New York Times Bestselling Author

As an event planner, Gillian Romano’s an expert at rolling with the punches and solving unexpected problems. But her flight getting hijacked while returning from a job is definitely out of her skill set. Passengers are being murdered, and when she’s chosen by the terrorists to be their mouthpiece, even more innocent lives rest on Gillian’s shoulders. Only the calm, reassuring voice on the other end of the line keeps her sane, forging a bond with a stranger she’s never seen but trusts with her life.

Walker “Trigger” Nelson and his Delta Force team have spent years training for close-quarter hostage rescue. When they get called to South America to attempt to save an airplane full of hostages, he doesn’t expect to meet a woman who rocks his world in the middle of the op. Gillian’s cool head and bravery in the face of certain terror—and possible death—blows him away. Any outcome that doesn’t include Gillian leaving that plane alive and well is not an option.

After their safe return to Texas, both Trigger and Gillian are excited to find out if their instant chemistry can survive the real world. Neither realizing that someone isn’t happy with the outcome of the hijacking, and is watching, waiting, for a second chance to strike.

Shielding Gillian

April 7, 2020

Click below for a sample of the audio

CHAPTER ONE


Gillian Romano closed her eyes and rested her head on the seat. She was exhausted…but in a good way. The event that had taken months of her life to plan had gone off without a hitch. She’d been extremely nervous as it had been in Costa Rica, but because everything had gone smoothly, she knew she’d most likely have a lot more business coming her way.

The CEO of Pillar Custom Homes out of Austin, Troy Johnson, had contacted her almost a year ago to inquire about her organizing all aspects of an appreciation trip for the company’s most prestigious clients.

She’d said yes—then immediately freaked out. As an event planner, Gillian was used to organizing weddings, birthday parties, and nonprofit galas in the Killeen and Austin areas. Mr. Johnson had gotten her name from the president of a local animal shelter, who’d hired her the year before to throw their annual fundraising dinner. The president had been using Pillar Custom Homes to build his house, and he’d passed her name along.

Mr. Johnson had invited a dozen of his esteemed clients and their families, as well as some of the most influential names in Austin real estate. Gillian had been responsible for all aspects of the trip. From flight and transportation arrangements, to booking the private hotel suites and selecting entertainment options for the four-day trip. It had been the most difficult thing she’d ever done—especially considering the fact she’d done most of her planning remotely—but everything had turned out beautifully, if she did say so herself.

Smiling, Gillian let out a long sigh of contentment. She’d seen the last of the guests off the day before and had spent one day in the beautiful Costa Rican resort soaking in the feeling of a job well done and getting in some well-deserved R&R.

She was now heading home and couldn’t wait to tell her best friends—Ann, Wendy, and Clarissa—all about how beautiful Costa Rica was and how well the event had gone.

Her eyes popped open when she heard an odd sound up in the first-class section of the plane. Looking over the seat in front of her, she saw that almost all of the passengers in first class were standing. She wasn’t alarmed—until she heard one of the women let out a sound that made the hair on Gillian’s arms stand up.

It was a keening mixture of disbelief and terror.

Before she could do more than furrow her brow, a man appeared at the front of the coach cabin. He was holding a rifle. He pointed it up in the air and said something in Spanish, which made people all around Gillian shout out in horror and several began to cry.

Frozen in fear, Gillian couldn’t believe what she was hearing when the man switched to English and said, “On behalf of the Cartel of the Suns, my name is Luis Vilchez, and my friends and I have taken over the plane and will be landing in our homeland of Venezuela. Stay calm and don’t do anything stupid, and you might live to see another day.”

Gillian blinked. Her plane was being hijacked? How was this happening? She never in a million years would’ve thought after 9/11, when airlines had tightened security, that this would happen.

But then again, she wasn’t in the United States. Hadn’t she been surprised when she realized that she’d forgotten to put the small pocket knife Clarissa had given her for protection into her checked luggage, and she’d made it through the Costa Rican security with the knife in her purse?

But how did he get a rifle onboard? Was he a passenger?

Looking closer, Gillian realized he was dressed like one of the flight attendants. Though, now that she thought about it, she figured he could’ve probably smuggled the weapon onto the plane any number of ways…especially if he had help from someone who worked at the airport.

He nodded at someone in front of him, and when Gillian turned to look behind her, she saw there were three other men standing in the aisles with wicked-looking rifles as well.

Shit, shit, shit.

Swallowing hard, Gillian startled when there was another scream from the first-class area, and she whipped her head back around. The man who’d addressed the plane looked behind him then turned to face the coach passengers again. He pointed his rifle at a woman sitting in the first row. “You. Collect everyone’s passports.”

The woman stood up and looked visibly shaken.

“Get your passports out now!” the hijacker said loudly. “You will give them to this woman.” When everyone remained frozen in fear, he scowled and, without further hesitation, turned to the man sitting in the aisle seat in the bulkhead row and shot him in the head.

 The man fell over, and there were more screams and shouts of terror from her fellow passengers.

Gillian knew she was in shock. She couldn’t make a sound. Couldn’t do anything more than stare wide-eyed at what was happening right in front of her.

“I said, get your passports out…now!” the hijacker yelled in both Spanish and English.

The young couple next to her leaned over and immediately began to rummage through their bags, and Gillian did the same. She held out the small blue book as the woman selected to collect them walked down the aisle. Her hand shook as she passed it over, and for just a second, she caught the other woman’s gaze. She looked absolutely terrified.

In all the confusion and panic amongst the passengers, Gillian hadn’t thought much about what the hijacker had said previously—but now she did. They were going to Venezuela. She wasn’t really up on current events, but even she knew the country was in serious turmoil at the moment. And the guy had said he was with a group, “cartel” something or other.

That usually meant drugs.

Too scared to take her eyes off the hijacker, Gillian felt herself breathing fast. This was really happening. The men who’d taken over the plane had already hurt people. Killed someone.

She felt the plane take a hard right, and ridiculously, she put out her hand to brace herself. It wasn’t as if she was going to fall out the window or something.

Either the pilots were in on the plot to take over the plane, or the hijackers had gotten to them—they really were turning around and heading back toward South America.

She briefly thought about pulling out her cell phone to see if it would work, but Gillian had no idea who she could call. Nine-one-one? No, that wasn’t an option. Her friends? What would they be able to do?

“Women in the front, men in the back!” a new voice demanded from behind her.

Gillian turned to look and saw the other hijackers were separating the passengers. The woman next to her whimpered, and her husband whispered something, obviously trying to calm and reassure her.

The man’s arm was wrenched upward by one of the hijackers as he was shoved toward the back of the plane. Gillian stood immediately and let herself be pushed forward. She stumbled into the first-class cabin—and froze at the carnage around her.

Almost all of the men and women had been killed. Sometime in the general chaos, perhaps while the passports were being collected, their throats had been slit.

She saw three flight attendants lying motionless as well.

She had one second to be thankful the plane wasn’t full before her arm was grabbed in a bruising hold. Looking up in panic, Gillian stared into the stone-cold brown eyes of the hijacker who’d so calmly shot the man in the bulkhead row.

“You. You will be our spokesperson with the authorities,” he declared.

Gillian shook her head, but no words would come out. She didn’t want anything to do with this. She wanted to huddle in a corner and be invisible.

The man leaned into her, and his body odor assaulted Gillian’s senses. He smelled like sweat and onions, and she forced herself not to gag. “You have two choices,” he said calmly. “Be our spokesperson or die.” Then he let go of her arm and stood back. He lifted his rifle and placed the barrel against her forehead. It was hot and felt like it was burning a hole right into her skull.

Swallowing hard, Gillian whispered, “I’d be happy to talk to whoever you want.”

His lips quirked upward in an evil, satisfied smile as he lowered his weapon. “I thought you might.” Then he grabbed her arm again and shoved his way between terrified women and children and hauled her to the area reserved for flight attendants, where the crew prepared food and drinks for the passengers.

He pushed her down, and Gillian gladly scooted until her back was against the side of the plane. “Might as well get comfortable, we’ve got a bit of time before we get to Caracas,” the hijacker told her.

Gillian closed her eyes—but she couldn’t block out the sounds. Women crying, the hijackers threatening passengers, the occasional terrifying shot from one of the guns.

People were dying all around her…and Gillian was utterly helpless. She hated the feeling. But she also knew there was nothing she could do if she was going to live through this, except try to stay calm and do as she was ordered.


* * *

Trigger grimly flipped through the folder of information he’d been given before he and the rest of his Delta Force team got onboard the flight to Caracas, Venezuela. Two days ago, a flight heading from Costa Rica to Dallas had been hijacked and flown to the South American country.

Now the plane had been parked on the tarmac for almost forty-two hours, the hijackers waiting for their demands to be met.

The group claimed to be associated with the Cartel of the Suns, who were involved in the international drug trade. It was an organization allegedly headed by high-ranking members of the military forces of Venezuela, as well as some of the most influential government employees as well. Not too long ago, in fact, the nephew of the first lady of the country had been arrested for trying to smuggle eight hundred kilos of cocaine from Venezuela to the United States for the cartel.

Trigger didn’t give a fuck about the drugs or about the man the hijackers were attempting to free from prison. Hugo Lamas was a border patrol agent in Venezuela who’d been imprisoned earlier that year for taking bribes and allowing millions of dollars’ worth of drugs to pass through his checkpoints.

What Trigger did give a fuck about was the remaining twenty-four American citizens on the plane. Twelve women, ten men, and two children. He was also worried about the dozen or so citizens from Costa Rica, Mexico, Canada, Japan, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, and India onboard.

The entire Delta Force team thought the demands were bullshit. There was no way the Cartel of the Suns cared about one border patrol agent; not enough to hijack an entire plane. But at the moment, Trigger didn’t care what their real agenda was. All he cared about was figuring out how to get onto that plane and take out the assholes who thought it was okay to terrorize innocent civilians.

Reports from Venezuela were that bodies had been dumped out of the plane onto the tarmac. The hijackers weren’t fucking around. They weren’t just threatening to kill people, they’d already done it. And with every hour that passed, more and more lives were in jeopardy.

The Deltas were called in to assist because they specialized in close-quarter rescue missions. These kinds of rescues weren’t exactly Trigger’s favorite. The chance of more people getting hurt was extremely high. He hated knowing passengers would most likely die in order for them to get to the hijackers. It was likely the assholes would use men and women as shields to try to survive.

“What are ya thinkin’?” Lefty asked.

Sighing, Trigger turned to his friend and teammate. “I’m thinking this stinks to high heaven.”

Nodding, Lefty agreed. “I know. It doesn’t add up.”

“Nothing adds up,” Grover chimed in. “I mean, the Venezuelan government hates the US. And with all the rumors that they’re heavily involved in the Cartel of the Suns, why would they call us in to kill their own people?”

“Unless this group isn’t their own people,” Brain said.

Everyone nodded.

“That makes sense,” Trigger said. “They could be pissed off that someone hijacked the plane using their name, and they want to send a message.”

“But at what cost?” Oz asked.

“They don’t give a shit about innocent lives,” Doc scoffed. “They don’t care about anything but staying in power and making money. Many of them don’t care about their own countrymen and women starving and suffering, so they certainly won’t care about a bunch of foreigners.”

“And I have no doubt they invited us in so if things go sideways, they can blame us,” Lucky added in disgust.

Trigger ran a hand through his hair and sighed in agitation. “It doesn’t matter why we’re going, just that we do whatever it takes to get as many people as possible out of this alive.”

The rest of the team nodded in agreement.

“What’s the latest intel?” Trigger asked Brain.

The other man flipped through his notes and said, “It looks like they’ve got one of the passengers communicating with the negotiator.”

“Smart. So we can’t use voice-recognition software,” Lucky said.

 “Right,” Brain agreed. “They also don’t seem to be in a huge hurry. They’ve done the usual thing—bring us food and water or we’ll start killing passengers—but otherwise, they just seem to be hunkered down and waiting.”

“For what?” Grover asked.

“No clue,” Brain replied.

“Who’s the passenger doing the talking?” Trigger asked.

Brain shuffled some more papers. “FBI gathered background info on all the US passengers on the manifest. The spokesperson is identified as Gillian Romano. Thirty years old, single, event planner from Georgetown, Texas. She checks out clean. Five-seven, blonde hair, green eyes, a hundred and eighty-five pounds. Got her undergraduate degree from UT-Austin and worked a series of entry-level jobs before starting her own company about four years ago. Both parents are living and still together; they live in Florida. She was in Costa Rica for seven days, apparently in charge of a big shindig put on by Pillar Custom Homes out of Austin. The guests all left the day before she did.”

“You think she’s in on this somehow?” Lefty asked.

“No,” Brain said immediately. “I’ve got some of the transcripts of the calls she’s had with the negotiator, and she’s way out of her league. She’s doing as good a job as she knows how, but the ass-wipe she’s been talking to definitely hasn’t helped.”

“We taking over negotiations?” Doc asked.

“Fuck yeah, we are,” Trigger answered for Brain. He’d also seen the transcripts. Gillian Romano was clearly scared, but she’d still done what she could to keep the hijackers calm and to get the passengers what they needed to be comfortable. He supposed her skills came from being an event planner.

“We’re landing at the same airport, on the one runway they’ve still got open,” Brain informed them. “But we aren’t allowed to step foot off the airport property. The government doesn’t want us in their country, and especially not out wandering around.”

“Assholes,” Oz said under his breath.

“So what’s the plan?” Doc asked.

Trigger cleared his throat. “Get there. Get the asshole off the phone with Ms. Romano and see if we can’t pull as much information from her as possible. Ideally, we’ll pose as delivery men for supplies. We’ll take out the hijackers and get the passengers to safety.”

Grover chuckled. “Well, that sounds easy…not.”

Trigger didn’t even smile. “It won’t be. We all know it. Those assholes could get tired of waiting. Most likely this is all a red herring, and they’re a diversion from whatever their real agenda is. We have to stay on our toes. Trust no one. They landed in Venezuela for a reason, but whatever that is doesn’t matter until those passengers are safe. Understand?”

Everyone immediately agreed. Their mission was hostage rescue. Nothing else. It was up to the CIA, FBI, DEA, and whoever else was involved to figure out the reasons behind the hijacking.

But even as the team fell silent, lost in their own thoughts about the upcoming mission, Trigger couldn’t help but feel uneasy. Everything felt off about this op. And getting into an airplane undetected was impossible. Innocent civilians were going to die, there was no getting around that fact.

Trigger’s thoughts returned to Gillian Romano, the appointed liaison for the hijackers. Just by reading the transcripts, he could tell she was smart. She was doing her best not to panic, which he admired. Not a lot of hostages he’d dealt with over the years kept as level a head as Gillian. While he hadn’t heard her voice, and he couldn’t read her emotions through her words, he could still tell she was terrified. And for some reason, that bothered him.

It was ridiculous. Trigger had no idea what she looked like or who she was as a person. She could be a harpy, or some vain chick only concerned about how many selfies she could post on social media. But he didn’t think so.

Maybe he’d been hanging out with Ghost and his team for too long. Maybe he’d been wishing a bit too hard that he’d find a woman he could love and cherish as much as the other team cared about their women and families. He couldn’t deny he was ready. At thirty-seven, he felt as if his life was passing him by. He wanted what his friends had.

He wanted someone to be there when he got home after a hard mission. Someone he could laugh with, completely let down his tough façade with, and who could make him feel as if the dangerous job he was doing was worth it.

He’d always thought he had plenty of time. But now he was closing in on forty. That wasn’t old by any stretch, but Trigger still couldn’t help feeling as if a vital part of life was eluding him.

Shaking his head, Trigger tried to get a grip. In the middle of an impossible op, which would most likely end in the deaths of way too many people, was not the time to start thinking about his love life…or lack thereof.

Pushing the inappropriate personal thoughts out of his head, Trigger did his best to formulate a plan. He knew he’d be the one taking over for the negotiator. He was good at it. The rest of the team would scope out the area and glean as many details as possible, so they could figure out the safest way to storm that plane.

We’re coming, Gillian, Trigger silently promised. Hang on just a bit longer, we’re comin’.