

“Under the table?” Slade asked. “Not sure I like the sound of that.”

“Nothing we haven’t been involved with before,” Tex reassured him. “Hear him out.”

“You been briefed on this job?”

“No. I know Lambert wanted to ask me to help out, but with Hope being so young and Akilah still settling in, I didn’t want to do anything that would take me away from home,” Tex told him.

Slade got that. If he had a wife and new baby, not to mention a recently adopted teenager, he wouldn’t want to leave home either. Feeling restless, he got up and went into his apartment. “You have your hands full with all the teams you work with as well,” Slade told his old friend.

“That I do. But I love it. I enjoy being involved in all aspects of our Armed Forces. But it’s more than that. I do it to keep the men safe so they can get home to their families.”

“It’s more appreciated than you’ll ever know,” Slade told Tex.

As if uncomfortable with the turn in conversation, Tex replied, “That being said, even though I’m not the man for this job, you need anything, you better call. You know no one can find needles in haystacks better than me.”

“I don’t know, man. I hear there’s a chick in Texas who’s giving you a run for your money,” Slade teased.

“I’ll deny it if it comes up later, but that’s no lie,” Tex said immediately. “Beth is amazing, and she’s been able to hack into some places I wouldn’t even have tried.”

Glancing at his watch, and seeing his time was up, Slade reluctantly said, “Gotta run. Appreciate the head’s up and the confirmation that this is on the up and up.”

“Anytime. I wasn’t kidding, Cutter,” Tex said in a hard voice. “You need anything, you call. I don’t know what Lambert has up his sleeve, but I’m guessing since he didn’t brief me when he called, he wants whatever he’s asking to be on the down-low…meaning you working alone since you’re retired, but nothing is ever fucking solo when it comes to my teams.”

“I’ll see what he has to say and make the decision whether or not to bring in anyone else,” Cutter told Tex. “But I hear you. I’ll call if I need you.”

“Good. Later.”

“Later,” Slade echoed and clicked off the phone. He put his personal cell down on the arm of the chair he was sitting in and took a deep breath. Inhaling the scent of salt and sea drifting through the open balcony door, he took a moment to try to calm his mind and body. The pesky feeling that his life was about to change was relentless.

Slade thought about his life. He liked it…for the most part. His oceanside apartment was perfect for him. Not huge, not tiny. He’d saved up his money while he was active duty, and his retirement check wasn’t anything to sneeze at. He had a fancy-ass 4K television in the living room behind him, good friends he worked with who he had drinks with every so often, and he could be in the ocean swimming in three minutes, if he was so inclined.

His family was good. His sister, Sabrina, was married with three kids, and his brother also had a wife and two kids. His siblings were both younger than he was, and lived on the other side of the country. He didn’t see his nieces and nephews often, but when he did, it was as if no time at all had passed. He missed his parents, but he’d never had the kind of relationship with them where they’d communicated on a regular basis.

But Slade had to be honest with himself. He was lonely. He had a great apartment, a good job, but no one to share his life with. He’d tried online dating, that had been a disaster, and he was way too fucking old to pick up chicks at Aces Bar and Grill, the notorious hangout for current and former Navy SEALs. It had become less of a pick-up joint since it was now owned by Jessyka Sawyer, the wife of one of Wolf’s teammates, but a bar would always be a bar and there would always be women trolling for a one-night stand or the chance to snag a military guy, and men hoping for a quick hook-up.

Without giving himself a chance to get any more morose than he already was, Slade picked up the secure cell phone he’d been issued by the Navy so he could talk to Commander Hurt and the SEALs under his command, and brought it back out to the balcony with him. He dialed the former Commander Lambert’s number.

“Right on time,” the commander said as a greeting. “Bodes well for our working relationship.”

“I’m not sure I want a working relationship with you,” Slade told him honestly.

“This line is secure, correct?” Greg asked.

Irritated that he’d think for a second he’d call on one that wasn’t when the man had made it more than clear he wouldn’t talk otherwise, Slade bit out, “Yes.”

Greg chuckled. “Had to ask. No offense intended. You talk to John?”

“Just hung up with him,” Slade confirmed.

“Figured. I’m just going to get right down to it, if you don’t mind.”

“I prefer it, actually,” Slade said, his body tensing with whatever he was about to hear.

“I’m in charge of a new initiative, a secret one, to take down sleeper cells of terrorists around the country. The fuckers are getting the drop on us, and it needs to stop. I’ve been authorized to mobilize my own brand of sleeper cells…retired SEALs.”

Slade wasn’t sure he understood. “And?”

“And I want you, Cutter. I’ve read your file. I know your strengths and weaknesses. I’ve spoken with John and some of your other teammates. You’re levelheaded and you gather all the intel before jumping into anything. You’re determined and have a love for your country that isn’t matched by many people. But more importantly, you’ve been successful on your own.”

“I was never on my own,” Slade protested. “Not once. Even if I went in to get a hostage, my team was at my back.”

“I know that.” Greg backed off a bit. “What I meant was that when the shit hit the fan, you didn’t panic. You simply changed to Plan B…or C, D, or E. I need you.”

Slade took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He was curious. Dammit. “Tell me more,” he demanded grumpily.

“Six months ago, there was a bombing at LAX.”

When the other man didn’t elaborate, Slade prompted, “Yeah? I remember it. There was one bomber, he took a handful of hostages. The building was in the process of being evacuated, but the fucker blew himself up, along with all of the hostages, before everyone was out. Ansar al-Shari'a took responsibility.”

“Correct. That’s what was reported in the news,” Greg said.

The hair on the back of Slade’s neck stood on end. “That’s what was reported on the news?” he repeated.

“Yes. Internet chatter has been extremely active. The bomber was a college kid. He’d been recruited online. The leader’s name is Aziz Fourati. Government believes he’s Tunisian, and based on the success of the LAX bombing, he’s actively recruiting more soldiers. He wants to duplicate his success…on a national level.”

“Jesus,” Slade swore. “If we thought 9/11 was bad, if he’s successful, he could cripple transportation in this country for months.”

“Exactly. But that’s not all.”

“Fuck. What else?”

“He was there,” Greg said flatly.

“Where?”

“At the bombing. He was one of the so-called hostages. Gave a speech and everything right before the kid pulled the trigger and blew everyone sky-high.”

“How do you know?” Slade demanded.

“All security cameras at the airport were jammed right before everything went down. So there’s no public video of anything that happened inside, but someone’s been posting audio and video on the Dark Web of his speech on the Internet, and using it as a recruitment tool.”

Slade knew there was more. “And? Jesus, spit it out.”

“Besides Fourati, who slipped out right before the bomber let loose, there was one other survivor.”

The words seemed to echo across the phone line. “What? Who?”

“Her name is Dakota James. She was supposed to be flying to a conference in Orlando that day.”

“There wasn’t ever anything in the newspaper,” Slade protested. “How do you know for sure?”

“I’ve got copies of the propaganda videos Fourati has been sending to his minions. She’s there, but her body wasn’t one of those found when the pieces of that section of the airport were sorted. Lo and behold, she showed up at work the next week with a broken arm. Told her co-workers she’d fallen down a flight of stairs.”

“So, what’s the deal? What’d she say about the bombing?”

“That’s just it,” Greg told Slade. “She’s in the wind.”

“She’s gone? What about her job?”

“Quit.”

“Just like that?” Slade asked.

“Just like that,” Greg confirmed.

“You think she’s involved? That what you need me for?”

“No. We don’t think she’s involved, but we have nothing on Fourati. We have no photos, no videos that show his face. Nada. Zip. Zilch.”

“But Dakota James saw him,” Slade concluded.

“Exactly. We need her. Fourati has to be stopped before he can carry through with his plan. As far as we can tell, right now he only has a handful of men he’s recruited, but the more he gets, the more his plan can snowball.”

“You want me to find her.”

“Yes. Find her. Get a description of Fourati, then track that asshole down and eliminate the threat.”

Ah, there it was.

Slade had been waiting for confirmation that the former commander wanted him to kill for his country once again. The thought should’ve been repugnant. He’d left that part of his life behind. But then Slade remembered the pictures of the ruined section of the airport. Remembered the pictures and videos of the victims. A mother traveling with her three-month-old baby. The couple celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary by flying to Hawaii for a two-week vacation. The business men and women who were caught in the crosshairs of a terrorist.

The resolve to take down the asshole responsible solidified in his belly.

He opened his mouth to agree to take the job, when Greg spoke again. “There’s one more thing…”

Ah, shit.

“Fourati has decided that Dakota James is his.” Lambert’s voice was matter-of-fact.

“What? How does he even know her?”

“Apparently, he saw her in the crowd at the airport, and whatever happened between them made him decide that he wants her for his own. This is why we think she ran.”

“Fuckin’ A,” Slade swore. “She obviously didn’t want to be a terrorist’s plaything.”

“Apparently not. From what we’ve been able to intercept and decode, he’s on her trail.”

“Where is she?” Slade demanded. The thought of the poor woman surviving a terrorist bombing, only to be on the run because said terrorist wanted her for his own, was too much for his psyche. His team had told him on more than one occasion that he had a knight-in-shining-armor complex, but Slade didn’t care. He loved women. All kinds. Short, tall, fat, skinny, it didn’t matter. When push came to shove on a mission, if it involved a woman, Slade was made point. He did whatever it took to protect the women and children.

“That’s the thing. We don’t know.”

“What do you know?” he bit out impatiently. “From where I’m sitting, it’s precious little. You know there was a woman, and her name, and that she quit her job, but that’s about it.”

Greg didn’t even sound the least bit upset. “That’s why we need you. Find Dakota. Get her to tell you what Fourati said before his soldier blew himself up. Figure out what that fucker looks like so we can find him, shut down his dot-com operation, and get one more terrorist off our streets. Yeah?”

“What backup do I have?” Slade asked, knowing he was going to say yes, but wanting as many details as he could get before he did.

“None,” was Greg’s answer. “Well, none officially. You can call me and I can get you information. But as far as the operation goes, you’re on your own. This is an unsanctioned op. If you get caught, you’re also on your own. The US government will not bail you out and, if asked, will deny any responsibility for anything.”

Slade wasn’t surprised in the least. He’d expected that. “Compensation?”

Greg named a figure that made Slade’s eyebrows draw up in surprise. Apparently, the government wasn’t fucking around.

“I’m in,” Slade told him. He wasn’t concerned about failing. He’d find Ms. James, get a description of Fourati, kill him, and continue on with his life. He was actually looking forward to the assignment. Not to kill someone, that wasn’t something he ever enjoyed, but getting out into the field once more. Using his skills to eliminate a threat.

Once a SEAL, always a SEAL, apparently.

“Good. I’ve already arranged with Commander Hurt for you to take some time off. Starting tomorrow. There’s a relatively new but vetted employee who will be transferred over to your job immediately. Even though he doesn’t have your level of clearance, he can still help Hurt keep his head above water until you return. Your replacement has been briefed and your job is secure until you get back.”

“Wow,” Slade exclaimed. “I shouldn’t be surprised, yet I still am. How’d you know I’d say yes?”

“John said you would. I trust him.”

Slade mentally nodded. Yeah, he trusted Tex, too.

“Tomorrow at o-eight hundred, a folder will be delivered to your apartment with all the information I have on the terrorist group, Fourati, and, of course, Ms. James. Find her, get the intel, then stop Aziz Fourati once and for all.”

“Is there a time limit?” Slade asked.

“Not per se. But time is always of the essence. As of right now, Fourati doesn’t seem to have enough followers to be a viable threat. However, the more recruits he gets, the higher the possibility that someone will be able to take his place and carry out the threat if he’s killed.”

Slade understood that. So while Greg said there was no time limit, there was.

“Oh, and not only that, Fourati has said that he wants his new wife by his side before the new year hits.”

“Fuck,” Slade swore quietly. It was almost the end of November. That meant Fourati was getting impatient, and could have a lead on where Dakota was hiding. The urgency of the case just got ramped up. “I’ll look for that folder,” Slade informed him.

“Thank you, Cutter,” Greg said, using Slade’s SEAL nickname once again, proving he really did know a lot about him. “Your country will never know about this, but they’re in your debt nevertheless.”

“Is this the number I should contact you at if I have questions?” Slade asked. He knew the deal. He knew no one would ever know how many times he’d killed for the sake of national security. He’d long ago gotten over that.

“Yes. I’ll be waiting for updates.” And with that, Greg hung up.

Slade clicked off the phone and put his head back on the seat. A million things were racing through his brain. Details about the weapons he’d need, how best to take down Fourati without causing a panic, and how in the world he’d pull it all off on his own.

But the one thing that wouldn’t let go, that he kept coming back to, was Dakota James. Where was she?