From New York Times bestselling author Susan Stoker comes a heart-pounding installment in the Silverstone series about a love-shy ex-military man and a beautiful scientist reeling from a family tragedy.
When Mark “Smoke” Chamberlin ventures into the Nigerian jungle with his team of government assassins, his mission is clear: get in, kill the target, and make it out alive. With his extensive military experience, Smoke has no problem heading into dangerous territory. When it comes to love, though, he’s always been a little wary. But then he meets the beautiful, intrepid Molly Smith.
Schoolteacher Molly has been trying to outrun a lifetime of bad luck, and now she finds herself kidnapped along with a hundred schoolgirls in the jungle. But when Smoke finds them, Molly thinks her luck might be turning around—until she returns to the US to find her beloved grandparents murdered.
Devastated by their deaths and mystified by the turn of events, Molly turns to Smoke for comfort. But as Molly and Smoke grow closer, a different threat emerges…one that will put their relationship to the test and their lives in grave danger.
New York Times Bestselling Author
Mark “Smoke” Chamberlin was tired of the jungle. He and his fellow Silverstone teammates had been in Nigeria for weeks, attempting to find the Boko Haram terrorist group. Months ago, they’d kidnapped seventy-two girls and young women from a local school. They’d also taken an environmental engineer who’d been at the school that day. Molly Smith.
Molly was thirty-five, but at first glance, Smoke supposed she could’ve been mistaken for a teenager by the terrorists. She was petite, almost a foot shorter than his own six-foot-one frame. In the pictures he’d seen of her, she’d had long black hair and eyes that seemed to harbor too much anguish for someone so young.
There had been reports of a few of the kidnapped schoolgirls reappearing in various places, but most were still unaccounted for. Silverstone had arrived in Nigeria a month ago and, using the information they’d gathered from the FBI and local authorities, had been searching the jungle for any signs of either the terrorist group or the remaining girls.
And they’d finally found them.
Smoke, Bull, Eagle, and Gramps lay in the thick foliage, observing the crude camp. It was no wonder helicopters hadn’t been able to spot the group. The tents were camouflaged, and the area of the jungle where the terrorists had brought the girls was dense with trees and almost inaccessible. There were no roads in or out; the thought of the girls being forced to walk the twenty miles or so into the area was abhorrent.
It had been hard going for Smoke and his teammates, and they were in their prime. It couldn’t have been easy for a group of terrified schoolgirls.
There was a trio of large tents set up in the middle of the camp, one side of each open to the hot, humid air of the jungle, and Smoke could see girls inside all three. Smaller tents surrounded the larger ones. Smoke assumed they were for the men, a way to safeguard the camp and to prevent the girls from running. Although escaping the out-of-the-way camp would be almost impossible. He had a feeling, once in the jungle, the girls would have no idea which way to go to find safety.
Looking through his binoculars, Smoke observed most of the girls lying in the tents listlessly, as if they had no energy to do much of anything. Three fires were lit off to one side, and fifteen girls were gathered around them, obviously cooking and preparing food.
As for the kidnappers . . . there were more of them than Smoke had thought there’d be. He counted at least two dozen. All armed to the teeth. They had machetes strapped to their chests and rifles slung across their backs. They were quick to yell at their captives if the girls stepped out of line, and Smoke watched as one girl, who couldn’t have been more than eleven or twelve, got smacked so hard she fell to her back.
Witnessing the abuse was bad enough. But also, no matter how carefully he looked, Smoke saw no evidence of Molly Smith.
There was no telling what may have happened to her during the last three months. His stomach rolled as he thought about what the kidnappers could’ve done with her, but he forced himself to put it out of his mind.
“Any sign of Abubakar Shekau?” Gramps asked Eagle.
“I’m guessing that’s his tent over there,” Eagle responded softly, indicating a fourth large tent that sat a few dozen yards from the others. It seemed to be of better quality—and there were two men standing guard outside.
As they continued to observe, two of the kidnappers dragged a young woman—Smoke guessed she was probably around fourteen years old—toward the tent. She was crying and pleading with the men to let her go. They ignored her, holding her biceps so tightly they were practically carrying her.
They stopped outside the tent, then one of the men leaned down and said something to the girl. She shook her head, and the man smacked her. The crack of skin hitting skin was loud in the dense jungle.
Smoke’s teeth clenched. He wanted to leap out of the trees and snatch the girl away, save her from what he knew was going to happen inside that tent. But he couldn’t. His hands were tied.
The two men laughed at the girl and, after the guards opened the flap of the tent, shoved her inside. Smoke saw her fall to her knees just inside the tent. A man loomed over her, pointing toward a spot in the dirt. The girl quickly crawled to where he was pointing, staying on her knees.
The man reached for the drawstring of his pants as the guards closed the tent flap.
“It was him,” Eagle said in a tight, tense growl. “Shekau.”
Smoke knew if Eagle said the man was Shekau, then he was Shekau. Eagle had the unique ability to remember every person he’d ever met or seen a picture of. Even though the interior of the tent had been dim, Eagle had still been able to identify the man.
They all knew how lucky it was that Shekau was there. He could’ve easily made the members of his terrorist organization do his dirty work while he stayed hidden elsewhere. Having him at the camp was a huge stroke of luck.
Silverstone had come to Nigeria specifically to kill the man.
Smoke wanted to move right then. Slip into the back of the tent and kill the bastard. It was apparent the girls had been abused in every way one human could abuse another during the months since they’d been taken. But he was forced to wait. Now that they had confirmation both the girls and Shekau were there, they had to report back to the Nigerian officials.
As much as Silverstone wanted to kill Shekau and slip away, they couldn’t leave the girls at the mercy of the remaining Boko Haram members. No, this had to be a rescue mission as well as a mission to kill the terrorist leader.
All they could do for the moment was watch and wait for their backup to arrive. Silverstone would kill Shekau, and any of his followers who dared to resist, and the Nigerian forces would back them up and gather the girls and return them to their families, who were frantic to find them.
Two days. That was how long it would take for the Nigerian forces to get into place for the raid.
Smoke wasn’t sure he could stomach sitting back and doing nothing while children were being abused. But he didn’t have a choice. None of them did.
Bull slipped off to notify their Nigerian contacts that they had visual confirmation Shekau was at the camp and to give them coordinates. Smoke knew he’d make sure everyone understood time was of the essence.
“This is going to sound harsh, but . . . I’ve never really thought too much about the people we rescue on missions like this,” Eagle said in a low tone. They were far enough away from the camp that they wouldn’t be overheard, but they didn’t want to push their luck.
Smoke looked over at his friend. Eagle was frowning and looked extremely stressed out. All four of them were more than ready for this mission to be over. The jungle was hot, they were exhausted, and he knew his friend was missing his wife. Eagle was clearly worried about how Taylor’s pregnancy was progressing. When they’d left, she’d been about fourteen weeks; it had to be hard missing the milestones of their first pregnancy.
“I mean, I feel bad for the victims,” Eagle clarified, “but I never think much about them afterward. Remember when we went to Peru and took out del Rio?”
Smoke nodded, and next to him, Gramps did as well.
“I was disgusted by what he’d done, how many lives he’d ruined, but after we left, I didn’t think about his victims again. Lately, though, I can’t help but wonder how they’re doing. If they found their families. If they were able to reacclimate to their former lives, or if they’re too traumatized by what happened to have any kind of normal life again.
“Now that I’m married, and have a child on the way, I can’t stop thinking . . . what if that had been Taylor? What if that serial killer who’d targeted her had managed to get away with her? I look at the girls in this camp and wonder what their lives are going to be like after going through this. It . . . haunts me.”
Smoke wasn’t sure what to say. He wanted to empathize, but since he wasn’t married, hadn’t been in a serious relationship in years, wasn’t expecting a child . . . he really couldn’t. Of course he felt bad for the girls who were being abused by Boko Haram, but once his team killed Shekau, their part was done. They’d all go back to Indianapolis and their towing company and continue with their own lives.
Eagle turned to Gramps and Smoke. “I look at these girls, and now I see my own child. I hear stories about women being raped and held against their will, and imagine Taylor being in their place. I don’t know if that makes me better at what I do or worse.”
“Better,” Gramps said without hesitation. “My grandparents came to America from Mexico to escape a drug cartel. They were forcing everyone in their small town to work for them, and anyone who balked was simply shot. Children, grandparents . . . no one was safe. So my grandparents packed what they could carry and walked across the Sonoran Desert to get into America. It wasn’t easy, but they knew whatever that future held was better than working for the cartels. They wanted the children they hadn’t had yet—and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren—not to have to live in fear. Wanting what’s best for the ones you love is never a bad thing.”
Gramps didn’t talk about his background much. They’d all known his grandparents had lived in Mexico, but hadn’t known the details about how they’d gotten to the United States.
“It took a long time, and a lot of hard work, but they got their citizenship,” Gramps went on. “They just wanted to pay their taxes and live freely in this country, and now they do. I think if we lose empathy for others, then we might as well hang up our hats. Yes, we kill people. We happen to be damn good at it. But we don’t kill simply for the sake of it. We do it to make the world a tiny bit better. I hate that you see Taylor in the faces of those we’re freeing from tyranny, but in my mind, that makes what we do more personal.”
Eagle took a deep breath. “Thanks. I needed to hear that.”
“Smoke and I are happy to deal with the civilians if that makes things easier for you,” Gramps said.
“I’m good,” Eagle told him. “I just miss Taylor. I haven’t talked to her in a month, and it feels as if a part of me is missing. I’ll get through this, because I know my wife misses me just as much. Having a connection like that with someone else is something I really hope you guys find. It’s different from the bond we have, and even more satisfying.”
Smoke hated the pang of jealousy that hit him. He was happy that Bull and Eagle had found women who could stand by them and be proud of what they did. But Skylar and Taylor were unique, and he wasn’t sure he’d ever get lucky enough to find someone like them.
“I love that you have that,” Smoke said honestly. They were all quiet for a moment, then he asked, “Anyone seen the American?”
Gramps put the binoculars back up to his eyes and shook his head even as he rescanned the area. “No.”
“They might’ve killed her already,” Eagle said quietly.
Smoke sighed. He’d had the same thought. He didn’t like to think about the woman being dead, but at this point, there wasn’t evidence to suggest otherwise. She’d simply disappeared into thin air. No rumors that she’d been sold into the sex trade, no sightings of her in any nearby villages. It was likely Molly Smith had been killed when Boko Haram had discovered her among the schoolgirls, then left to rot in the jungle.
She didn’t have anyone advocating for her search. Her grandparents had been found dead in their burned-out house back in a suburb of Chicago, and the company she worked for, Apex, had packed up all their employees working in Nigeria and sent them home.
No one was looking for Molly Smith.
A shout sounded from the camp, and Smoke turned his attention back to the situation at hand. He had to focus on what he’d come to do: kill Shekau and free the dozens of girls who’d simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
* * *
Molly Smith licked her lips, but it didn’t help moisten them. The water in her hole had dried up overnight, and no matter how deep she dug to find more, she hadn’t had any luck. Her time was coming to an end, and she knew it. She couldn’t last long without water. And the assholes who’d captured her hadn’t bothered to bring her any in a very long time.
She tried to calculate how long she’d been in the jungle, but couldn’t do that either. She’d kept track at first, but after she’d tried to escape the first time—and been beaten unconscious for her effort—she’d lost count of the days. After her second escape attempt, she’d been thrown into this hole, and she hadn’t thought about anything other than surviving since.
Maybe she’d been stupid to try to run the second time, but she refused to sit and wait for someone to hurt her, or force her to be someone’s “wife.” At least down here, she was isolated from the kidnappers, and no one had tried to touch her inappropriately.
She was used to being alone—liked it, in fact—but after not talking to anyone for so long, she thought she was literally going crazy. Once or twice, she’d tried talking to the men who appeared above her prison every so often to throw down some stale bread, but they’d simply laughed at her. Asked her why she wasn’t dead yet, then left.
The hole she was in wasn’t that deep. Probably only around seven feet or so. But it might as well have been a mile. She’d tried climbing the walls, but it was impossible to get any traction. And when she jumped, she couldn’t get a good grip on the edge of the hole. It was maddening to be so close to freedom, but not be able to get there.
She’d been let out of the hole only a few times since being forced to climb down a crude, rickety ladder that had been fashioned out of sticks from the forest and fraying rope. Once, she’d been paraded in front of the girls, probably to show them what would happen if they defied their captors.
The last time, she’d been forced to witness the “marriage” of a ten-year-old girl to a middle-aged man. It was sickening . . . and there was literally nothing Molly could do to stop it.
Feeling helpless and hopeless, she rested her head on her updrawn knees. She was going to die here. In the middle of nowhere. All her kidnappers would have to do was throw dirt over the hole—she was already in her grave.
The thought was morbid and depressing, but without being able to get out of the hole, she was as good as dead.
Later that evening, when she was at her lowest point yet, Molly heard something. A sound she hadn’t heard in a week.
In the jungle, the sound of water falling on leaves was surprisingly loud. Standing up in anticipation, Molly tilted her head back, opened her mouth, and waited.
She was rewarded with light droplets at first. Then, without warning, the gentle rainfall changed into a torrent.
Laughing with joy, Molly swallowed as much of the rain as she could. It tasted delicious. Pure and clean. Kneeling, she dug at the hole at the bottom of her prison and watched as it slowly filled with water. It was muddy, but at this point in her captivity, Molly didn’t care. Water was water. She’d drink from the contaminated rivers if only to keep herself alive a little longer.
Next, she stripped off her shirt and cleaned herself as best she could. It had been forever since she’d been truly clean, and the rainstorms that moved through the area were her only chances of removing some of the dirt that had accumulated on her body.
A vision of Andy in the movie Shawshank Redemption came to mind. It was after he’d crawled through the pipe filled with sewage. He’d ripped off his shirt and thrown his head back, letting the rain cleanse him of both the stench from the shit he’d crawled through, and the stink of the prison he’d been unfairly kept in for so long.
That was how Molly felt. Of course, she was in Nigeria in a hole in the ground, and had only been held prisoner for months and not years—and she wasn’t free—but the rain falling over her body somehow felt like a sign from a higher power.
Though . . . that was doubtful. Rarely in her life had she ever thought someone was looking out for her from above. In fact, more often than not—and her grandparents aside—she felt as if she was on her own. Especially when her frequent tough luck again reared its ugly head.
Her grandmother always said that if she didn’t have bad luck, she wouldn’t have any luck at all. She’d even been nicknamed Folly Molly by classmates because of the bad luck that seemed to follow her everywhere.
Even in the middle of a jungle on another continent.
Her grandparents had never used the nickname themselves . . . but they’d also never actually said they didn’t believe it was fitting. They loved her, as she did them, but they all knew she had the worst luck.
However, she’d been at the end of her rope, needing water to stay alive, and now it was raining. Pouring.
Maybe, just maybe, things were looking up, and she could shake the bad luck that had plagued her throughout her entire life.
After struggling to put her shirt back on, Molly sat in the mud at the bottom of the hole. She leaned against the side and tilted her head up. With her mouth still open to catch as much clean water as she could, she closed her eyes.
She wasn’t going to give up. Not yet. The rain had given her flagging psyche a boost. The next time her captors came to get her out of the hole, she would make another attempt to run for it. She wouldn’t stop until she was sure no one was following her. She didn’t care how far she had to walk, she was going to get out of the jungle and back to her grandparents in the suburbs of Chicago. She longed to see Nana and Papa again. They loved and supported her without reservation. Without the hope of seeing them again, without that goal, she might have given up already.
Molly was going to live through this, no matter what. Her death would destroy her grandparents, and she didn’t want that for them. She’d never been the most positive person in the world, but she was beginning to understand that out here, positive thinking was the only thing keeping her going.
Molly fantasized about her reunion with Nana and Papa. She’d barely reach the end of the drive before they’d come rushing outside, eyes watering with joy. They’d hug and cry and then lead her inside. After eating a huge homemade meal, Molly would snuggle into her grandmother’s side, and they’d watch game shows on TV, just as they’d done regularly since Molly’s recent move back into their home. Papa would kiss her on the temple, and Nana would tuck her into bed like she’d done when Molly was younger.
Her grandparents had always been her safe place, and Molly fell asleep thinking about how happy they’d be to see her home at last.
July 13, 2021
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