New York Times Bestselling Author
Cole “Rex” Kingston wasn’t happy.
Neither were any of his teammates.
They’d just gotten back from a mission, only to have to turn right around and leave for another. That wasn’t what made them unhappy though; they were used to occasional back-to-back missions. But this one was personal. More so for Rex than the others. Not only had servicemen and women from their own base been kidnapped, but the woman Rex had been crushing on was one of the missing.
Rex had been flirting with Navy Nurse Lieutenant Avery Nelson for weeks, finding reasons to go to the hospital on base where she worked to talk to her. He loved her smile and sense of humor, the way she was always willing to help her fellow nurses. He could tell she was well respected by her colleagues.
He was also very physically attracted to the woman. She kept herself in shape, but had curves that filled out her scrubs nicely. What he really loved, however, was her adorable freckles and red hair.
Rex had never really thought much about the color of a woman’s hair. He’d been with blondes, brunettes…women with black hair. But there was something about the combination of Avery’s red locks and her freckles that got to him.
And now she was missing. Taken captive by a group of insurgents who lived in the town and caves near the military base where she was stationed in Afghanistan.
He may never get to hear her infectious laugh or see those cute freckles again. He never should’ve waited to ask her out. He had no idea why he hadn’t gone after what he’d wanted. He just hoped it wasn’t too late, that the team would be able to find Avery, and he’d get a chance to let her know how fascinating he found her, and how badly he wanted to get to know her better.
The SEAL team had arrived in the country twenty-four hours ago and had interviewed as many people as they’d been able to find who were willing to help, and what they’d learned wasn’t good.
Two army privates who’d been driving two of the trucks filled with weapons bound for the military base had been taken hostage. The vehicles themselves were also missing, which was bad. Very bad. The insurgents now had a huge amount of firepower at their disposal.
For some reason, Lieutenant Avery Nelson was also missing. She was in the Navy Nurse Corps. She’d been in the country on a special assignment to assist locals in setting up clinics for Afghani women. There should’ve been no reason to take her, especially since she wasn’t involved in the weapons convoy in any way. Apparently, however, she’d been working in a small local clinic near where the convoy had been attacked and, after the building had been destroyed, was taken, along with the drivers of the trucks.
Rex’s team had lucked out big time and found a local who was willing to talk. If anyone found out the man had been helping the Americans, he’d most likely be killed on the spot. His family too. His children and wife likely tortured. The insurgents would make an example of him to everyone else.
Talk to the Americans and die.
The man had been ordered by the insurgents to take up arms so they could drive the infidel Americans out of the area. But an American had saved his wife from dying in childbirth. A soldier, who had stayed with his wife in their home for over twenty-four hours as she’d labored. Without that woman, he wouldn’t have a family. Both his child and his wife would’ve died. That was three years ago, and the man had never forgotten.
Outwardly, he obeyed, but he knew firsthand that not all Americans were bad.
So when he’d seen the American woman being held captive when he’d been sent to arm himself with a weapon stolen from the convoy, the man had been sickened. He’d recognized her as one of the nurses who were there to teach their women about childbirth. She was trying to help them, not kill them.
In the middle of the night, he’d snuck out of his small hut, leaving his wife and child to come to the military base to tell them what he’d seen.
Luckily, Rex and his team had been there. Through an interpreter, they’d found out the location of the cave, deep in the mountains, where Avery was being held hostage.
It was a huge stroke of luck. Without that information, they would’ve had to search every nook and cranny they came across, which would’ve been a suicide mission.
Now they were getting ready to head up into the mountains to retrieve Avery, and hopefully the two missing men as well, though the local man hadn’t mentioned seeing the latter.
Right before they were about to leave, a sergeant major came into the room they were using as a command post and informed them they’d just found the two missing privates.
They were deceased.
The information made Rex’s heart rate spike.
“And the lieutenant?” he asked.
“No sign of her,” the sergeant major answered.
That should’ve been bad news, but at the moment, Rex couldn’t think of anything better.
“We’re damn sorry about the loss of your men,” Rocco told him. “Where were they found?”
“Their bodies were dumped alongside the road outside of town,” the sergeant major told them.
“What was their condition?” Gumby asked.
The other man winced. “Not good. They’d been tortured for sure. The bottoms of their feet were torn up, as if they’d had to walk barefoot for quite a ways. They’d also lost quite a bit of weight, so we’re figuring they were most likely starved in the days since the attack.”
Rex ground his teeth. The thought of Avery being treated like the privates had been made him want to fucking kill anyone who dared lay a hand on her.
“Estimated time of death?” Rocco asked.
The sergeant major shook his head. “It’s hard to tell for sure. But we’re guessing within the last day or so. As you know, the heat out here is extreme, so it’s possible it was even more recent.”
“Thank you for letting us know,” Phantom said. “The last thing we need is to be searching for someone who’s already been found.”
The sergeant major nodded. “Are you sure you don’t want some of my men to go with you? I’ve got a team of Army Rangers who’re ready to go.”
“Thank you, but no,” Rocco said. “Since receiving intel from the eyewitness, our plan is to go up into the mountains, find the lieutenant, and get the hell out of there. The more people we have, the more visible we’ll be. But again, thank you.”
“You’re welcome. I’m not happy about that convoy being attacked. It wasn’t random. We have trucks coming in and out of this base all the time. There’s no way the locals could’ve known we were bringing weapons in at that specific time and place unless they had an inside source.”
“You think you’ve got a traitor?” Bubba asked.
The sergeant major nodded. “Yeah, I do. And I’m going to find out who it was and nail his or her ass to the wall. The repercussions of those weapons getting into the hands of the insurgents goes beyond the murder of those two privates and the kidnapping of the navy lieutenant. Our mission here has taken a huge step backward in regard to peace in the region as a result. With the enemy now armed as well as we are…I don’t have to say that it puts everyone—innocent civilians and military personnel alike—in extreme danger.”
Rex nodded along with his teammates. He knew as well as they all did how dangerous the situation had gotten with the theft of the weapons. Rifles, grenades, bullets, RPGs, even a missile or two, had all disappeared in the blink of an eye. The thought that one of their own, an American soldier or sailor, had betrayed their country was a devastating slap in the face.
But at the moment, Rex was more concerned about Avery. She’d been gone almost two weeks. At the mercy of dangerous and unscrupulous men. He prayed their source was correct and she was still in the cave where she’d last been seen. He hated to think of the friendly woman he’d been too chicken to ask out being tortured and brutalized.
Taking a deep breath and turning to check his gear for the tenth time, leaving Rocco to deal with the sergeant major, Rex made sure he had everything they’d need when they found the missing lieutenant. Extra clothes, a pair of boots—since their source said she’d been stripped of her own—water, food, energy gel packs, and medical supplies. He had no idea what shape they’d find Avery in, but he prayed harder than he’d ever prayed before that she’d be alive.
He hated that he hadn’t had the guts to ask her out before she’d left California. He knew better than most how short life was. But for some reason, he’d decided to just visit her when she got back from overseas and see if she’d be interested in having coffee. Or lunch. Then dinner. But everything had changed now.
Even if they did find her alive, he had no idea what condition she’d be in. Physically or mentally. She might never want to be touched by a man again. Her sunny disposition may have been doused forever.
The thought of the beautiful woman he’d been drawn to getting beaten to within an inch of her life made him angrier than he could ever remember being.
Picking up the extremely heavy pack, he shrugged it onto his back over his desert camo uniform. They were about to head into very rough terrain, though it wasn’t as if they hadn’t done it before. But this time, it was more personal for Rex.
Hang on, Avery, he thought to himself as he turned to listen to Rocco giving them last-minute instructions. Just hang on. We’re comin’ for you.
Avery Nelson sat with her back to the rough rock wall behind her and opened her eyes…except everything was still as black as it had been before she’d closed them. She was slowly going crazy because she had no idea how much time had passed since she’d been entombed inside the cave.
She knew it’d been at least a week since she’d been captured. An RPG had hit the house that served as a clinic, where she’d been teaching some of the Afghani women about childbirth, and a chunk of the ceiling had fallen on her head. She’d stumbled outside, right into the arms of the terrorists hijacking a convoy of trucks going through town.
She hadn’t been armed. Wasn’t even a part of the weapons convoy. She was a navy nurse, helping the inhabitants of the village. Regardless, she was pretty sure she knew why she was here. The man who’d hauled her into the mountains had made it pretty clear. And she’d had no chance to fight back, not really. She wasn’t exactly petite. At five-ten, she was taller than a lot of the men she worked with. But with her head injury and all the confusion, she’d been no match for the bigger, scarier insurgents.
They’d taken her into the mountains, along with the weapons that were inside the trucks, and beaten the hell out of Avery. They’d chained her by the ankle and taken great delight in mentally and physically torturing her.
In the meantime, men came and went from the cave, collecting the US Army weapons that had been stolen. It had taken a week for all of them to be dispersed. And after those seven days—during which she’d been beaten, laughed at, spit on, and practically starved to death—they’d all left.
But not before blowing up the entrance to the cave, sealing her inside with no way out.
Avery had managed to use a rock to crush the links of the chain that held her to the ground, and she’d used a trickle of water flowing down one wall of her tomb to stay alive.
She’d thought she’d known hunger before, but after a week with no food, she truly understood what being hungry was now. The water was keeping her alive, but she was weak and dizzy from not eating anything since she’d been trapped inside the mountain.
After being beaten by the terrorists, and then moving rocks day in and day out in the hopes of unburying herself, every muscle in her body was screaming in pain. Her fingernails were probably gone. Her head still throbbed from the concussion she’d received when her ordeal had started, and her ribs were still sore from the beatings.
But dammit, she was alive.
The bastards had fucked up by not putting a bullet in her brain before they’d buried her in the cave. They obviously thought they’d either killed her with their last beating—which had been the most brutal yet—or, if not, she’d die buried behind the rubble at the entrance of the cave.
Avery was stronger than that.
She was going to claw her way out of this cave if it took another year.
Avery refused to think about the fact that there was no way she could last even a month without food. She was completely focused on moving one rock at a time until she broke free.
For whatever reason, they hadn’t sexually assaulted her, for which she was more than grateful. She was still wearing her tan camo uniform pants and an olive-green T-shirt. Her feet throbbed because her captors had taken her shoes and socks the first day she’d been in their company. They’d held her down while some of their buddies wacked at her soles with a stick. It had hurt so damn bad, but now she couldn’t feel much. She figured her feet had gotten used to the abuse that had been forced on them since she’d been there, or the nerves had all been damaged.
Either way, it was nice not to have to think about them anymore.
Picking up a rock the size of her head, Avery felt her muscles quiver with exertion. Damn. She had no idea moving rocks could be so strenuous. When she got back to Riverton and the naval base, she was going to talk to Wolf. He and his team of former SEALs were in charge of training the wannabe SEALs. She was going to suggest they bring in a mountain of rocks and make the recruits move the entire thing, one rock at a time. They’d be piles of mush in no time.
Thinking about home was comforting. It buoyed her flagging spirits. Avery loved living on the West Coast. Loved the beach and the temperate climate. And she loved being a nurse. Enjoyed helping others. One of her favorite assignments was hell week for the men trying to become SEALs.
Oh, she didn’t like watching them suffer in the cold surf, or while attempting to do every impossible task assigned by their instructors. But she did love the camaraderie and determination in the ones who made it. By the end of the week, they were dehydrated, often suffering from a bit of hypothermia, and were literally so exhausted they could barely stand up…but the pride on their faces, knowing they’d survived the brutal conditions they’d been put through, was beautiful.
Avery had no desire to be a SEAL. Her strengths lie in helping others. She had a way with people, could soothe them when they were hurt. And she was a problem solver. Always had been, always would be.
She had a problem, and she would solve it or die trying. Literally.
The problem was the tons of rocks between her and freedom.
To solve it, she just had to move the rocks one at a time. Little by little. Baby steps.
It was what she told her patients when they wanted to go home. Wanted to get better. Wanted to get back to active duty.
As Avery was crawling with the rock clasped to her chest, her knee landed on a sharp pebble on the dirt floor of the cave. Gasping in pain, she instinctively put her hand out to catch herself when she began to fall, dropping the rock she’d been holding and smacking her forehead against it in the process.
“Shit!” she exclaimed, bringing her hand up to her head and feeling the spot she’d hit. She didn’t feel any blood, thank God, but the accident hadn’t been her first lately. She was becoming clumsy and getting more and more uncoordinated with every hour that passed.
Deciding it was time to take a break, she carefully crawled back toward the alcove she’d been held in before the terrorists had blown up the entrance to the cave. She wasn’t thirsty, but she stopped to lap up some of the dripping water anyway. Anything to fill the emptiness in her belly.
Then she lay down on her back and stared upward. It was pitch black, but she could still imagine the rocky ceiling of the cave above her head. She’d lain awake looking at it for many hours when the terrorists had been there.
Feeling herself sinking into a depression she could ill afford, Avery couldn’t help but think about all the things she’d yet to do. All the stuff she desperately wanted to do but, as things were going, likely wouldn’t make it out alive to accomplish.
At the top of that list? Getting up the courage to ask out the very handsome SEAL who’d been stopping by the hospital more and more often.
Her fellow nurses had told her he was coming solely to see and talk to her, but she hadn’t believed them.
Then, right before she’d left the country, she was sure he was going to ask her out. Something about the way he’d looked at her made Avery finally believe her friends.
Normally she wasn’t all that into men with beards or mustaches, especially not beards as full as his. But on him, the facial hair was positively delicious. He had thick black hair that was too long for a regular navy man’s. She knew the SEALs were allowed leeway in their grooming standards because of the undercover work they did.
She’d asked around and learned his name was Cole Kingston. His buddies called him Rex, but Avery preferred Cole. His eyes were dark, almost as black as the coal his name suggested. And one time, when he’d worn his PT T-shirt into the hospital, she’d caught sight of the colorful tattoos that ran up and down his right arm. She wondered if he had anymore.
Fantasizing about a man’s looks wasn’t normal for Avery. She was usually much more concerned with how they acted. Were they conceited? Did they look down on her because she was “merely” a nurse? Did they act like a complete baby when they got hurt?
But she just couldn’t get over how good-looking Cole was.
Which was why she’d convinced herself there was no way he kept showing up at the hospital because of her.
She wasn’t anything special. She had thick red hair, but most of the time she was too busy to do anything with it. When she was out in the sun too long, she got even more of the atrocious freckles across her cheeks and nose. In her experience, men didn’t really like that she was so tall. They liked petite women. And Avery had muscles. She could outrun a lot of men and even do more pullups than some. Add all that up, an athletic, independent, smart, tall, freckle-faced woman…it made for some lonely nights.
But for some reason, Cole kept coming back to the hospital. He was only a little taller than her, and if she wore heels, she’d be at eye level with him for sure. He was built, even a little dangerous-looking. And she’d thought for sure he was going to ask her out that last time she saw him. And Avery’s answer would have been yes. Hell yes.
But then an alarm had gone off in a nearby room, and she’d had to check on the patient.
She’d wanted to tell Cole to wait, that she’d be right back, but he hadn’t given her a chance. He’d smiled and told her to be careful and he’d see her when she got back from Afghanistan.
Sighing, Avery opened her eyes to pitch blackness. It was so disorienting. She knew her eyes were open, and that meant she should be seeing something, but all she saw was blackness all around her.
Avery decided if she got out of this cave and somehow made it back down the mountain to safety, after she arrived back in California, she was going to track down Cole Kingston and ask him out.
If he said no, fine, but she was done sitting back and waiting for the things she wanted in her life. And she wanted to go on a date with Cole. Wanted to sit next to him in a restaurant and learn as much as she could about him. And she wanted to feel his lips on hers at the end of the night. Wanted to find out how it felt to be kissed by a man with a full beard and mustache. Would it tickle? Was he a messy eater and would it gross her out if food got stuck in his facial hair? Did he wash it in the shower like he did the hair on his head?
There was so much she didn’t know about him but wanted to find out.
And dammit, when she got out of this fucking hole in the side of the mountain, she’d do just that.
Her spirits once more restored, Avery took a deep breath and sat up. If she was going to ask Cole on a date, she had to get moving. She’d move ten more rocks. After that, she’d take a short break then move ten more. Then ten more. Eventually, she’d move enough that she could wiggle through to freedom.
Turning over onto her hands and knees, Avery slowly and carefully crawled back toward the opening to the cave. Picking up another rock, she turned and threw it off to her right, away from the path to and from the alcove with the water.
One down, nine to go.
Navy Nurse Avery Nelson never dreamed she’d be taken hostage during her deployment in Afghanistan. She’s assisting local women with healthcare, not fighting in a war. But digging her way out of her would-be grave turns out to be the battle of her life. She’s not the type to simply lay down and die, or sit around crying, waiting for someone to save her…though Avery can’t deny it’s a massive relief when the very SEAL she’s been flirting with for months comes to her rescue.
Cole “Rex” Kingston has saved his fair share of women over his time as a SEAL, but no mission has ever seemed as important as the one to find Avery Nelson. Digging the woman out of the rubble of a mountainside in Afghanistan hammers home to them both just how short life is, and they waste no time acting on their attraction, getting closer as Cole helps Avery deal with the aftermath of her ordeal.
But someone isn’t happy that Avery didn’t die in the mountains…and they’ll do anything to make sure she doesn’t live long enough to talk about what she might’ve heard and seen while deployed.
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