Lisa Mallory’s marriage from hell ended with her husband’s unsolved murder. Four years later, her eight-year-old son, Jamie, is kidnapped. When every other avenue of finding him fails, she turns to her brother’s best friend. He’s not the man she’d have chosen, but to get her son back, she’ll suffer anything…even the desire he stirs that she’d thought long dead.
Ethan Caine, former Marine/special ops agent, is dealing with his own private hell. All he wants is to be left alone with a bottle of whiskey to drown the guilt of surviving a mission gone wrong. When he finally agrees to go after Jamie, he certainly doesn’t want the boy’s mother slowing him down. Besides, she makes him ache to have her naked and beneath him. Worse, she stirs dreams of the future…something he doesn’t deserve.
Passion explodes between Ethan and Lisa in the exotic Quintana Roo jungle, even as the past and present threaten to steal it all.
Of course it was raining. How fitting that the weather should be miserable.
Lisa Taylor Mallory shifted on the folding chair provided by the cemetery, careful not to move out from under the umbrella held by the funeral home attendant. Next to her, four-year-old Jamie snuggled closer to her, needing the assurance of his mother’s warmth.
Under his own umbrella, Pastor Howard Devol of Mangrove Baptist Church intoned passages from the Bible. He had already eulogized Charles Mallory to the point of sainthood. Lisa clenched her fists and swallowed the nausea that insisted on rising at the back of her throat as she listened to the words.
If you only knew. Just let this be over. Please, please, let us get this over with.
She let her gaze travel over the crowd of mourners. The abundance of black umbrellas nearly formed a canopy over the assemblage. Tampa society’s A List as well as the giants of the financial world were gathered in their best funeral attire to mourn a man whose sins had been swept away in fire at the foot of a mountain.
“Keeping up the myth,” Josh Taylor had told his sister.
This is for Jamie.
He was so frightened by the circus surrounding the death of his father. Lisa wanted him to have closure on what had become an outrageous situation. Despite the devil’s trap her marriage had become, Charles Mallory had always been good to his son. So much so that Lisa had lived in constant fear Charles would one day disappear with him and leave her behind.
Sitting on her other side, Josh squeezed her arm, a signal that this farce would soon be over and everything would be okay. Not exactly the word she’d have chosen to describe the current state of her life. She clenched one gloved hand in her lap. No, okay wasn’t even in the ball park.
At last, the interminable ceremony ended. Josh rose and nudged her to stand with Jamie. The pastor signaled her to come forward. With her brother’s arm supporting her, she stepped over to the casket and took the white rose the pastor held out. She stared at the casket for a long moment, then dropped the rose on its mahogany surface.
In a voice so low only her brother heard it, she said, “Rot in hell, you son of a bitch.”
Four years later
The day was typical February—gray, windy, the sky filled with thudding clouds, the cold insinuating itself into the house. Perfect, for the way she felt.
The air in the room was thick with the same tension that had wrapped itself around her and her brother, Josh, for months. Today was Jamie’s birthday, and she was about to lose it altogether. She’d spent the morning hugging her favorite picture of him and crying until her throat was raw and she was sick to her stomach. She had barely survived a destructive marriage and the scandal that followed her husband’s murder. After four devastating years, she’d finally gotten her life and her son’s back on track. Now, it was all going to hell again. She wanted to scream, a combination of fear and frustation sitting like a lead ball in the pit of her stomach.
At the moment, she was pacing back and forth in her living room, hugging herself to ward off the chill that even the fire blazing in the hearth couldn’t chase away. Even the warm peach and blue of the comfortable living room couldn’t dispel the air of gloom hanging in the air.
Josh had just delivered the news that Guardian Security, in its search for Jamie, had come up empty. She was already teetering on the edge of nervous collapse, and the suggestion she’d made didn’t help her state of mind.
“Please ask him again,” she begged. “I thought Ethan Caine was such a good friend of yours. Best friends,” she stressed.
“We are.” Josh nodded. “He is.”
“Then why did he turn you down when you asked him to find Jamie?”
The terror of Jamie’s kidnapping three months ago, the shooting at the ransom drop, and not a word about Jamie since then had every nerve on her body on edge. She knew she was a mess. She’d lost weight, and it didn’t help that Josh kept telling her it was something she could ill afford. When she looked at herself in the mirror, her skin was so pale it was almost translucent. Dark shadows under haunted eyes, like purple bruises, were a testament to her lack of sleep.
With the passing of each week and no news about her son, her degree of desperation rose. As first, the F.B.I. and then Guardian Security had come up empty-handed, and her defenses crumbled. Sometimes she could even smell the fear that clung to her. How much longer would it be until she snapped altogether?
Josh’s voice broke into her thoughts. “I know this is a tough day for you, but you’re making yourself sick. Come sit down. Please. Let’s talk about this.”
She stopped pacing, her too-thin body vibrating with unexploded rage. “I’m already sick, Josh, and have been since the day they took my baby. And the man you asked to help find him, the man you say is the best in the business, who is supposed to be your friend, flat out said no. What kind of friend is that?”
“I told you. He’s in a terrible place right now. His last op was such a disaster he walked away from everything, carrying a load of guilt that doesn’t belong to him.” Josh’s jaw tightened. “I was really pushing it to go to him, but I thought…”
“That your friendship was stronger than it is?”
Josh shook his head. “That he could pull himself out of that dark place to help us. I apparently misjudged.”
When Jamie was taken, Josh reached out to Ethan right away. The man was back in town, having left whatever he had been doing for the previous several months, but had locked himself away from the world in his house. Josh had been upset when Ethan turned down the request, but he just made excuses for him. His next call was to Guardian and the agency had jumped right on it but with no results. Now, Josh was planning to try Ethan again, and Lisa was terrified the man would refuse this time, also.
“Do you think he’s better now?” Lisa twisted her hands together. “That he’ll listen? Maybe I should go with you. I might—”
Josh shook his head. “No. I’m going to call in the big guns to help me. To make him see he’s the right man—the only man—for this job.”
“Tell me again why you think that.” She tried to tamp down the desperation in her voice.
“Ethan Caine is a former Marine and veteran of Guardian Security, so expert at what he does that the government pulled him away from Guardian and tapped him to lead an off-the-books black ops group. He can reach out to people no one else can even get near. Dig into corners closed off to everyone else. No one else has the contacts or the dark skills he does. This time, I’m not walking away until I make him see that.”
She stood at the window, seeing nothing, thoughts tumbling around in her mind. The unusual friendship between the gruff warrior and the middle class icon still baffled her. On the surface, they had nothing in common. She wasn’t even sure how they’d come together in the Marines—Ethan a noncommissioned officer, Josh a lieutenant. Still, somehow, an instant friendship had been forged, the kind people seldom found—solid and secure. When Josh finished his tour with the Marines and returned home, he had changed in subtle ways. He was tougher, harder, not the nerdy techie she’d grown up with. His muscles now had muscles, and he was a topnotch marksman, two things that still shocked her.
Both men left the Marines at the same time, Josh to come home to a job with a software company and Ethan to Guardian Security, whose roster of agents included former Special Forces—SEALs, Delta Force, Force Recon Marines.
The fact that Josh and Ethan lived in the Tampa area had been one more string tying them together, along with the fact they’d both lost their parents. Ethan’s had left him a house out in the boonies, a place where he could disappear when he needed to. Josh would hang out with him there, sometimes persuading the man to catch a football game or go fishing. He even spent time on target practice with Ethan. Target practice! She still had trouble visualizing Josh as someone who had that kind of skillset.
But the friendship persevered. When Josh wanted to leave TechnoSoftware to open his own company, Ethan bankrolled the entire venture. With cash. Lisa still wondered what the source was of all that cash. He had also been the conduit for Josh’s subsequent connection to Guardian. When the agency’s computer system needed an overhaul, he recommended Josh who had delivered in spades. Now he and the Guardian partners had also become good friends.
Then, without warning, Ethan left the agency and disappeared off the radar. All Josh would tell her was the man had been tapped by the government to become part of some secret operation for years—the blackest of black ops—and even that much she wasn’t supposed to know.
Until one day, he just came home and locked himself away in his house.
Lisa had never cared for him personally. He might be a man who served his country well, but the few of times she’d been in his company, she found herself turned off by his rough personality, the sloppy appearance he had adopted and his apparent lack of courtesy.
“You said you’re calling in help to convince him. Are you talking about Guardian?”
Josh nodded. “They’re really upset they failed in their attempt, and usually there isn’t anything they can’t handle. They’re really pissed that they couldn’t find a trace of Jamie or a clue as to who took him. But they said from the beginning I should get Ethan. They were stunned he turned me down. I called Nick this morning. He and Reno are flying out here to see him with me, hoping maybe that would help.”
She raked her fingers through her hair, as if she could push the whole thing away. “When will they get here?”
Josh looked at his watch. “In about two hours. They’ll call when they land, and we’ll arrange to meet up.”
Her lip trembled. “Do you think maybe Jamie really is dead?”
“Don’t go there,” Josh said. “He’s not dead. Hang onto that.”
Lisa was almost afraid to verbalize the other thought rolling around in her brain. “What if Ethan’s not any good anymore? What if whatever sent him into hiding destroyed all his skills? If he’s such a mess, would he even be able to function in such a situation that was likely to bring back bad memories?”
“He’s been dealing with a situation,” Josh told her in a quiet voice, “but he’s still the best in the business.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t ask him at all. Maybe this is a mistake and he’s just a big phony.” Her stomach knotted at the thought that her last chance might be a big fake. “Who was he working for when he disappeared, anyway? The CIA? Or was it the NSA? Or maybe the DEA. Maybe he quit Guardian to become a mercenary. God! Maybe he was in prison and that other is just a story he concocted. Maybe he’s even on drugs. Maybe that’s the problem, and we’re lucky he turned us down. Although where would we go next?”
“Stop it.” Josh’s voice was sharp. “That’s absurd. None of that is the truth.” He grabbed her hands and squeezed them. “We need him and his particular skill set.”
“I know. I’m sorry. Right now I’d deal with the devil if it got Jamie back.” She swallowed a hysterical giggle. “And I guess that’s what we’re trying to do.”
“If you want to look at it that way, fine. Just remember. We said from the beginning there’s something weird about this whole kidnapping thing. You’ve heard nothing since the ransom was paid and no one’s been able to find even the smallest trace of him.”
“I know.” Tears threatened again, but she took a deep breath to steady herself. “That’s what I don’t understand. And I refuse to believe he’d dead. I just can’t, Josh. I can’t.”
“I think he’s alive, too, kiddo. I’m pretty sure that’s why they tried to kill you so you wouldn’t be able to look for him. I’m not going to let up until Ethan accepts that, no matter his state of mind.”
“Good. That’s good. I just wish he was…” She threw up her hands in a helpless gesture.
“Was what? Like other people? If he was, he wouldn’t be able to do the things he does.” Josh gave her a hard stare. “And maybe that’s what’s needed in this situation. The fact that he isn’t like everyone else is what makes him so valuable. He goes places and knows things no one else does.” He sighed.
She swallowed and scrubbed her hands over her face, shoulders slumped in defeat.
“I hate him for turning us down before, but I want my son back more than I want to breathe. So yes. Please. Go to him and beg him. And I’m glad Nick and Reno are willing to help with this.” She paused. “What if he’s not sober? You said you worried he’s been living in a bottle since he got home.” She blinked as an unwanted thought stabbed her brain. “What if he got drunk on his last assignment and botched the whole thing? Maybe that’s why he can’t handle what happened.”
Jamie might be alive, and Ethan Caine might do something stupid that would get her son killed.
“I said maybe. Anyway, I’ll never believe that. He always preached that whiskey and work didn’t mix. He’s wrestling with a lot of demons right now, but that doesn’t mean he can’t do the job. If you believe anything I tell you, believe that. Please.”
She looked at the framed picture of Jamie she was still holding, and tears trickled down her cheeks. “Okay.”
Josh pulled her into his arms, picture and all. She tried to let his belief in his friend reassure her.
“Whoever took our boy is way out of the mainstream or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Ethan is exactly the kind of person we need to look into this, and I won’t stop until I make him understand that.”
Lisa grabbed a tissue from the box that had taken up residence on the little side table and blew her nose. “Damn Charles, anyway. I know this has something to do with him.”
Josh’s mouth thinned at the mention of his late brother-in-law. “I know, kiddo.”
Lisa blew her nose again and cursed the day she’d ever met the man. Ten years ago, Aaron Burke, senior partner in one of Tampa’s top law firms, where she was an up and coming associate, introduced her to his new client. The man with the financial golden touch and blinding good looks zeroed in on her like a long-range sniper and hit the mark.
Have lunch with me, Lisa. I’ve seldom met a woman with your mind.
Let’s go to dinner, Lisa. In Paris. The plane is waiting.
Come to the Keys with me. I’ll teach you to scuba dive.
God, Lisa, I never thought I’d meet a woman with your passion. Being inside you is like sliding into a flame.
I want you in my life, Lisa.
Marry me, and I’ll give you the moon.
She’d been so uncharacteristically besotted with him she walked away from a growing reputation as a hotshot corporate lawyer to become a wife and mother because that’s what Charles wanted her to do.
Plenty of time to practice law again later on, he told her.
Later on. She never knew exactly what that meant, and while she tried to figure it out, the nightmare began. Hell would have been a relief. Even Josh hadn’t been able to help her.
“Let me get you out of this,” Josh had begged over and over, whenever she was able to see him.
“I can’t leave,” she cried. “He’ll take Jamie away from me. He swore it. Josh, he has the money and power to do it.”
And then, like a cross-eyed blessing, Charles was killed. Was it any wonder she rejoiced at his death?
“Lisa.” Josh’s voice cut into her thoughts. “Are you listening to me?”
She shook herself out of her dark reverie. “What? What did you say?”
“I said, ‘I wish the papers hadn’t made such a big deal out of the ten million dollar life insurance policy. Or that it was left in trust for Jamie’s welfare.’ Coverage like that gives every nutcase ideas.”
“When the policy surfaced, the police were just so damn sure I’d killed Charles for the money,” she reminded him. “If Aaron Burke hadn’t produced the change of beneficiary form I’d still be sitting in jail.”
“Burke.” Josh said his name like it was a bad word. “It frosts my ass that Charles made him the trustee and not you.” He made a rude noise. “That old bastard. I never trusted him, and I still don’t.”
Lisa stared at the pictures of her son again. “At least he turned over the money for the ransom without arguing.” She fought back the tears that were ready to spill again. “And now someone’s got both Jamie and the money.”
She pulled in a deep, shuddering breath. She had to get hold of herself. Falling apart wasn’t helping anything.
Josh put his hands on her shoulders and squeezed gently, his lifelong sign of reassurance. “We’ll get him back, I promise.”
“How will I pay him? Jamie and I…” She stopped and swallowed, fighting for control “I get along okay, you know that, but what if he wants some enormous fee? And you can’t keep paying the freight. I could always sell the house, and—”
“Stop it. Would I balk at anything if it might get Jamie back?” he asked in a soft voice. “Anyway, he doesn’t need the money. That’s something he’s got in abundance. And he won’t take it any more than Guardian did. We’re friends, Lisa. All of us. That counts for more than money. The minute Nick and Reno get here, we’ll be on the job.”
“So what will the three of you do? Go to Ethan’s house and just walk in on him?”
“Maybe. We’ll strategize and figure out the best approach.”
Her heart pinched at the thought of what might be happening to her son while they were doing this. Or might have already happened. She balled her hands into fists to control the rising tide of anguish.
“Can I ask you one more thing? About Ethan? Just so I can try to understand where he’s coming from?”
Josh laughed. “Sure, but if you do, you’ll be the first person who does. He really does have his reasons for, as you say, hiding out in the farmhouse.”
“Like what?” she demanded. “You have to tell me, because I’m still struggling with the fact he turned you down before.”
“Okay. I guess there’s nothing for it but to tell you what I can, but don’t jump to any conclusions.” Josh shoved his hands into his pockets and stared off toward the window, although the look in his eyes was far away. “Ethan’s last op went bad—very bad—because someone lied and someone else leaked details of their mission. They were betrayed, and innocent people were killed, as well as everyone on Ethan’s team except him and one other person. It about destroyed him. He still blames himself. He walked away and has been hiding away ever since.”
“An op went bad?” Her eyes widened. “And this is the man we think is our last best hope?”
“Did you hear me say it wasn’t his fault? It won’t happen this time. I promise you that. The people who betrayed him are not involved.”
She chewed her bottom lip, a nervous habit she’d developed since she’d been shot. “You’re right about one thing. If he gets Jamie back, that’s all that counts.”
“I’ll hold you to that.”
The ringing of the phone pierced Ethan’s brain like a heated arrow. He pulled a pillow over his head and tried to bury himself under it. When the ringing stopped, he removed the pillow, but the abrasive sound began again almost at once.
“Damn it!” This time, he struck out with his hand at the offending instrument on the floor beside him, sending it skittering away from the bed. The ringing stopped, but then, in a second, it began again.
He depressed the Answer button. “Go away,” he shouted at it. “I don’t live here anymore.”
“Ethan? Get your ass off what passes for your bed and pick up the phone.”
The voice penetrated the blurry state of Caine’s mind, and he blinked. He picked up the phone and held it to his ear, rubbing his eyes. “Reno?”
“Yeah, old man. It’s me. Are you deaf?”
“If only.” Caine rubbed his hand over his face, grimacing as he felt the tangling in his beard. When the hell had it gotten so long?
“Get up. We need to talk to you.”
“Jesus, Reno. I look and smell like something the dog left on the porch, I don’t even know what day it is, and you want to talk? And who the hell is we? You got a crowd out there?”
“Yeah. Ethan, this is serious.” The teasing note left Reno’s voice. “Your friend—” he stressed the word—“needs your help, and I can’t believe you turned him down.”
Caine lay back down on the mattress. He’d never gotten around to buying an actual bed for himself once he’d moved back into this shell of a house, and by now, he’d decided he didn’t need one.
“I told him, I’m out of the business. Any business.”
“God damn it, Ethan.” There was no humor in Reno’s voice now. “Get your head out of your ass. Nick and I just flew into Tampa, and we all need to meet with you. How about opening your front door? I’d ring the bell, but it might be booby-trapped.”
“We all? What do you mean by all? You mean you and Nick? You’re here? At my house?” Ethan rolled to his feet and went to look out the front window. Sure enough, there was a fucking car in his driveway. Shit, shit, shit.
“Go away,” he growled.
“And Josh is with us. We’re not leaving until you open the door.”
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
He might as well give up and give in, because he knew none of the men out there would. He unlocked the front door then went to the kitchen to fix coffee.
“Got some of that for us?” Reno had come up behind him.
“Help yourselves. Cups are in the cupboard.”
When they all had their coffee, they carried it out to the front porch, a much less depressing place to sit and talk.
“Okay,” he told them, “make your pitch. But you might as well accept the fact that I’ve lost it. I’m not worth shit to anyone anymore. Last time…”
“I know what happened last time,” Nick told him. “The blame isn’t yours, and I wish you’d get that through your fucking stupid brain. It’s not on you.”
“This is really important, Ethan.” Reno’s voice was all business, something Ethan caught right away. “I mean damn important. I wouldn’t ask you otherwise.” Another pause, then, “Please.”
Please? Reno never said please. It was always all business. When Ethan had worked combined missions with Guardian, the man gave the orders and the agents carried them out.
He groaned and looked at Reno, then Nick. “This must be damn important to get both of you here.”
“It is,” Nick agreed. “We’re here to make sure you help the best friend you’ve ever had.” There wasn’t even a touch of humor in his voice.
Ethan turned his gaze to Josh. “And this must be some fucking bad trouble your sister is in.”
“I told you. Her son’s been kidnapped. The ransom was paid, but it’s three months later and Jamie hasn’t been returned.”
He didn’t want to tell them the first time around he’d hardly paid attention. He sipped his coffee. Was this Fate’s way of telling him he had a chance to redeem himself? What if he failed? This was Josh he was talking about, his best friend in the entire world. Did he still have the balls to do it? Only one way to find out he supposed. This was his acid test.
“I want her to ask me.”
Josh stared at him. “You want what? Who?”
“I want your sister to ask me herself. If I’m going to put my ass on the line again—and I said if—I want to know who I’m really dealing with.”
“You’re dealing with me,” Josh told him, then pointed to Reno and Nick. “Us. All of us.”
“Is it your kid? No. I want a face-to-face with the kid’s mother.”
Josh started to say something, but Reno held up a hand.
“Fine. We’ll set it up. Lunch tomorrow. The Club.”
“The Club?” He ran his tongue over his teeth, wondering when he’d last brushed them. “Damn, Reno, I’m in no shape to go anywhere right now, let alone a fancy restaurant.”
“Well, we’re not bringing her out here,” Nick told him. “We’ll do anything but that, although she’d probably do it if we asked. She’ll do anything to get her son back.”
“The Club. Jesus Christ and all the angels.” He sighed. “Okay, okay.”
These three men had been good friends to him, over and above any business arrangement. They hadn’t said no when he’d reached out to them for help. When one mission had nearly gone tits up, Reno and Nick had provided the additional support he needed. He, at least, owed them an hour for lunch. Not that he had anything else to do.
“Noon tomorrow,” Reno said. “We’ll make the arrangements.”
Ethan stood on the porch and watched them get in the car and drive away. So Josh’s nephew had been kidnapped. Whatever it was, he’d bet it had something to do with the asshole piece of shit his sister had married.
Hell. He hated situations like this. If he didn’t like Josh so much, think of him as better than family, he wouldn’t even be doing this. The few times he’d been around Lisa Mallory, she acted as if he wasn’t even fit to wipe her shoes on. At least Reno and Nick would be there to run interference.
He stood up and looked around. He wasn’t excited about lunch at The Club but better than bringing her here. The dilapidated state of the rambling farmhouse that had been in his mother’s family for generations suited him just fine, but it wasn’t meant for company.
The property matched both his physical condition and his state of mind. He cleaned—in a manner of speaking—only when he was in the mood. The weeds and native grasses growing wild in the ten acres that remained of the family property were constant reminders of the untended state of his life. And the nightmares that never seemed to go away. A state he’d become comfortable with.
In the bathroom, he stripped off the sweat pants he’d slept in, then turned on the shower full force. While the water heated, he stared at the face in the mirror over the sink and wondered who the hell he was anymore. He’d seen things that made Hell look like Heaven, and done things that robbed better men than he was of their sanity. His body was covered with the scars from his many battles. How he’d survived was still a mystery.
He thought again about that last op, the one that had turned to eighteen kinds of shit. It didn’t matter how many people told him it wasn’t his fault. He was still the one who’d been there with the dead and dying.
Sighing heavily, he stepped into the shower, wishing the hot water could wash away the blackness in his soul.