Defending Raven

Chapter One

Dave “Rex” Justice couldn’t sit still. He and the six men he’d been working with for a few years, along with Zara Layne, were on a private plane on their way to Lima, Peru.

No one had said much since boarding, probably still in shock from learning that the man who they knew as the bartender at The Pit was in reality the leader of the Mountain Mercenaries. The tension in the plane was thick as any he could remember, and his team had definitely been in tense situations in the past. Dave knew he should probably say something to lighten the mood, but he could think about only one thing. His wife.

He’d found her after ten agonizingly long years.

Well, he hadn’t found her. Ironic, considering the amount of money, time, and effort he’d spent looking for her.

“Why don’t you sit down, Dave,” Gray suggested.

Dave ignored him. He couldn’t sit. Couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. Knowing he was so close to seeing his wife again made him unable to do anything besides pace the short aisle in agitation.

What if she’d disappeared in the few months since Zara had last seen her?

What if he’d come this close, only to lose her again?

The thought was repugnant and unacceptable.

“I think it’s time you told us the entire story about Rex and the Mountain Mercenaries,” Black said.

Dave turned to look at the men he’d recruited and hired, and sighed. Black was right, they deserved some answers. Lord knew he’d been too stressed to do more than grunt in response since they’d refused to let him come down to Peru by himself.

He sat on the very edge of one of the leather chairs in the plane and faced the men he thought of as brothers. To them, however, he’d simply been Dave, the bartender. They hadn’t suspected he could be the elusive “Rex,” their handler and boss. He’d been able to keep eyes and ears on them because they spent a lot of time in The Pit, the bar he’d owned for years.

Ever since they’d each found a woman to love and cherish, however, they’d been spending less and less time in the bar, and he knew things were changing.

Yes. They’d earned some answers. But after Zara, Meat’s fiancée, had recognized his Raven from a picture posted behind the bar, Dave hadn’t been able to think about anything other than getting to his wife.

Sighing again, he ran a hand through his dark-brown hair. He wasn’t sure exactly where to start. The last decade had been one crushing disappointment after another when it came to the search for Raven, and to be this close now was literally about to drive him crazy.

“As you’re now aware, I’m the man you used to know as Rex,” he finally said. His southern accent was more pronounced, probably because he hadn’t gotten much more than two hours of sleep in the last twenty-four. He’d been busy arranging for a flight to Peru and running through different scenarios as to how the reunion with his long-lost wife might go.

“After my wife disappeared, law enforcement officials in Las Vegas did what they could to find her, but their time and abilities were limited. After her case went cold, I began learning as much as I could about the sex-trafficking industry. I scoured the internet and quickly learned exactly how depraved mankind could be. In the process of looking for my wife, however, I stumbled across other missing women . . . and children. But I didn’t have any way of helping them. All I could do was turn over the information to law enforcement in their hometowns and hope they acted on it. It was frustrating and sickening. So I started thinking about the what-ifs . . .

“What if I got a group of men together who could go in and rescue the people I’d found through my research? What if I could return wives, sisters, children, to their families? I know what it would’ve meant to me if someone had found Raven and helped her get back home. Through my research and my rather uncanny ability to find people, I’d already made some good connections in the government and with some other very powerful people. When word got out about what I was doing, how I was successfully tracking down kidnapping victims, I even began to get . . . donations. You wouldn’t believe the amount of money that was thrown my way. Relatives of people we’ve found, organizations who advocate for the missing and abused, all sorts of people and groups were willing to give money to aid the cause.

“Once I realized I needed boots on the ground, and that simply finding people on the computer wasn’t good enough, I began looking for men I could trust to go in and rescue the helpless victims I’d found. I researched each and every one of you, and handpicked you because of your military records and your expertise in different areas.

“Black, you’re the best negotiator I’ve ever seen. Meat, you, of course, are a genius with computers. Ro’s ability with cars and engines is unparalleled. Gray, your skill at being invisible on missions is legendary, and Ball, you can outdrive just about anyone on the planet. As for Arrow . . . you’re just an all-around badass. I needed the best of the best, and you all were it.”

“So, you wanted us to find your wife?” Ro asked. “Hell, Rex . . . er . . . Dave, we didn’t even know about your wife until a year or so ago.”

Dave shook his head. “Yes and no. I mean, if I found her, I definitely wanted men I could trust to go and get her, but it was more than that.” He shook his head. “I suppose I need to go back to the beginning.”

Seven pairs of eyes simply watched Dave intently without interrupting, which he appreciated.

“My wife’s name is Margaret. Her family calls her Mags. I thought it was cute and started calling her Magpie. It didn’t seem to fit her, though, so I eventually settled on Raven. With her long, black hair and her nickname, it fit. Anyway, ten or so years ago, we went to Las Vegas to celebrate our five-year anniversary. We were more in love than ever, and it had been a while since either of us had taken a break from our jobs. I had bought this bar right before we met, and had been working long hours for years to make it a success. I loved it, and was successful, so I wanted to give my wife something special. A trip to remember.

“Raven was an insurance underwriter. We had completely normal and boring lives, so spending a week in Vegas seemed exciting and extravagant. It was on our fourth night there when we decided instead of going to another show, we would check out some of the popular and famous clubs on the strip. We both knew to be careful about our drinks and not to let them out of our sight. I mean, I’m a bartender—I know all about date-rape drugs. We were cautious, but also having a good time. Drinking and enjoying spending time together.”

Dave paused and took a deep breath. He hated thinking about that night, about the terror he’d felt. There were so many things he wished he’d done differently, and he’d spent all the years since kicking his own ass for being so careless with his wife’s safety.

He continued, knowing he owed it to the men around him.

“It was around two in the morning or so, and we were in a club at one of the casinos. Raven said that she needed to use the restroom. I didn’t think anything of it. I kissed her and told her I’d order us a round while she was gone. She turned around and blew me a kiss before disappearing into a crowd of people on the other side of the bar near the restrooms. That was the last time I saw her.

“After about ten minutes, I started to get concerned, as she usually doesn’t take so long, so I went looking for her. There was a line to get into the restroom, but none of the women there had seen Raven. I even had one check inside the bathroom, but Raven wasn’t there. I figured I’d just missed her and went back to our table. When she didn’t return after another couple minutes, I wasn’t sure what to do. I called her phone, and it went straight to voice mail. I wondered if she’d gotten sick or something and had gone back to our hotel room.

“Stupidly, I left the bar and walked all the way back to our hotel, but when I got there, she wasn’t in the room. I panicked then. I had no idea what to do. I called the police, but they pretty much laughed and said she’d most likely turn up soon. I knew something was wrong, but couldn’t get anyone to believe me. It was Vegas, after all. The cops just assumed Raven had been drunk, or was maybe even having a wild affair with someone she’d met. It wasn’t until two days had passed with absolutely no sign of her that the cops finally took me seriously. But by then, it was too late. Way too fucking late.”

Dave took a deep breath to try to get some control over his emotions.

“Did they check the surveillance cameras?” Meat asked.

Dave nodded. “Yeah. She exited the restroom, and a guy came up to her and put his arm around her shoulders. He leaned down and said something to her . . . and she walked out of the hallway, through the crowd, and straight out the door, toward the casino. She didn’t call out for me or try to signal anyone in any way.”

“So he threatened her,” Gray surmised.

“I’m guessing he told her something had happened to me, or that something would happen to me if she struggled or brought attention to herself,” Dave agreed. His voice lowered. “I was pissed as hell at her for that for quite a while,” he admitted. “I know she was probably worried and scared, but look at me.” He threw his arms out. “I’m not exactly the kind of guy people mess with.”

Dave knew he was intimidating. He was a big man. Very big. His biceps were huge—he worked out a lot, including back then, and took pride in looking scary enough that people thought twice about messing with him. His current beard gave him even more of a wild look. Between his height, his bulk, and his looks, people didn’t often fuck with him. His skin was naturally dark, and even though ten years ago he hadn’t had the large scar that went down the side of his neck, he’d still been big and mean-looking.

“The police had no leads at all?” Zara asked quietly.

Meat had argued against his fiancée coming with them to Peru, especially because she didn’t have very good memories of her time there, but she was adamant. She’d argued that she spoke fluent Spanish, and they’d need her to talk to the residents in the barrio where she’d last seen Mags. If Raven had moved on, Zara could talk to people she knew and hopefully find out where she’d gone. Dave wasn’t thrilled about having to put her back into a situation that could bring up painful memories, but he’d never been as close to finding his wife as he was right now, and he’d use whatever assistance he could get if it meant rescuing Raven.

Over the years, various police officers, detectives, and private investigators had suggested that he move on, that his wife was most likely dead, but Dave had refused. It may have been crazy, but he truly felt as if he’d know if she was deceased. Something deep within him would instinctively feel it.

When Gray cleared his throat, Dave remembered that Zara had asked him a question.

“None that actually went anywhere. I have no idea what happened to her. One second she was there, and the next she was gone. Even with all the cameras in Vegas, no one could track where that man took her. He helped her into a four-door sedan, which was waiting at the front of the hotel, but the windows were tinted. The license plates were stolen and were a dead end. The police did their best, but it was no use. She was gone. Poof. After a while, they had other cases to solve, and because I didn’t even live there, I couldn’t keep the kind of pressure on the detectives that I would’ve liked. Raven was a damn statistic before a year had passed. The cops assumed she was dead and urged me to get on with my life.”

Dave snorted. “As if that was possible. Raven was my everything. She was the light to my dark. I didn’t realize how much she smoothed out my rough edges until she was gone. I kept The Pit going, simply because if she somehow got away from her captors, she’d know where to go. Where to find me. But after another year passed, I knew she wasn’t going to miraculously appear on my doorstep. It was going to be up to me to find her.

“That’s when I began to do research. I learned more than I ever wanted to about sex trafficking and exactly how many women and children get caught in its clutches every year. I looked at case studies of women who’d escaped and learned how the operations typically worked. I got in touch with someone via the internet who taught me the ins and outs of hacking and video surveillance. I didn’t sleep a lot, and I kept what I was doing a secret from the few friends who hadn’t given up on me.”

“So, I’m curious,” Ball interjected. “You truly don’t have any military experience?”

Dave shook his head.

“How in the fuck have you been able to talk tactics and weapons, plan missions, and basically make yourself sound like you’ve spent your entire life in the military?” Arrow asked.

“I told you. I did a lot of research,” Dave replied. Seeing the disbelief on everyone’s faces, he shrugged slightly. “And this right here is why I never told you who I was.”

“You should’ve,” Gray said, the anger easy to hear in his tone.

“Why?” Dave shot back. “So you could turn me down? Think less of me because I wasn’t Special Forces? I needed you to trust me. To treat me like a valued member of the team. If you knew I was merely a man desperate to find his wife—and just a bartender, to boot—would any of you have taken the job?”

An awkward silence followed his question.

“Exactly,” Dave said more quietly after a moment. “I know what I did was underhanded. But becoming the mysterious and elusive Rex is the only reason the Mountain Mercenaries even exist. I left the dangerous hands-on stuff to you guys, and I dug up all the information you needed in order to be successful. I’m not going to apologize or beg for your forgiveness. We’re a damn good team, and just because I wasn’t Delta or a SEAL or SAS or any other kind of supersoldier like you guys were doesn’t mean I haven’t worked my ass off to keep you safe every single time you went on a mission. I’ve bent over backward to make connections and cultivate valuable relationships. Yes, at first I merely wanted a team to go in and save the women and children I’d found during the hunt for my wife, just so I could sleep at night, but the Mountain Mercenaries quickly became more than that. You guys became my friends, even if you didn’t know who I was. I worried about you, and I prayed every time you left that I’d see you again.”

“I have to admit, I’m not thrilled with everything you did,” Meat said. “But none of us would’ve gone along with any of the missions if we didn’t trust your intel. You’re one hell of a leader, despite your lack of training, and I can’t speak for everyone else, but I’d trust you with my life, and the life of my woman, any day of the week.”

“Same here,” Gray admitted. “You’ve come through time and time again. It’s actually pretty fucking amazing that you’ve learned what you have all on your own.”

“Agreed,” Ball said. “The fact that you basically learned military tactics from just research and gained as many supporters as you have is a small miracle.”

“So . . . now that we know the truth, what’s the plan when we get to Peru?” Black asked.

“Especially since you aren’t military,” Arrow added. “You might be good at planning a mission, but that doesn’t exactly translate into being an accurate shot or knowing how to infiltrate an enemy’s stronghold.”

“I agree. And I need your help more than ever. I can barely hold a thought long enough to come up with a plan. I’d love to just go into the barrio, grab Raven, and get the hell out, but after talking to Zara about the person Raven is now, and knowing what we know about the barrio from the last mission there, I’m not sure that’s going to work,” Dave said.

“We know the barrio’s dangerous as fuck, and we can’t go in there being too cocky,” Meat said. “That’s what got me in trouble last time. I’m thinking we get our asses over there and assess the situation. There’s a chance Mags isn’t even there anymore.”

Dave’s fists clenched. Raven had to be there. She had to. He couldn’t get this close to finding her, only to fail now.

“I don’t think she would’ve left,” Zara assured them. “She’s pretty entrenched there, with the other women she helps and all.”

“Right. Okay, so we go in, check things out in the barrio, and then you can approach your wife,” Meat concluded. “If she’s nervous about you or not sure she wants to go . . . you’re going to have to talk her into it, I guess.”

Dave chuckled, but it wasn’t in amusement. “Raven’s always been pretty hard to convince to do anything she doesn’t want to. I mean, I’m hoping she’ll be head-over-heels happy to see me, but I’m guessing there’s a lot more to her situation than we know.”

“Agreed,” Gray said. “We’ll have your back while you meet with her, and we’ll go from there.”

“It’s not much of a plan,” Ro commented.

Dave shrugged. “I’m truly hoping this will be an easy in-and-out thing, but if it’s not, we can refine as we go. I’ve kept Raven’s passport up to date using an age-progression picture that an ex-FBI friend made for me. Not exactly legal, but I’ve got enough people who owe me that it was overlooked. That . . . and I’m sure no one thought I’d ever find Raven and have a chance to actually use it,” Dave said.

“We’re going as tourists,” Ball said. “Thousands of people do it every year. I’m sure no one will scrutinize her passport that closely.”

“While we’re there, I’d love to see about finding a place to set up a free clinic,” Zara threw out. “God knows the people in the barrios could use it. And if anything happens, maybe you guys can use that as a reason as to why we’re there. The barrios aren’t exactly a typical tourist destination.”

“She’s got a good point,” Meat said, putting his arm around her. “A humanitarian effort as a reason for our visit would probably put a lot of eyes on us, but if push comes to shove, we can throw that out as a secondary reason why we’re there.”

“Del Rio might be an issue with the clinic, however. He likes to keep people dependent and under his thumb, all while acting like a benevolent leader helping out those less fortunate. Having a free clinic might take away some of the attention that he craves,” Zara said.

“Fuck. That guy again?” Black asked.

Zara nodded.

Dave’s eyes narrowed. They all knew about Roberto del Rio. He was one of the worst sex traffickers Dave had ever come across. He had no morals, no scruples. They’d learned the last time they were in Peru that he trafficked children as well as women.

A couple months ago, Dave had been more than happy to volunteer the Mountain Mercenaries to go to Peru and assist in a mission to save local children bound for the sex trade in Lima—but everything had gone wrong. Mostly because del Rio didn’t want their mission to succeed. He had a lot of influence in the country. Since then, Dave had learned the majority of the police force, locals, and even the military were either under his control or being paid to look the other way.

But honestly, at the moment, Dave was having a hard time caring about anything other than Raven. From what Zara had said, Raven hated del Rio and no longer had anything to do with him, so for now, del Rio wasn’t their objective. Finding and rescuing Dave’s wife was.

Dave leaned forward and said in a somewhat desperate tone, “No offense, Zara—I’m happy to help set up a clinic and bribe whoever we have to, but my main objective on this trip is to go into that barrio, grab my wife, and get the fuck out.”

“It probably won’t be that easy,” Zara told him.

Dave nodded. “I know. Raven and I have been separated longer than we were together. She’s been through a kind of hell I can’t even begin to understand. But I’m not leaving without her.” The last was said a bit harsher than he’d intended, but it didn’t matter. He wouldn’t leave the country without Raven.

“She might not want to leave,” Zara said quietly.

Dave ground his teeth together to keep the sharp words that sprang to mind from escaping.

“The Mags I know is as independent as anyone I’ve ever met,” Zara went on. “She’s smart and doesn’t show a lot of emotion. When she was trying to convince me to tell Meat that I was an American, to share my story and get him to take me back to the States, I asked if she would come with me. I knew about the time she’d spent working for del Rio, but to me, she was a fellow American. She didn’t seem all that happy to be here, but when I asked her to come with me, she shook her head and said her life was in Peru.”

Zara’s words were more painful than anything Dave had ever heard.

He had no idea why Raven hadn’t jumped at the chance to get back to the States. Back to him.

“Is she being held captive there?” he asked.

Zara slowly shook her head. “Not that I know of. But I’ve always thought something wasn’t quite right about her situation. Three days a week, she’s gone most of the day and doesn’t tell anyone where she goes. But she always comes back to the barrio before the sun goes down. I haven’t seen anyone following her, and she doesn’t act like she’s being threatened. Well . . . any more than anyone else, that is.”

“What do you mean?” Meat asked, putting his hand on his fiancée’s knee.

“Just that life as a woman in the barrio, especially one without a husband, isn’t exactly a walk in the park. We always had to worry about Ruben or one of his friends stealing what food we’d managed to scavenge, or . . . you know.”

Dave saw each and every one of the men frown in anger. Yeah, they knew what Zara meant. She’d already told them all about Ruben Martínez and his friends in the barrio. Zara guessed him to be in his mid-twenties. He thought he was not only God’s gift to women, but some sort of untouchable badass. He and his gang harassed everyone in the barrio and didn’t hesitate to take what they wanted, using force whenever necessary.

They were also the ones who’d beaten up Meat and Black. Every single one of the Mountain Mercenaries was hoping to have a run-in with the gang, if only for a little payback.

“All I’m saying,” Zara continued, “is that out of all the women I got to know, Mags is the only one who never talked about getting out of the barrio. She just seemed to accept her situation. Everyone else dreamed about either finding a husband wealthy enough to have a place to live outside the barrio, or getting back to their families in the countries they were kidnapped from to work for del Rio.”

“Raven’s life is not in Peru,” Dave stated. “It’s in Colorado, with me.”

Seeing the uneasy and pitying looks his friends were giving him, Dave couldn’t bear to sit still any longer. He sprang to his feet and resumed his pacing.

He didn’t know why Raven hadn’t attempted to contact him. He didn’t know what she’d been through over the last ten years, although he could guess. But none of that mattered. All that mattered was that she was still the woman he loved with all his heart. Nothing she’d done or been made to do over the years would ever change that.

He had no idea what he’d be up against when he finally set eyes on her again, but he wasn’t giving up on his wife, not after all these years.

Impatiently, Dave looked at his watch and swore. It was taking way too long to get there. And every minute that passed was one more minute during which Raven could slip out of his life without a trace. Again. Someone could hurt her, or she could be kidnapped again.

“I’m coming for you, sweetheart,” he whispered as he paced. “Just keep hanging on until I can get there.”

A missing woman leads the alpha heroes on their boldest mission yet in New York Times bestselling author Susan Stoker’s searing Mountain Mercenaries novel.

It’s been ten years since Rex’s wife, Raven, disappeared from a Vegas casino. Never losing hope, he even formed the Mountain Mercenaries to help find her—and other missing wives, sisters, and children. Now Rex and his fearless team are following a lead to Lima, Peru, where the rescue operation is greater than they imagined.

A day at a time. That’s been Raven’s motto for a decade. Once held captive by an elusive sex trafficker, she has an indomitable will to survive. But Raven’s not ready to leave Peru. She can’t. Not yet. Because her liberation from the barrios comes with devastating consequences. One wrong move and all hope will be lost to an unimaginable hell.

For the Mountain Mercenaries, the stakes have been raised. The threats are escalating. But Rex hasn’t searched this long, risked so much, and come this far to lose Raven all over again.

New York Times Bestselling Author