New York Times Bestselling Author

Mountain Mercenary Hunter “Meat” Snow has a mission: eliminate the human traffickers scouring the barrios of Lima for vulnerable prey. But it’s Meat who’s taken down. Separated from his team, and beaten within inch of his life, he’s left for dead. When he wakes, it’s to the intimate care of a beautiful stranger who knows all about survival.

Zara Layne was a child when a brutal murder left her orphaned and abandoned in Peru. Ever since, she’s fended for herself on the streets, outrunning its predators. Trusting men is not in Zara’s blood, until it warms to the exhilarating touch of the wounded hero who promises deliverance. As each other’s rescuer, they return to Colorado for a new normal.

But when Meat disappears, Zara discovers how ruthless the past can be. With the help of the loyal mercenaries, she’s drawing on her own skills of endurance to find him. And for Zara, there’s no danger too great to come between her and the man she loves.

Defending Zara

Chapter ONE

“They’re beating the crap out of them! We’ve got to do something!” Gabriella exclaimed.

“We can’t go out there yet, they’ll just turn on us,” Mags said patiently, but she had a worried look in her eye.

Personally, Zara wasn’t sure if they should go out and help the two men currently getting the shit kicked out of them. Growing up the way she had, in the poor barrios of Lima, Peru, Zara had learned to always take care of herself first. Everyone and everything else took second place to her innate need to survive. But she couldn’t help feeling awful about the men being thrashed just yards away.

It was the middle of the night, and the women had watched from afar as a pair of soldiers from the Peruvian military prepared to raid one of the houses with a team of men from the United States.

Once upon a time, Zara might’ve done whatever she could to gain the attention of those Americans . . . now all she wanted was to run away and stay safe.

But because she liked and respected Mags, the leader of their ragtag group, she stood her ground behind the women huddled around the door of the shanty and watched two Americans get beaten up by a gang of bullies who lived in the barrio they all called home. No one outwardly defied those men, though Mags and their group did what they could to silently and secretly resist them.

But the fact that the men had begun to steal children to sell to Roberto del Rio, the notorious and ruthless leader of the biggest sex-trafficking ring in Peru, had changed things. Mags wasn’t going to stand for that. No way.

Pushing her short brown hair out of her eyes, Zara absently made a mental note to cut it soon. It was getting too long, and the last thing she wanted was for someone to look at her and realize she was a woman. As it was, with her short hair, slight build, breasts bound tightly to her chest, and short stature, they saw what she wanted them to see. A dirty, poor teenage boy named Zed. She’d worked hard over the years to cultivate that image, and while Mags had somehow seen through her disguise in a heartbeat, most people didn’t take a second glance at her.

Which was how Zara liked it. And how she’d managed to survive the last fifteen years living on the streets and in the barrios of Lima. She could barely remember her life before. Didn’t want to remember it. That life was gone for good. This was her life now.

“They’re running away,” Teresa whispered in Spanish. “Something must’ve scared them.”

“Are they still alive?” Gabriella asked.

“I don’t . . . Wait, yeah. The one closest to us just moved his foot,” Teresa said.

“Okay, we have to be quick.” It was something everyone already knew. This wasn’t the first time they’d gone out of their way to help some poor soul who’d had the misfortune to be on the receiving end of the brutal gang’s attention. “We’ll grab the first guy, bring him back here, then Zed can load him up while the rest of us go back to get the other one.”

“Why don’t we just leave them there?” Bonita asked.

That was what Zara wanted to know, though she’d never voice it. The injured men were strangers. They weren’t even from here. They weren’t from the barrio, so why put their own lives at risk for them?

“Because they’re here trying to help,” Mags stated firmly. “They obviously don’t know the men from the military are corrupt. They don’t know that their mission was likely to fail from the start, simply because those soldiers are pocketing money from del Rio. If one of these men was yours, a good man who was fighting against the evils of the world instead of working for Satan, would you want them to die like that?”

All of them were silent in response.

Zara had spent a lot of time with the women around her. She trusted them. They all knew suffering intimately.

Maria was twenty-nine and from Mexico. She’d been married off when she was fifteen and had fled her abusive husband a few years ago. She had ended up penniless and alone in Peru, and Mags had taken her under her wing.

Bonita and Carmen were thirty-two and thirty-five, respectively. They’d both been sold when they were only twelve years old by their own families to Roberto del Rio. They’d been “retired” from del Rio’s service for five years or so, and had spent most of that time with Mags.

Gabriella was the youngest of their group at twenty-one and had grown up in the barrio, much like Zara. She’d managed to avoid being “recruited” by del Rio, but only by sheer luck and because Mags had done her best to keep her hidden from the scouts who frequented the area. Teresa was from Brazil and had been with them for around six months. She’d been “fired” by del Rio and left to fend for herself.

Interestingly enough, no one knew Mags’s story . . . but it was obvious she’d suffered the most. She was friendly to their motley crew and did her best to help others, but she never talked about herself or how she’d ended up being the sort-of den mother to a group of broken and desperate women.

Everyone shook their heads at her question. If the Americans were “good men,” as Mags had put it, then no, they didn’t want them to suffer at the hands of the barrio’s meanest bully, Ruben, and his mob.

“Right. On the count of three, we’ll all go out and drag that first man back. Teresa, you’re responsible for getting rid of the drag marks so if the gang comes back, they don’t know where he went. Zed, you get the ambulance prepared.”

Zara nodded and turned toward the contraption they called an ambulance. It was actually a rickety old bicycle that had been hooked up to an equally old-looking box on wheels. It had a hinged lid with strategically placed items on top. Cans, pieces of wood and scrap metal, trash . . . anything that would make someone who glanced at it not look twice. But under that hinged lid was an empty box, large enough to carry a human being through the back streets and barrios of Lima.

It wouldn’t pass a thorough inspection by the police or military, but at a glance, it looked like a giant pile of garbage. Zara made sure the rubbish on the lid was secure, and she tested the connection from the box to the bike. The last thing she wanted was for the thing to come unattached while she was on her way to the doctor.

Zara had met Daniela Alvan through Mags. She was in her mid-thirties and the closest thing the barrio had to a doctor. She’d helped more women than Zara could count, and her specialty was midwifery, but she regularly stitched up the wounded, treating knife and gunshot wounds. Daniela was discreet, and she lived in a small house near the barrio Zara had made her home. It had actual brick walls and running water, both of which were luxuries most in the area didn’t have.

Daniela had often allowed “Zed” to help her, running errands and allowing her to watch and assist as she treated patients. As a result, Mags now considered Zed their little group’s personal doctor.

But they both knew the men who’d been beaten would need more assistance than Zara could give them. So she would take them to Daniela, who would make sure they weren’t bleeding internally, and then they’d return them to their American friends so they could get the proper medical treatment they most likely needed.

But the first aim was to get them away from the area. Away from the gang that hated any and all outsiders and would come back to make sure they were dead—once the danger from whatever had spooked them had passed. They’d search every hovel until they found them, which was why Zara was making sure their “ambulance” was ready to go.

Within seconds of checking the wheels on the decrepit bike and trailer, Zara startled when the women burst back through the door. They were dragging a man who looked like he was dead already. His head lolled backward and his eyes were shut.

“Drag him to the trailer,” Mags ordered.

It took four of them to move him, and Zara had no idea how in the world she and Daniela were going to be able to get him out of the trailer by themselves, but she couldn’t worry about that right now. She and Mags held the trailer steady while the others struggled to get the man’s unconscious body up and over the lip of the wooden box. He was tall and muscular, which made their job all the harder.

When he was finally inside, Zara looked down at him in consternation. They’d been able to carry two people in the trailer in the past, but the American was huge. Zara estimated that, when standing, he’d tower over her by at least a foot. Even after they’d arranged him on his side in a fetal position, it was obvious his companion wasn’t going to fit in the small space that was left.

“Ruben and Marcus are coming back this way!” Bonita hissed. She was peering between the wooden slats through a gap that served as a crude kind of door.

“Which means Eberto, Alfonso, and the rest of the gang will be back before too long,” Gabriella said, something they all knew.

“Shit,” Mags muttered under her breath. “There’s no time. We can’t go out and get the other American. Zed, you ready?”

Zara nodded. She took one last look at the injured man at the bottom of the trailer. He had brown hair and day-old scruff and had been stripped of his shirt, pants, and shoes by the men who’d beaten him. He was wearing a bloody and torn undershirt and a pair of boxer shorts.

Something about seeing the man in his underwear made her feel sorry for him, which was an unusual feeling for Zara. She did her best to stay as far away from men as possible. She’d learned a long time ago that they were nothing but trouble.

But seeing this American so badly hurt, knowing it was up to her to get him help, made her anxious. She could take him straight to his American friends, but she suspected the two corrupt soldiers would promptly blame her for his condition and arrest her. And who knew if they’d actually help him?

No, her best bet was to get him to Daniela. She could make sure he wasn’t going to die, then they’d figure out what to do with him after that. Maybe she’d warn him about the kind of men his team was working with. Everyone in the barrios knew many of the bastards who worked in the First Special Forces Brigade in the Peruvian military were corrupt, working in cahoots with del Rio and anyone else rich enough to pay them to look the other way when something illegal was going on. How they regularly ran sweeps of the barrios and beat anyone who dared speak back to them or look at them sideways.

The lid was lowered and the women fussed over the items camouflaging the box. When they were satisfied that it looked like nothing more than a heaping pile of trash, they stepped back.

Mags approached Zara as she climbed onto the bike. She reached out a hand and squeezed Zara’s shoulder. “Be careful,” Mags said in English.

When Mags had found “Zed” five years ago and discovered that, once upon a time, English had been her primary language, she’d made it her mission to help Zara practice it every day. She’d taken Zara under her wing and given her the first sense of family and safety she’d had in a decade. There wasn’t anything Zara wouldn’t do for Mags, and if she wanted her to relearn English, that was what she’d do.

Zara nodded.

“Stay with Daniela as long as necessary,” Mags ordered. “Don’t come back here until we know it’s safe. While del Rio is snatching up younger and younger boys and girls, people who look as old as teens are still disappearing. Understand?”

“Yes,” Zara said succinctly. She didn’t talk much. Had discovered a long time ago that she learned a lot more by listening. And because she’d learned Spanish by ear, she felt self-conscious speaking it, despite being fluent.

“Report back when you can, and use your own judgment about returning the man to his friends,” Mags said. “Also . . . while we have no idea what kind of man this one is, try to remember that they’re not all bad. There are some noble and kind ones out there.”

Zara nodded, even though she wasn’t sure she believed the older woman. She’d seen the worst humanity had to offer. She’d seen men literally steal food out of the hands of babies, push older men to the ground as they crossed a street. And, of course, there was the rampant corruption in the police and military forces that were supposedly there to protect the citizens of Peru.

A niggling memory in the back of her mind tried to push forward. The memory of a man whose arms were the safest place she ever remembered being. A man who smelled like aftershave and soap, who could make her giggle, and who beamed with pride when he smiled down at her.

But the second those memories tried to creep in, Zara ruthlessly shut them out. That part of her life was gone. There was no use remembering it or wishing for something she could never get back.

“Go on now, and remember not to rush. If you do, you’ll draw attention to yourself. Just go slow, stop every now and then to pick up something off the ground. Act like nothing’s wrong and no one will look twice at you. And Zed?”

Zara looked up at Mags in expectation.

Lowering her voice, Mags said, “I’m proud of you.”

Zara’s chest felt tight. She could count on one hand the number of compliments she’d received in the last fifteen years. And coming from Mags, a woman she admired and looked up to, those words meant a lot.

“Thank you,” Zara said gruffly.

“You’re welcome,” Mags said, then took a step back and turned to Gabriella. “Make sure the coast is clear to go out the back.”

The other woman nodded and headed to the back of the shack to look out the other door. Apparently seeing none of the gang members lurking around, she pulled back the piece of metal blocking the exit and nodded.

Zara took a deep breath and pushed on the pedals of the bike. It was tough to get going, since she was towing more than two hundred pounds of human flesh behind her, but once she did, Zara kept her head down and her eyes up. She navigated the rough dirt paths of the barrio and didn’t seem to breathe until she left the slum behind and was on the concrete sidewalk outside the walls.

She wasn’t in the clear, though. She had to stay sharp. All it would take was one policeman getting a little too nosey, and both her life and the life of the man in the trailer behind her would be worth less than nothing.

Breathing slowly and trying not to do anything that would bring attention to herself, Zara slowly pedaled toward Daniela’s house. She hoped the man behind her was all right. That he wouldn’t wake up and freak out, exposing them both and probably signing her death warrant. In his condition, he likely would have trouble lifting the lid on the trailer, as it was secured with a small hook, but he could yell out. And if he really tried hard enough, he could probably break the hook and flip up the top.

She’d be hauled off to jail for kidnapping, and who knew what would happen to him.

With that thought in mind, Zara took the risk and pedaled just a little bit faster.