Ever since his rescue op off the Pacific Coast, Mountain Mercenary Gray Rogers hasn’t been able to forget his latest “job”—Allye Martin. Any other woman would have panicked during a rescue, but the wily dancer kept her cool—even after being kidnapped by an elusive human trafficker. And Gray couldn’t be happier when a grateful Allye follows him home to Colorado Springs…

For Allye, finding sanctuary in the arms—and bed—of the former Navy SEAL is only temporary. People are disappearing off the streets of San Francisco, victims of the same underground trade that targeted her, and Allye could be the key to dismantling the entire operation. She’s willing to do anything to bring them down. Gray isn’t—for good reason. But you don’t say no to a tough girl like Allye who refuses to play it safe.

Now Gray is risking more than ever before. The Mountain Mercenaries have his back. But is it enough to keep the woman he loves out of harm’s way?

Chapter One

“So I’ll see you back at the rendezvous point, right?” Black asked.

“Absolutely,” Gray told his friend and partner as he readied himself to slip over the side of the fiberglass boat into the Pacific Ocean. It was an easy mile swim to his target, especially since he was a former Navy SEAL.

Rex, their handler, had gotten word that an exchange would be taking place tonight. Their job was to intercept a money drop, which was payment for a sex slave. Gray’s part of the mission involved swimming to the boat that was waiting to receive the money and subduing those on board, and Black would intercept the boat that was dropping off the cash. The people on both boats would be interrogated to find out more information about how the major sex-trafficking ring worked, who the key players were, and how to find them.

Gray had no idea how Rex got the information he did. All he knew was that the man had rarely ever been wrong.

Their handler himself was an enigma to the men of Mountain Mercenaries. No one had ever met him. Rex was their boss, and one of the smartest men they’d ever known, but he communicated only via phone, using some sort of device to change his voice as well. He was secretive and slightly paranoid, but no one who worked for him could deny that he was passionate about what he did. And Gray trusted Rex simply because he had never let him or the team down. His intelligence was almost always one hundred percent accurate, and in their line of work, that was literally a matter of life and death. He relayed information to the team, and they’d go make sure another asshole got what was coming to him.

Gray had no problem killing people who thought it was all right to kidnap women and children and force them to have sex with whoever was willing to pay for the privilege. He’d gladly spend the rest of his life fighting to wipe the assholes off the face of the earth.

Today’s mission had been called in on very short notice. Thus, only he and Black were on it, having been the only two available. The rest of the guys—Meat, Arrow, Ball, and Ro—were busy gearing up to head to Mexico on their own mission.

Rex had informed them that a woman, Allye Martin, had recently been reported missing by the owner of the Dance Theatre of San Francisco. She was one of the dancers, and she hadn’t shown up for rehearsal. Since that area had been rife with disappearances of young women lately, Rex was monitoring activity in the city. His network of informants had done their thing, reporting back with intel that the missing dancer’s name was heard in connection with the notorious Gage Nightingale.

Nightingale was the leader of an underground group that bought and sold women all over the world. If someone had the right connections, all they had to do was contact Nightingale, let him know who they wanted, and voilà! The woman would be delivered to the person on a silver platter. It wasn’t cheap, but assholes powerful enough to have any woman they wanted taken against their will seldom cared about price.

Hopefully, by interrupting the flow of money from the buyer to the supplier, they would get enough information to shut down the operation once and for all . . . and of course, find out where the woman was being kept. Gray was prepared to get the information from the captain by any means necessary—or kill him, if he attempted to get a message back to whoever had bought the woman or to warn Nightingale that the operation was in jeopardy.

They’d gotten GPS coordinates of where the pick-up boat was supposed to be waiting to receive the money for the dancer. After Black headed off the other boat, their plan was to meet back at another prearranged set of coordinates.

Gray nodded at Black and slipped into the waters. It was late, and he could see the lights of San Francisco in the distance but knew they were miles away.

As he swam toward the coordinates, Gray briefly reflected on the days when he used to do this sort of thing for his country. He had always loved the water. His mother said that he’d loved baths from his very first one, when he was just two days old. He’d been on his high school swim team and had earned a swimming scholarship to the US Naval Academy. It was almost inevitable that he’d become a Navy SEAL. But after they’d gotten fraudulent intel and his entire team had been killed, he’d become jaded. He’d taken out his anger over losing his team on anyone and everyone around him.

Thank God Rex had offered him the job with Mountain Mercenaries. Gray had no idea how the man had found him, and frankly, he didn’t really care. He enjoyed what he did and honestly felt like he was making a difference in the world. There would always be those who took advantage of others, but maybe, just maybe, he and the rest of the group were making a dent in the numbers.

The slightly choppy ocean waves didn’t bother him as he continued to stroke through the water. He took the time to go over the plan in his head once more. He thought about what he wanted to ask the courier and what information Rex needed about Gage Nightingale so they could shut down his massive operation once and for all. It was risky driving the boat to the rendezvous, because it probably wasn’t registered, and the last thing Gray wanted was to be caught by the Coast Guard and questioned. Ball was a former Coastie, but since he wasn’t here, Gray couldn’t rely on him to smooth things over, if necessary. But he’d deal with any trouble later, if it came to that.

Lifting his head as he swam, Gray saw the large form of the fishing vessel bobbing in the water ahead of him. He smiled—he’d made good time. He switched from a freestyle stroke to a breaststroke, so his movements wouldn’t be seen from the vessel if anyone was watching the dark waters. He knifed through the waves as easily and stealthily as an eel.

When he arrived at the boat, Gray reached down and slipped off his flippers, and they quickly sank below the surface.

The boat was bigger than he’d expected. It was black and white, with quite a bit of rust marring its sides. It was also run-down, not cared for in the way someone who actually fished for a living would be sure to look after it. Using his upper-body strength, Gray pulled himself up far enough to see over the side to check things out. The wheelhouse was located toward the front of the vessel, and there was a door that led belowdecks. There were nets hanging here and there on the back of the boat, as well as at least a dozen fishing poles. Miscellaneous crates and tubs were also strewn about the deck.

Seeing no one, Gray silently pulled himself up and over the back of the boat, landing without a sound on the crowded back deck. Ducking behind a crate, then a barrel, he made his way to the door to the lower deck of the vessel. He didn’t want someone coming up behind him while he was interrogating the captain. There was only supposed to be one man on the boat, but Gray never assumed anything.

Gray was wearing a black dry suit equipped with several strategic pockets for things like knives, identification for the authorities in case they got involved, and other essentials. The dry suit was imperative for swimming in the Pacific. The water was way too cold for a simple wet suit. Wet suits allowed for the easy flow of water in and out of the material, whereas a dry suit kept water out. Gray wasn’t planning on being in the water for an extended period of time, but he’d be a poor excuse for a SEAL if he didn’t prepare for everything that could go wrong.

After extracting the small wedge of wood he carried for exactly this purpose, Gray shoved it under the tight bottom gap of the door. If someone tried to push it open from below the deck, they’d be unable to manage it without a lot of noise—thus alerting Gray to anyone else’s presence on the vessel.

Finally, he turned his attention to the wheelhouse. There was a man inside the small room, looking down at a handheld GPS, oblivious to the presence of anyone else on the boat. Gray smiled at how easy this was going to be.

Without a sound, he made his way over to the man and had him in a headlock before the guy even knew someone was standing behind him.

“Hello,” Gray greeted casually, as if they were old buddies.

The man immediately began to struggle, but it was no use, as Gray had him totally under his control.

“Here’s how things are going to go,” Gray said in a low, even tone. “You’re going to answer all my questions. If you lie to me, I’ll know, and you’ll lose one of your fingers. If you lie again? I’ll take another. We’ll keep at it until your hands are nothing but useless nubs. And if you still lie to me, then I’ll start on your toes. Got it?”

“Fuck you,” the man sneered. “I’m not saying shit.”

As quick as a flash, Gray had his KA-BAR knife out of its sheath, and he grabbed hold of the man’s hand. Without mercy or fanfare, he sliced the razor-sharp blade across the base of the man’s thumb.

The digit fell to the wood boards at their feet with a light thud.

The man immediately clutched his bleeding hand to his chest and began to scream.

Gray smirked and let him go, knowing he wouldn’t be a threat to him at the moment, not when he was more concerned about the pain in his hand.

“Here’s my first question: How do you get information about where to meet for the money drops?”

“You cut off my thumb, you asshole!” the man exclaimed, not looking up at Gray. “Fucking fuck, that hurts!”

“You want me to take another finger? Answer the question,” Gray said harshly, looming over the bleeding thug with his arms crossed.

“I get a text,” the man said quickly.

“From who?”

“I don’t know. It’s an unknown number. Gives me the coordinates. I drive the boat to where I’m told, get the money or merchandise, then go where I’m told to deliver it.”

Gray practically growled at the offensive word the man used. “Women aren’t merchandise,” he spat.

The man shrugged. “I need the money. I don’t ask no questions, and all’s well that ends well.”

Oh, this man was pissing Gray off. He leaned down and grabbed the man’s other hand.

Within seconds, his other thumb was lying on the deck next to the first.

The man started screaming again, but Gray ignored him. He put the tip of the knife under the man’s throat and said, “All’s well that ends well? Tell that to the children whose mothers disappear. Tell that to the women who are raped day after day. Tell that to the families who never get any closure when their loved ones disappear. Women are not property. And there are consequences for assholes like you who think you can turn your head and pretend you’re not taking money so women can be debased and abused for the rest of their lives. How did you get into the courier business?”

The man answered without hesitation this time, as if he knew Gray was one second away from slitting his throat. “Through a buddy. I pretend to be a fisherman, and no one looks twice when I take my boat out at odd hours.”

“What’s this buddy’s name?” Gray asked, pressing the knife a little harder against the man’s throat.

“Screw you!”

Gray opened his mouth to say something else—when there was an explosion below their feet. It rocked the boat, and he had to throw out a hand to keep his balance.

Gray looked in disbelief at the scared-out-of-his-mind captain. “There’s someone else on board? Who?”

“I don’t know his name! He said he was an escort for the merchan—er . . . the woman. The buyer didn’t want anything to happen to her in the transfer.”

“Fuck,” Gray swore, knowing the mission had just been, FUBARed…fucked up beyond all repair. There wasn’t supposed to be anyone else on board the small boat. Not only that, but if the dancer had an escort, someone had to be very interested in getting his hands on her.

The boat lurched then and began to tilt slightly downward.

Knowing he didn’t have a lot of time, Gray mercilessly slit the man’s throat from ear to ear, making sure to cut into his jugular vein. He turned his back on the man and was exiting the wheelhouse even before the captain fell to the deck.

Already feeling the subtle tilt of the boat, Gray returned to the door that he’d jammed earlier, leading down into the living quarters of the vessel. Removing the wedge, he leaped down the stairs, past a door that probably led to a bedroom, and went straight to the engine room, where the explosion had to have come from. He threw open the door—and barely had time to dodge the large pipe that would’ve slammed right into his head if he hadn’t moved.

Without thought, Gray brought up a leg and kicked at the man who had tried to kill him. He looked older than Gray’s thirty-six years, but he was still deadly. The other man took another swing, which Gray easily dodged. Water swirled around their feet, growing deeper with every second. The man had obviously sabotaged the boat, and it was sinking incredibly fast.

“If you want to live, tell me why the dancer is so important,” Gray ordered as he lashed out and sliced the man’s thigh when he got too close.

“Fuck you,” was the man’s response.

“We don’t have time for this,” Gray growled. “Who bought the girl?”

“I’m not telling you shit,” the other man said, throwing a wrench at Gray’s head.

He ducked and tackled the man as he tried to slip past him out the door of the engine room.

They struggled for a moment, but Gray quickly got the upper hand. He was straddling the other man, his hands around his throat. The water was lapping at the man’s chin, and his eyes were huge in his face as he stared defiantly up at Gray.

“Who wants the girl?” Gray asked again.

“It doesn’t matter if you kill me. He’ll still get the girl one way or another. He always gets what he wants.”

Frustrated, Gray forced the man’s head under the water for a beat, then hauled him above the waterline. “Where were you going to take her?”

The man grinned then. A sinister smile that made the hair on the back of Gray’s neck stand straight up. “It doesn’t matter where or who. He wants her. Bad. Even if you get her off this boat, he’ll come for her. And you can’t stop him.”

Gray blinked. What the fuck?

The boat tilted then, and both men slid across the deck toward the engine. Knowing he was seriously out of time and options, Gray got nose to nose with the man.

“I’m not only going to stop him, I’m going to kill him,” he vowed.

The other man opened his mouth to respond, but Gray didn’t give him the chance. He hauled him upward and turned him in his arms as if he were a five-year-old child. Within seconds, he’d broken his neck. Drowning him would’ve taken too much time. Time he didn’t have, if the height of the ever-deepening water was any indication.

Throwing the dead body aside, Gray started for the door. He’d wanted to take his time and torture the man, using the threat of drowning as a very real motivator, but with eight words, the man had sealed his fate.

Even if you get her off this boat . . .

There wasn’t supposed to be anyone on the boat other than the captain.

There wasn’t supposed to be an escort.

And the dancer certainly wasn’t supposed to be on the frickin’ boat. This was supposed to be a money drop, not a transfer.

Defending Allye


New York Times Bestselling Author