New York Times Bestselling Author
May 10, 2022
Stuart “Pid” Hall wasn’t surprised their carefully laid-out plans had gone to hell almost the second they’d touched down in Algeria. Rescue missions like these never went according to plan, but that hadn’t kept the SEAL team from hoping maybe this time would be the exception.
Dealing with people whose emotions were high, as well as those who loved to incite a crowd into violence just because they could, tended to mess up even the best plans. The sitting president had been in power for twenty years and the citizens of Algeria were fed up with the corruption in his government. Protests had broken out. At first they’d been peaceful, but as time wore on, more and more violence had begun to creep into the country.
The government had begun to crack down on the protestors, but that didn’t quell the enthusiasm and desire of the people to fight for change. It only fanned the flames. Certain groups were also inciting the protestors for their own agendas. In addition, reports indicated that rival political parties, representatives from foreign countries, and even private groups had joined the protests and were purposely turning peaceful gatherings into violent, out-of-control mobs hell-bent on destroying everything in their path.
Homes and businesses were being broken into, then burned down. Murders were up 403 percent. And there had even been three kidnappings of foreign nationals. It all added up to one hell of a powder keg.
Which was what had brought Pid and his SEAL team to the area. They’d been tasked with evacuating US Embassy employees until the country and the situation stabilized.
They’d flown into the city of Algiers on the coast of the African country just as the sun was setting. Fires from the current protests burned vividly against the night sky as they flew toward their target building.
The evacuation on the roof of the US Embassy had gone smoothly so far…until a small boy had brought up the possibility of his nanny being missing.
Normally, Pid wouldn’t have been so concerned. The woman could have simply been evacuated on an earlier transport, or maybe the child was wrong about his nanny’s nationality—in which case it was out of his hands. They were only allowed to evacuate American citizens. But something about the child’s urgency had dinged Pid’s radar.
They had a bit of a wait before the next chopper would arrive. Not much…but some. The ambassador’s home wasn’t far from the embassy, a few blocks at most. Pid was sure he could get to the house, check for the missing woman, and make it back before the last chopper left.
Slate volunteered to go with him, and after a brief conversation with Mustang, their team leader, and getting his approval, they set off into the dark night to find the woman. The boy had said her name was Monica. They’d verify her identity and nationality, then get back to the embassy and get the hell out of there.
What should’ve been an easy snatch and grab, so to speak, turned out to be anything but. The mob outside the embassy had grown in numbers in the relatively short time since the team’s chopper had landed on the roof. Currently, their actions had nothing to do with democracy or protesting the current president, and everything to do with destroying things for the sake of destruction, by the looks of things. Looting was rampant; people were running everywhere, arms full of whatever they could carry. No building was immune. And it wasn’t just businesses. Homes were just as vulnerable to the lawless men and women.
From what Pid could tell, many of the most destructive looters didn’t look like Algerians.
Shaking his head at the blatant violence and of the depths of depravity he was witnessing, he and Slate did their best to avoid the worst of the crowds. It took them longer than they wanted to reach the ambassador’s residence, where the little boy had been certain Monica would be waiting for the family’s return.
By the time they got to the house, the sounds of rioters getting closer and closer from all sides made the hair stand up on Pid’s arms. Mustang had already radioed and said there was no way they’d be able to get back to the embassy safely. It was fully surrounded by the unruly mob and was no longer safe. Mustang ordered them to stay in touch and let him know when they’d made contact with Monica. They’d figure out a time and place for them to be picked up by the chopper in a safer location once the rescue was made.
Pid and Slate silently crept up to the ambassador’s house. There were no lights on inside, which didn’t bode well for their chances of finding the target still there. They approached from the back, away from the street.
“Shit,” Slate said as they neared a sliding glass door. It was shattered into a million pieces. The shards crackled as the two men slowly moved forward, their weapons at the ready.
Stopping to listen, Pid didn’t hear any sounds from within. His heart thumping strongly in his chest, he took point and entered the dark house ahead of Slate.
They cleared the living area and the kitchen, with no sign of Monica or anyone else. Aware of the unruly crowd getting closer, and that their window of time to find the elusive nanny was slipping away, Pid and Slate headed for the stairs.
At the top, Pid gestured for his teammate to check the rooms to the right while he took the ones to the left. He checked a bathroom and what was obviously a child’s room before entering the master. It was dark, like the rest of the house, and there was still no sign of the nanny.
After clearing the bathroom, then looking under the bed and in the closet, Pid lowered his weapon a fraction. No one was here. The house was empty.
So why did he feel so uneasy? Why was the glass door downstairs broken from the outside? Had someone broken in, forcing the woman to flee?
Looking around the master bedroom, Pid frowned. Nothing seemed out of place. The bed was made, the drawers were shut, and the clothes in the closet still hung neatly. No signs of a break-in. Yet…something still niggled at the back of his brain.
He stepped closer to the nearest dresser and opened the top drawer.
While at first glance, the house looked neat and orderly, someone had been here. The clothes in the drawer were in disarray, as if someone had rifled through looking for something. Opening a few other drawers, Pid saw the others had also been gone through as well. Whoever did it had been smart enough not to leave outward signs that anyone had been there.
A noise from behind him had Pid spinning around, his weapon at the ready.
“The rest of the house is clear,” Slate said quietly.
Nodding, Pid forced himself to relax. Taking a chance just in case, he took a deep breath and called out, “Monica? If you’re in the house, it’s safe to come out! I’m a Navy SEAL and I’m here to get you to safety.”
Pid’s voice echoed in the room, and there was no response from Monica or anyone else.
Slate shrugged. “It was worth a shot,” he told his friend.
They heard an explosion coming from outside, then cheering from a crowd of people.
“Shit, we need to get the hell out of here before they firebomb this house,” Slate said.
Pid nodded. He followed behind his teammate as they headed out of the master bedroom—but something made him turn and look behind him one more time.
“Wait,” he said urgently.
Slate turned. “What? What’s wrong?”
“Something’s off,” Pid said. “Look at this room. It’s…uneven…?” He couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed it the moment he’d entered the space.
The window on the far wall wasn’t evenly centered, which normally wouldn’t be surprising…except in each of the other bedrooms, the window on the front-facing wall was perfectly centered. In the master, there was about five feet to the right of the window, but only two feet on the left. Maybe the builder did that on purpose…but Pid didn’t think so.
His eyes scanned the room. He didn’t know what he was looking for…
Then his adrenaline spiked when he saw a spot on the wall that wasn’t completely flat.
He wanted to think he would’ve noticed it first thing if there had been adequate lighting. And now that he’d seen it, the fact that there was no furniture against that wall—when almost every other one in the room had bookshelves, a dresser, even an armchair against one wall—was an obvious sign there was some sort of space behind it.
Pid gestured to Slate and his teammate nodded as he raised his weapon, pointing it at the part of the wall that wasn’t quite flat. As he crept closer, Pid thought he could make out the outline of an almost imperceptible door.
This would be tricky. Pid wasn’t exactly sure how to open the door, and fumbling to find the mechanism would alert anyone hiding behind the wall to his intentions.
“US Navy SEAL,” he called out once more, hoping like hell it was Monica hiding behind the wall and not anyone else. As he stepped closer, he had the momentary thought that maybe it had been the nanny herself who’d rifled through the ambassador’s belongings.
To his surprise, he didn’t have to figure out how to get into the hidey-hole. The crack in the wall that had caught his eye widened…
And suddenly Pid was staring down the barrel of a pistol.
“Don’t come any closer. I have no problem blowing your head off,” a woman’s voice said.
* * *
It was all Monica Collins could do not to throw up. Time had no meaning while she’d been holed up in the safe room. The ambassador had it installed right after he’d moved in. He’d stocked it with a bit of food, some blankets—and most importantly, a handgun.
After running up the stairs when the SEAL had shown up at the back door, she’d headed straight for the room. The walls wouldn’t stop bullets, but the ambassador hoped the space would keep his family safe and hidden if someone ever broke in looking for valuables.
Monica had always thought it wasn’t the best idea. Her dad had taught her that the worst position to be in was one in which you allowed yourself to be cornered. Her childhood had been hell, but one thing he’d instilled into her brain was never to give up. Never.
She’d watched as the SEAL searched the ambassador’s home. Someone else had soon joined him, and Monica heard their low, increasingly frustrated curses when they couldn’t find her. She silently waited behind the wall, watching the tiny security screens, observing as they opened drawers and stole whatever valuables they could.
She saw them leave the house, and thought she was finally safe…until someone appeared yet again on the screens in her hidey-hole. But as she studied the video, she realized these men weren’t the same ones who had been searching the house before.
Hearing him call out that he was also a SEAL made Monica’s skin crawl. She could only assume they were with the other two men claiming to be US Navy, maybe sent in to search once more. It seemed they weren’t going to leave until she was found.
Fine. If a confrontation was what these men wanted, that was what she’d give them.
She wasn’t stupid. She knew her odds of making it out of the house unscathed were low. Especially since there were two of them and only one of her. But if she could take one out immediately with a bullet, maybe, just maybe, she could get out of the house and disappear. Walking the streets of Algeria in the dark wasn’t her idea of a good time, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. As long as she could get away from these obviously corrupt military men, she’d figure things out from there. She was her dad’s child. And he’d taught her well.
Trust no one but yourself.
Protect what’s yours.
Don’t hesitate to pull the trigger.
Shivering at the “lessons” her dad had taught her, Monica tightened her right hand around the pistol.
Light footsteps came closer to her hiding spot, and Monica knew this was it. Somehow the SEAL had figured out where she was. Still, any element of surprise would give her a much-needed advantage in this situation.
The nonexistent fingers on her left hand throbbed. They’d been amputated twenty years ago, but the phantom pain lingered to this day. The safe room was mostly dark, but she didn’t have to see her hand to know what it looked like. Four stubs were all that remained of her fingers. They’d each been amputated at the second knuckle. Doctors had tried to save them, but the damage had been too extensive and by the time her parents had brought her to the hospital, it had been too many days since the “accident.”
Hearing a noise on the other side of the wall, Monica forced herself to concentrate. She brought her left hand up to balance the gun, took a deep breath—and pushed the door open far enough for him to see the barrel of the pistol. She said in as menacing a tone as she could, “Don’t come any closer. I have no problem blowing your head off.”
Monica hadn’t thought too much beyond this moment. She figured the SEAL would do his best to convince her to put the gun down. Maybe even laugh at her. Over the years, people had consistently underestimated her. At five feet three inches tall and not much over a hundred and ten pounds, she was definitely petite. Her dad had always told her she could use her pipsqueak stature to lure the enemy into thinking she wasn’t a threat. Then she could strike.
Hating that her thoughts constantly turned to the man who’d made her life a living hell for sixteen years, Monica squinted, trying to see the SEAL through the crack in the door.
Her moment of being lost in her head cost her.
Between one heartbeat and the next, the SEAL moved.
Monica cried out in pain as the door flew open and he knocked the gun right out of her hand so quickly, she didn’t have time to pull the trigger. Before the weapon even hit the floor, he’d pulled her out of her hiding space and spun her around, wrapping one huge arm around her chest and trapping her own against her body.
She did her best to squirm her way out of his hold, but it was no use. He’d disarmed her and rendered her immobile in less than five seconds. If Darren Collins was alive, he’d be disgusted.
“I’m assuming you’re the nanny,” the man behind her drawled.
His amused tone pissed Monica off. He didn’t even seem fazed that she’d almost shot him. “Let me go!” she ordered as forcefully as she could.
He didn’t loosen his hold even a fraction. If he had, she might’ve been able to somehow get out of his grasp. But where would she go?
“Weapon secured,” a second deep voice said from behind them.
Shit. She’d already forgotten about the other SEAL. Panic flooded her body.
As if he could read her like a book, the man holding her said, “Easy. You’re safe. Did you not hear me say I’m a SEAL?” he asked.
“I heard you,” she said, knowing the bitterness in her tone was loud and clear.
“We need to go, Pid,” the other man said.
Monica frowned. She had no idea what kind of name Pid was, but she didn’t like it.
“If I let you go, are you gonna fight me?” the man holding her asked.
“Depends,” she told him honestly.
“If you’re going to try to rape me or not,” she answered bluntly.
“What the fuck?” the man behind them swore incredulously.
“My name is Stuart. Stu for short. My friends call me Pid,” her captor said.
“Your friends aren’t very nice,” Monica retorted, suddenly understanding how he’d gotten his nickname.
“Unfortunately, you can’t pick your nickname. Your nickname picks you,” Stuart replied.
“Seriously, Pid—we need to go,” the other guy repeated.
“In a second. The man behind me is Slate. His real name is Duncan Stone. Slate, Stone…get it?”
“I know what you’re doing,” Monica said. She wished she could see the face of the man holding her, but he had too firm a grip for her to even turn her body enough to catch a glimpse of his face.
“What am I doing?” he asked.
“Trying to get me to trust you by making you and your friend seem harmless. It’s not going to happen. Ever. Especially not after your other friend shot the door downstairs.”
“My other friend?” he asked.
Monica clenched her teeth. She couldn’t stand his ridiculous innocent act. “Yeah.”
“I hate to disagree with a lady, but that wasn’t anyone I know. What makes you think it was?”
Monica snorted. “Of course you know him! How many other people go around knocking on doors, claiming to be Navy SEALs?” she asked.
“Fuck,” Slate muttered again.
“He wasn’t with me,” Stuart repeated calmly.
Monica snorted. “Right.”
“How long ago?”
“I don’t know. Half an hour maybe? He left just before you got here.” She didn’t know why she was humoring this asshole.
“Right. Half an hour ago, Slate and I were standing on the roof of the American Embassy. We met the ambassador and his family, and a little boy begged me to find his nanny. Said she was waiting at his house for him and his mom, dad, and brother to get home. I promised him I’d find you and make sure you were safe.”
Monica stilled, swallowing hard. That sounded just like something August would do. He was a sensitive little seven-year-old. And the fact that he’d been worried about her almost broke her heart.
“So you see, we were busy half an hour ago and nowhere near here. And there aren’t any SEALs to spare, considering everyone—except for us—is currently doing their best to evacuate the embassy. You’re sure he said he was a SEAL?”
Monica snorted again. Why did men always think she was so stupid? Was it because she was short? A woman? Blonde?
“Right. Of course you’re sure. Slate?”
For a second, Monica thought he was still talking to her, but when his friend started talking low and fast, she realized he’d somehow asked his buddy a question while only saying his name.
Before she could concentrate on what Slate was saying, Stuart spun her around. He had a firm grip on her forearms, so she couldn’t reach out and grab one of the many weapons the man had strapped to his chest. Now that she was face-to-face with him, she was even more positive he wasn’t one of the men she’d seen earlier. But just because he didn’t shoot the door out, that didn’t mean he wasn’t working with the SEAL who had.
This man had a five o’clock shadow…which didn’t detract from his looks. It only enhanced them. He was tall, although everyone seemed tall to Monica. She guessed he was at least six feet. Maybe more. He had dark eyes that were currently fixed on her and his nose was crooked, as if it had been broken at one time. He also had a furrow in his brow as he stared down at her.
“What?” she blurted, uncomfortable with his scrutiny.
“Can you describe the man who called himself a SEAL?”
Monica thought about that for a second. Could she? She sighed. “Not really. He was older than you. Had on green camo pants and a shirt. His mouth and nose were covered by a cloth or something, and he creeped me out.”
Stuart frowned. Monica had the feeling he wasn’t frowning at her, so much as thinking about something.
“We’ve got about three minutes before that mob gets here,” Slate warned.
The man holding her didn’t look away as he nodded. “Here’s the deal,” he said calmly. “We need to get the hell out of here. But I have to make sure you aren’t going to shoot me or my friend in the back of the head as we do it. We’re the good guys. I don’t know who the fuck that other guy claiming to be a SEAL was, but he wasn’t with us. We’re here because a little boy loved his nanny enough to get up the courage to approach us. I’d like to keep my promise to that kid—and I need your help in order to do so.”
Monica pressed her lips together, her mind racing. If he hadn’t brought up August, she would continue resisting…but the last thing she wanted to do was traumatize the little boy more than he probably was already. The fact that August had even thought about her in the midst of a rescue made her give in.
“I won’t shoot you,” she said honestly. She didn’t mention the fact that he’d disarmed her of her one and only gun.
“Trust me,” Stuart said quietly.
“I don’t trust anyone,” Monica shot back.
He stared at her for a long moment, as if trying to read her mind, or somehow get her to change it simply by gazing into her eyes.
Wasn’t going to happen. Monica hadn’t lied. The only people in her life who’d never let her down were the children she’d looked after throughout her career. They hadn’t been jaded or corrupted by life yet. They were open and honest.
Every single adult in her life had let her down in one way or another. Starting with the two people who were supposed to protect and shelter her from everyone else. Her parents.
Her dad had only taught her that military men were scary and untrustworthy, and her mom taught her that she was completely on her own.
“You might not believe it, but you can trust me,” Stuart told her. She couldn’t think of him as Pid. It was a ridiculous nickname. Despite knowing after he’d delivered her to wherever they were going, she’d never see him again, she refused to use the name his military buddies used.
“They’re at the front of the house,” Slate said.
Monica was amazed not to hear any panic in the other man’s voice.
Without another word, Stuart let go of her arms and turned slightly, tucking the fingers of her right hand into the waistband at his back. “Whatever you do, don’t let go,” he told her. “If the shit hits the fan, stay right with me. No matter what.”
“Aren’t you afraid I’ll take that big K-BAR out of its sheath on your side and use it against you?” Monica asked.
Stuart shook his head. “No.”
“Why?” she insisted as they quickly headed out of the master bedroom and down the stairway toward the back of the house.
“Because if you do, we’re both dead. You worked hard to stay alive this long, I figure I’m safe at least until we get out of the house and away from the mob closing in.”
Monica sighed. Damn the man. He was right. She might not like soldiers, or the fact that she needed Stuart and Slate’s help, but she didn’t have a death wish.
Use the assets you have at your disposal.
It was something else her dad had drilled into her head. And right now, as much as she hated it, Stuart and Slate were assets. Time would tell if they continued to be of use or if they’d morph into liabilities. Monica wasn’t convinced they weren’t with the other SEAL who’d shot out her door. Maybe the two pairs of men were working together, taking advantage of the unstable situation in the city to steal whatever they could from the American Embassy households while the occupants were evacuated.
Without a word, Monica held onto Stuart’s belt as he and Slate led the way out of the house, over the broken glass from the door. She shivered as she remembered the look in the other SEAL’s eyes as he stared at her from the other side of the pane.
She suddenly realized why he’d freaked her out so badly. He reminded her of her father. There was something simply…unbalanced in his eyes.
She hadn’t seen anything in Stuart’s eyes that reminded her of her father, but that didn’t mean much. Her dad had been able to hide his crazy from the world most of the time. It was only when he was home with his family that he’d let his true self show through.
“Hold on,” Stuart reminded her. “No matter what.”
Monica nodded. She could hear the shouts of what sounded like hundreds of people. They were close. Too close. There were no fences around the houses in this neighborhood, and she’d never been so glad for that as Stuart and Slate led her into the darkness, away from the house where she’d lived for the last year.
Less than a block away, a loud whooshing sound made Monica turn her head as she stumbled after Stuart.
If they’d been even thirty seconds later leaving the house, they would’ve been inside when someone threw the Molotov cocktail into the living room. She saw dozens of people cheering and jumping up and down in glee as the beautiful house caught fire.
All her belongings were inside. Her clothes. The pictures August and Remington had drawn for her. But she’d started over with nothing before. She could do it again. She had her IDs with her; she always had them on her. She even had a bit of cash too.
Darren Collins had been an asshole, a horrible father, a paranoid and abusive man, but he’d taught her a few useful things over the years. The biggest lessons of all: never let down your guard, never trust anyone, and always make sure to have identification and cash on hand, just in case.
Monica had no idea what would happen in the future, but she’d manage. She was a survivor.
Flexing the stubs on her left hand, she took a deep breath as Stuart led her into the darkness of Algiers. It was only a matter of time before she could say goodbye and good riddance to the man and his teammate. The farther she could get away from anyone and anything related to the military, the safer she’d feel.
Years of abuse at the hands of her father has taught Monica Collins she can’t trust anyone—especially military men. Since escaping her home, she’s built a successful career as a nanny, showing other kids the love she was denied as a child. But when her employer’s ambassadorial home becomes fair game for intruders during a riot, she’s forced to rely on two SEALs to get her to safety. Basically her worst nightmare come to life.
Stuart “Pid” Hall is used to people being scared, panicked, and confused during a rescue mission, but Monica’s deep animosity and distrust is a surprise…until she shares a bit of her story. He can’t blame her for hating all things military—or for being outraged when his commander demands the SEAL team escort her back to Hawaii. Turns out the ambassador’s home was specifically targeted, and Monica’s the only person who’s faced the intruder and lived.
No one is prepared to learn the man has ties to the Navy. When he decides to use Monica as a pawn for his revenge, she’ll have to overcome years of deep-seated fear…and put her trust in Stuart’s hands if she hopes to see another day.
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