New York Times Bestselling Author

Shielding Sierra


As a civilian contractor, Sierra Clarkson thought she’d found the perfect way to serve her country, short of joining the military…until she was kidnapped from a base in Afghanistan. Turns out terrorists don’t care if you’re a soldier or not; everyone bleeds the same. Even worse, no knows she’s been taken. Her missing belongings point to desertion—which means no one is looking for her, either

But someone is.

Fred “Grover” Groves never forgot the redheaded spitfire working the chow line on a base in the Afghani desert. He’d felt an instant attraction to the petite woman, a connection deep in his bones…which Sierra herself clearly didn’t feel, since she’d promised to keep in touch after his mission ended, only to ghost him—and seemingly her job.

But she didn’t.

When several contractors go missing from the base, it looks more and more like Sierra didn’t abandon her post. Then a long-lost letter proves she’d followed through on her promise to stay in touch with Grover—and suddenly, all bets are off. He bucks every protocol he’s ever known after returning to Afghanistan. If Sierra’s still alive, he’ll find her. Or die trying.

But Sierra is hardly a damsel in distress. Grover witnesses her strength and bravery firsthand in a dark desert cave. And at home, against a common enemy, he’ll witness her sheer nerve, her deep love, as they both fight for the life they’re trying to build together.

Chapter One

 

Fred “Grover” Groves lay on the dirt in the makeshift cell where Shahzada and his buddies had thrown him after taking great pleasure in beating him. His nose and mouth were bleeding, and he knew he probably looked pretty horrible, but he’d had worse beatings in his life. As a Delta Force Operative, he’d taken his fair share of fists to the face. Honestly, what Shahzada had doled out was pretty mild in comparison.

When Grover had come to Afghanistan, he didn’t really have a plan. He just knew he needed to do something more than sit around the base back in Texas and wait for someone else to find the information he needed.

Ever since receiving the letter from Sierra Clarkson, he’d been anxious, restless.

Upon meeting her over a year ago, here in Afghanistan, he’d been taken with the diminutive redhead. She was a contractor working in the mess hall and there had been something about her that intrigued him. She was bubbly and happy, like a ray of sunshine in the otherwise morose atmosphere. Most of the soldiers hadn’t wanted to be deployed, and the heat, sand, and time away from loved ones was taxing on even the most professional soldier.

Sierra had gifted everyone going through the chow line with a smile. She didn’t seem to mind that, because of her size, she had to stand on a box in order to do her job. She greeted everyone—soldier, contractor, translator—with the same enthusiasm. Despite worrying a bit about her naïveté, Grover was immediately attracted to the outgoing redhead, and wanted to know her better. He’d managed to convince her to keep in touch after his mission ended. She’d agreed.

Then he never heard from her.

Not one email.

Not one letter.

He’d assumed she’d blown him off. Which sucked, but Grover wasn’t the kind of man who’d force someone to be his friend if they didn’t want to. However, as the months passed and his Delta team had gotten more and more reports of missing contractors in the region, Grover had become increasingly uneasy. Especially since Sierra had up and disappeared herself. Just like the other contractors, all her belongings had vanished with her. It had been that very fact that made the authorities slow to react, assuming some contractors had simply had enough of the tough working conditions and left.

That explanation had never sat well with Grover and his team. It was highly unlikely all of the missing contractors would have just taken off without saying anything to their bosses or their friends on the military base. Though without proof that the men, and Sierra, had been kidnapped, the authorities’ hands were tied.

Then, a month ago, Grover received a letter—from Sierra. It had been dated a week or so after he’d left Afghanistan the last time. She had written him. Had wanted to get to know him. The damn letter had gotten lost in the mail for nearly a year.

Grover knew without a doubt that something bad had happened.

Regardless, his gut feeling didn’t go a long way toward convincing the officers in charge that a full-blown rescue mission should be mounted. There was already a SEAL team in the area tasked with looking into the disappearances, but they’d been reassigned shortly after arrival, deployed for another mission their superiors deemed more important.

As far as Grover was concerned, there was nothing more important than half a dozen missing American citizens.

The sporadic information trickling from Afghanistan was slow and days old by the time it got back to the base in Texas, and the Deltas had been preparing to fly over to investigate themselves. Until Doc’s woman, Ember, was almost killed by a stalker, further delaying the mission. Grover had convinced their commander to let him go to Afghanistan ahead of the team, to see what he could learn.

He hadn’t planned on doing anything rash.

Hadn’t planned on breaking every standard operating procedure that had been hammered into his head since the day he’d joined the Army.

But here he was. Captured.

Grover knew Trigger was going to be pissed. As were the rest of the guys on the team. But he didn’t care. He’d done exactly what he’d hoped.

He’d found Sierra.

Most people had assumed the woman was long since dead. Shahzada had a reputation for being ruthless. He didn’t keep a prisoner of war for months, let alone a year. He got any information he could out of his prisoners, then killed them.

But here she was. Grover couldn’t see her from his cell deep in the mountainside, but there was no mistaking the voice of the woman in the enclosure next to his.

His face throbbed, but Grover barely felt it. Adrenaline coursed through his veins and he smiled in relief.

“How are you even here?” Sierra asked in shock.

Grover wished he could see her. But the crude holes dug inside the mountain cave didn’t afford him that luxury. He also wished he could touch her, reassure her that he’d get her out of here if it was the last thing he did in his life. Since he doubted he could reach her, he’d give as much comfort as he could with his words.

“It’s a long story,” he said.

She kind of snorted, and Grover couldn’t help but smile again. It seemed she hadn’t completely lost her spunk.

“You got anything else to do right now?” she asked sarcastically.

“Well, I was supposed to be playing poker with a bunch of locals, but I guess that’s out,” he sassed back.

“And my manicure appointment was canceled, so that means I can hang out and chat with you a bit,” Sierra replied.

Grover closed his eyes as emotion threatened to overwhelm him. He hadn’t been sure he’d be able to find this woman. If he did, he’d expected her to be a mere shell of the person he’d once met. But by some miracle, she sounded…okay. Her voice was raspy from disuse, but she wasn’t crying hysterically, didn’t seem scared out of her mind. He had no idea what she’d been through in the last year, but it was obvious whatever it was, it hadn’t broken her.

He’d known seasoned soldiers who wouldn’t’ve held up as well as Sierra.

The words of the base general rang through his mind. He’d met with the man when he’d first arrived in the country. We have to face the fact that she’s probably no longer alive. And if she is alive, she’s almost certainly working with Shahzada by now.

Grover refused to believe it. He didn’t know Sierra, but practically everything about her personality screamed “goodness.” She wouldn’t willingly join a terrorist group, even to stay alive. He’d bet his own life on it.

Had actually done just that.

“I came to find you,” Grover told her bluntly.

Silence met his declaration, so he waited her out.

“How did you know where I was?” she asked. “Hell, I don’t even know where I am.”

“I didn’t,” Grover admitted. “The disappearance of contractors from the base wasn’t coincidental, but no one could find any concrete evidence on where the men, and you, had gone. Everyone’s belongings were taken, making some people think you’d all left voluntarily. After all, what kind of kidnapper makes sure to pack up their victim’s stuff?”

“Shahzada,” Sierra muttered.

“Exactly. When my team and I weren’t getting the answers we needed, I was done waiting.”

“So you just came over by yourself!? Can you do that?”

Grover chuckled. The movement hurt his chest where he’d been hit, but he ignored the twinge. “Sort of. My commander approved it and my team should be here in less than a week. Probably sooner, once the video those assholes took hits the airwaves.”

“You sound almost…happy to be here.”

“I am,” Grover agreed without hesitation.

“You’re insane,” Sierra told him.

“Actually, my plan worked better than I could’ve hoped.”

“Your plan?”

“Yes. To get myself taken so I could hopefully talk to other hostages, find out if anyone had seen you. Knew anything about you,” Grover said.

“Wait, you purposely got yourself kidnapped?”

“Yes.”

“That’s…crazy!”

“But it worked. I found you.”

“Okay, but now what? You found me, but we’re both prisoners now.”

“We wait.”

“For what?” Sierra asked.

“For my team to do what they do best…kick ass and take names,” Grover said without hesitation and with complete confidence.

“Right…”

Grover heard the disbelief and incredulity in her tone, but it didn’t faze him. He didn’t blame her for being less than hopeful after so long, and he also agreed what he’d done was reckless and over-the-top…but it worked. He was actually talking to the very woman he hadn’t been able to push out of his mind. “They’ll be here,” he told her. “We just have to be smart and stay under the radar until that happens.”

Sierra snorted once again.

“What?” Grover asked.

“You want to know how the next few days are gonna go?” she asked.

Grover tensed, but she didn’t give him time to answer.

“They’re gonna take turns beating on you—gotta give the newest members of the group a chance to practice their torture techniques. You’ll be tough and resist answering any of their questions at first, then they’ll stop fucking around and get to the more extreme torture. Waterboarding. Beating the soles of your feet so you can’t walk for days. Flogging. Dousing you with gas and threatening to set you on fire.”

Grover’s fists clenched. He wasn’t afraid of torture. He’d been through it before and had a high pain threshold. He also knew Trigger and the rest of his team would find him, get him out of there sooner rather than later.

But he couldn’t stop thinking of the most likely reason why she was so intimately familiar with Shahzada’s torture techniques…

“That happen to you?” he asked in a low, growling voice.

“Yeah.”

That was all she said, her voice quiet, resigned.

That one word made rage bloom inside Grover so fast, it was almost scary. He was going to kill every one of the men who’d touched her. They’d die slow, painful deaths.

He wasn’t sure what to say to comfort her before she went on.

“But not for a while. I think I was their first prisoner. They practiced on me. I learned pretty quickly that the sooner I broke, the faster they stopped. I never thought that psychology degree I earned would do me any good out here, but I was wrong.”

She chuckled lightly, but Grover couldn’t hear any humor in it.

“Tears have worked surprisingly well on them. At least for me. They love to see their prisoners helpless and crying. So I’ve learned how to cry on demand pretty quickly. But the most useful thing to remember—never let them know something’s important to you. They’ll focus on that, do their best to use it against you. For instance, if nudity bothers you, don’t complain when they take your clothes. They’ll never give them back. It amuses them to make their prisoners suffer.”

Grover wasn’t surprised by any of her intel. It was something the team had been taught early on in their training. “What’d they use against you?” he asked softly.

“When I was first taken, and didn’t know better, I begged them to let me keep a ring given to me by my grandmother. She died when I was fifteen and I inherited her wedding ring. I cherished that ring. But when they learned how badly I wanted to keep it, they taunted me with it for months. Promising to give it back if I gave them information about the base. At first, I believed them, told them whatever I could—which wasn’t much. I worked in the damn mess tent. But they had no intention of ever giving me that ring back, of course. They were just using it as a way to further torture me.”

“I’m sorry,” Grover told her.

“It’s fine. They can’t take the memories of my mam away, so fuck them.”

Grover contemplated her words in silence. He’d been at least partially incorrect. While Sierra wasn’t broken…the soft, sweet woman he’d once met was gone, possibly for good.

Replaced by a harder, stronger woman who would do anything in order to survive.

Despite abhorring how it had come about, he didn’t hate the change itself. Ironically, it made the two of them more alike. He’d seen and experienced things that had made him harder, stronger…and it’s ultimately what you did with those changes that mattered. Her captivity had obviously turned her into a survivor; that’s why she wasn’t broken.

She’d taken the worst thing a human could go through and turned it to her advantage in the only way she could…by letting it make her stronger, as well.

The connection he felt with this woman was already strong. Now it seemed to get more intense with every minute that passed.

It was whacked. They were in a precarious situation. He couldn’t even see her, for God’s sake, but he couldn’t deny he was impressed. Though, his heart bled for her at the same time. He couldn’t even begin to fathom the hell she’d been in for the last year. She’d had to become hard to keep herself from going insane.

“My advice is to give in to what they want. I’m not saying to give them any information that will help them hurt, kidnap, or kill anyone else, but the faster you seem to break, the quicker the torture will end.”

“Okay,” Grover agreed. Nothing she said was a surprise. Putting her mind at ease was his only goal.

“And if they use me to get you to react, you have to remain unaffected,” she said.

Her words seemed to echo off the rocky walls of their prison.

“What?” he asked, not sure he’d heard her correctly.

“They’ll haul me out in front of your cell and beat on me to try to get a rise out of you. If you show any kind of reaction, they’ll only do it longer. The best thing you can do is ignore it.”

“Motherfucker!” Grover swore. It was a common enough tactic by captors, using one prisoner against another. But the thought of her being tortured right in front of him, and Grover not being able to do a damn thing about it, brought out his rage all over again.

“I mean it,” Sierra said. “The more you protest, the more they’ll hurt me. And if I don’t react when they’re hurting you, please don’t take it personally. It’s for the best. They’ll get bored and quit as long as I don’t say or do anything to try to make them stop.”

“Listen to me, Sierra. Are you listening?”

Grover waited for her response before continuing. It took a while, but she finally said, “Yes,” very softly.

“I can take whatever they dish out. What I can’t handle is you getting hurt because of something I did. I promise not to do anything to make your situation here worse.”

“Don’t promise something you can’t deliver,” she said without emotion.

“I never go back on my promises,” he told her firmly.

He heard her sigh. “That’s what the others said, too, but in the end, they couldn’t understand why I wasn’t trying to help. Why I was ‘letting’ those assholes beat on them.”

“I’m not them,” Grover said simply. He got it. He really did. The other contractors who’d been taken were men who didn’t have Grover’s background and training. And since Sierra had majored in psychology, she also understood their captors better than the average person. She’d obviously learned how to act in order to keep herself alive for the last year. She was smart, resilient, determined…and his admiration rose another notch.

Grover moved so he was lying by the side of his cell nearest her own. It made him feel closer to the woman. He had so many questions, but now wasn’t the time or place. He hoped he’d have the chance to get to know her, once they were out of here. For now, he needed to rest. He had no doubt his jailors would be back soon to continue their beatings.

“You okay?” Sierra asked.

The fact that she was asking about him, when she’d been the one held captive for so damn long, told him everything he needed to know about Sierra Clarkson.

And he was going to do whatever it took to get her out of here.