What started as an adventure, soon became hell. Piper Johnson’s thrilled to spend time in Timor-Leste with her best friend Kalee, a Peace Corps volunteer…until civil unrest erupts throughout the countryside, including an attack at the orphanage the women were visiting. With the aid of a SEAL team sent to extract Kalee, Piper flees with the only other known survivors—three young orphan girls. Piper wasn’t able to save her friend, but she’ll be damned if she leaves the girls to the mercy of child traffickers in the country’s impoverished capital. However, taking them with her to the States requires something drastic, something crazy…something she can’t do alone.
What started as a mission, soon becomes fate. Since nearly dying on a previous op, Beckett “Ace” Morgan has no time for regrets. Life is far too short. So when he learns the brave, beautiful, selfless woman he’s rescued has a better chance of getting three orphans out of the country if she’s married, he doesn’t hesitate. Ace marries her then and there, instantly gaining the family he’s always wanted. With time, he knows his respect for Piper can grow into love, and meanwhile, he’s saved both her and their new daughters from a fast-spreading rebel incursion.
Protecting his girls on foreign soil turns out to be the easy part of the team’s mission. Protecting them from a threat waiting at home may be the biggest fight of Ace’s life.
Piper Johnson was going to die.
She had no doubt about that.
When her friend Kalee had talked her into coming to visit her in Timor-Leste, a small island nation between Indonesia and Australia, she’d been excited about the adventure. At thirty-two, she’d spent way too much of her life sequestered in the various apartments she’d rented, stuck in her own head as she created her well-known cartoons.
Now, all she felt was terror. She was crouched in a crawlspace under the kitchen floor of the orphanage for girls that she and Kalee had been visiting three days ago, with three orphans who were looking to her to save them. But the truth of the matter was, Piper had no idea what to do. None.
When they’d heard the shouts and gunshots from outside the kitchen, Kalee had pushed Piper and the three little girls into the crawlspace and said she was going to go outside and grab more children before returning.
She hadn’t come back.
They’d known rebels in the area had been organizing and causing issues for the security forces. Kalee’s fellow Peace Corps volunteers had sent out a message to be cautious, and she’d been checking in every other day with her boss down in Dili. But neither Kalee nor Piper had been too concerned. Piper, because Kalee had assured her the rebels had been dissatisfied with the current government for a while and nothing had happened thus far. Kalee, because she’d lived in the country for six months and had gotten used to the grumblings and warnings of uprising.
The rebels had finally decided to act on their rebellion while Kalee and Piper had been visiting an orphanage, a few miles from Kalee’s house and regular assignment for the Peace Corps.
While they’d been hiding under the floor, Piper had heard enough scary sounds to turn her off horror movies for the rest of her life. Yelling, gunshots, crying. She’d wanted to go out and help her friend, but knew that would be signing her own death warrant.
She was fairly sure Kalee was dead. She had to be. Why else hadn’t she returned? Tears formed in her eyes, yet again, but Piper refused to let them fall. She didn’t have time to grieve for her friend at the moment.
Four-year-old Rani was hungry. As were they all. Piper had gotten desperate enough a day and a half ago to sneak out of their hiding place and find some food, but it had literally scared her so badly she wasn’t ready to do it again. The kitchen pantry had been ransacked by the rebels, and the blood everywhere she looked had been terrifying. She’d managed to find a few cans of fruit and some stale bread, and they’d been making their stash last as long as possible.
But soon she’d have to make a decision. Try to get back to Kalee’s house, get her stuff, and find a way to get off the mountain and to the airport, or stay put until someone from the Timor-Leste Defense Force came to rescue them. Neither option appealed.
Besides the fact she figured it would be extremely dangerous to just wander around in the mountains, she had no idea which way to go. She’d always been a bit directionally challenged, and while she could probably get back to Kalee’s house, which wasn’t too far from the orphanage—if there weren’t rebels waiting to kill everyone they came into contact with—she was still about a three-hour car ride from the capital city of Dili. Finding a way to get from here to there by herself, safely, was extremely daunting.
And then there was Rani, Sinta, and Kemala. Piper had already begun to bond with the three little girls throughout the harrowing days during which they’d been hiding. They were completely vulnerable and would be killed or captured by the rebels if she left them, so that wasn’t happening. But having three young children, who were probably traumatized by what had occurred, would make the trip from the orphanage to the capital even more difficult.
“Piper eat?” Sinta asked in broken English.
The people in the area generally spoke Portuguese, a throwback to when they were a colony of that country. But Tetum was also spoken quite widely. Indonesian and English were spoken here and there. Kalee had been visiting the orphanage regularly since being stationed in the country by the Peace Corps, and had spent some time teaching the children English. They weren’t fluent, and they understood more than they could speak, but they’d picked up enough words to be able to communicate.
“I’m not hungry,” Piper told the seven-year-old. That wasn’t exactly true, but she wanted to save the little food they had for the girls.
Kemala, the oldest of the girls, was thirteen going on about twenty-four. She had what Piper would call “old eyes.” She’d seen and heard way too much in her short years, and most of the time Piper had no idea if the girl even liked her. Tolerated, yes. Liked? The jury was still out on that.
Sinta was at the age where she was still a little girl, but rapidly maturing because of her circumstances. She was also the worrier of the group. She worried if they had enough to eat. If they were going to die. About the friends she hadn’t seen since they’d had to hide. About Kalee.
The youngest of the girls, Rani, was still young enough to be easily entertained. Piper had passed the time with her by playing tic-tac-toe in the dirt. She was as sick of the game as she could be, but it kept Rani occupied and happy, so she’d play it as much as the little girl wanted. Rani didn’t talk at all. Piper hadn’t heard her say one word since she’d met her. She watched everything, was very observant, but no words passed her lips.
Piper wasn’t sure anyone would consider her mother material. She was too introverted. She didn’t have a lot of friends and was perfectly happy not leaving her apartment for days on end. But she loved kids. She just hadn’t really thought she’d have a family of her own.
First, though, she’d want to be married…and that seemed just as unlikely. She’d had little luck with men thus far. She’d tried meeting them the usual ways—online dating, chatting them up at the grocery store. She’d even gone so far as to let Kalee set her up a time or two. But she’d yet to meet anyone she’d even remotely consider spending the rest of her life with. The kind of decades-long marriage her grandparents shared.
She’d grown up with her grandparents, since her dad had left her mom when she was still a baby, and her mother had been killed during a convenience store robbery when Piper was five. She’d gone to live with her elderly maternal grandparents and had a fairly normal though very staid upbringing.
It was crazy how the smallest decisions in life could lead you down life-changing paths. Her mother had stopped to get gas though her tank was still half full, and ended up dead. Piper decided to pay a brief visit to Kalee and got herself mired in the middle of a rebel uprising.
She handed Sinta the last piece of bread and watched as she immediately split it in thirds to share with Rani and Kemala. That was so like her, to want to take care of others.
Piper felt as though she wasn’t taking care of the girls even half as well. They were still trapped, hungry, and dirty. What she really wanted was to climb out of the crawlspace under the kitchen, get them back to Kalee’s shack, and bathe them all. She and the girls were covered in dirt and sweat. Timor-Leste was a tropical country, and it was hot, even up in the mountains where the orphanage was located. Being in the shade basically underground kept the heat manageable, but it was still quite warm.
Piper was wearing a pair of lightweight khaki pants and a short-sleeve shirt. She’d also put on her sneakers before coming to the orphanage, much to Kalee’s amusement. Her friend had taken to wearing flip-flops almost twenty-four seven. Even though her shoes made her feet hot, Piper was glad to have them, just in case she came across any of the multitude of creepy-crawly things Kalee liked to tease her about.
Thinking about her friend made Piper want to cry—again—but she took a deep breath and controlled herself. She couldn’t cry now. Sinta would want to know what was wrong, Rani would get scared and start crying herself, and Kemala would look at her with a worried expression on her face.
Forcing herself to focus on the children, Piper had to admit even though she wanted to take the girls and run, they weren’t exactly dressed to go tromping around the jungle. All three wore shorts and T-shirts. It seemed that was what most of the children at the orphanage wore. They also had thin flip-flops, which were currently sitting near the hole they’d entered to access the crawlspace.
Despite being dirty, smelly, and in need of a hot shower, the children were absolutely beautiful. They had black hair and light brown skin and the most gorgeous brown eyes Piper had ever seen. She hadn’t thought about how much her blonde hair and blue eyes would make her stick out like a sore thumb in the Southeastern Asian country. Back home in Southern California, blondes were a dime a dozen, but out here, she and Kalee were quite the anomaly. Piper with her blonde hair, and Kalee with her auburn locks.
Thoughts of her best friend snuck up on her yet again, and Piper turned her head so the girls wouldn’t see the tears in her eyes. She had to snap out of her melancholy. Decisions had to be made. They couldn’t stay here forever, and it was past time to figure out what to do next.
It had been a while since they’d heard the rebels. It was hard to judge time while huddled in the dark, but she estimated it had to have been at least a day since they’d heard any sign of anyone else.
Just as Piper decided they had to see if they could make their way off the mountain—what other choice did they have, really?—she heard the boards above her head creaking.
It was the sound of someone—or several someones—walking through the first floor of the orphanage.
She immediately turned to the girls and held a finger to her lips. All three nodded. Kemala moved silently so she was between Rani and Sinta and put her arms around them. They’d been through this before, and Piper knew none of the girls would make a sound. They were unnaturally quiet for children in the first place, but ever since they’d listened to the rebels attacking the orphanage, they hadn’t made any unnecessary noises whatsoever.
Piper held her breath and placed herself between the hatch and the children. With any luck, whoever was up there would never know they were here. And if they did find them, she’d do everything possible to make sure they had all they could handle with her, so maybe they wouldn’t search the crawlspace and find the girls.
Swallowing hard, and feeling completely vulnerable, Piper held her breath.
What she heard made her both excited and scared at the same time.
The voices above their head were speaking English. And if she wasn’t mistaken, they were American.
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