Nolan Steele had a feeling his life was about to change and that made him damned uncomfortable. Being ex–Delta Force and thirty years old, doing mostly long-term undercover work in Africa, he’d learned a long time ago to listen to his gut. It had already saved his life more than once. He sat down in the mission planning room at Artemis in Alexandria, Virginia, the secret in-house security home for Delos Charities.
He looked around the large room at the two flat-screen TVs on two cream-colored walls, an oval tiger-maple table with ten comfortable black leather chairs surrounding it. He was the first to arrive for the 0900 meeting with Wyatt Lockwood, head of missions for the security company. A male assistant brought Nolan a cup of black coffee and assured him that everyone would be there shortly.
Nolan was eager to see Wyatt in person once again. He knew Wyatt from his Afghanistan days early in his career, and he knew Matt Culver, whose family owned the top-secret security company, even better. Matt, like Nolan, had been Delta Force, and there was always a tight bond between the brothers.
Culver’s call to him from his home in Alexandria was intriguing. Nolan had had no idea this state-of-the-art security firm even existed because Matt had never talked about it. Obviously, it was off the radar, but since Nolan had top-secret clearance while in the Army, he was still surprised he didn’t know about Artemis. The Delos Charities’ security firm had gone dark in the secret world of shadow warriors. Nolan believed that was a wise choice nowadays since terrorists of every stripe were trying to locate such companies and destroy them.
Artemis was well hidden within a nineteenth-century, three-story farmhouse just outside Alexandria. It was surrounded by a working hydroponics farm from what he could tell as he drove in this morning. Anyone passing along on the rural country road would never suspect it was one of the most electronically advanced security companies in the world.
Matt Culver entered the room, a big, welcoming grin on his face and Nolan smiled in return. It was great to see his friend again.
“Hey, Nolan, good to see you.” Matt came around the table.
Standing, Nolan shook his hand and they slapped one another on the back. “Same here, brother.” He looked at the papers and files tucked beneath Matt’s left arm. “This looks pretty serious. Do you have a situation here?”
“We do,” Matt said. He sat down next to Nolan, handing him a mission brief. “Wyatt, Cav, and my sister Alexa are coming in shortly to assist in the briefing.” He walked down to the end of the room and poured himself some coffee from a silver coffee station.
“This is quite a place,” Nolan murmured, noticing the latest high-tech electronics.
“We’re up to speed,” Matt told him, sitting down beside him, sipping his coffee. “We’re in the process of a massive expansion and assembling the right people for positions that need to be filled at Artemis. It’s an ongoing process. My big sister, Tal, is CEO and runs the place.” He grimaced. “I don’t envy her. It’s a tough job.”
“What do you do, then?” Nolan asked. Matt was wearing a bright red T-shirt, jeans, and work boots. The last time Nolan had seen him, which was over two years ago, Matt had worn a beard, but now he was clean-shaven.
“I run the KNR—kidnapping and ransom—division of the Safe House Foundation. It’s one of three branches that Delos created, and we maintain it around the world. My sister, Alexa, is the director of the Safe House branch. On certain types of mission planning, she’s our go-to person and is up-to-speed on everything.”
“Which means there must be a situation or I wouldn’t be here, I assume?” Nolan asked, more curious than ever to learn why he’d been brought here.
Matt gave him a sly look, his gold-brown eyes glinting. “Right on, pardner. How are you doing, by the way? I heard you just got off an Ethiopian operation for the NSC, National Security Agency.”
“Yeah,” he said. Nolan couldn’t say much because in their business, everything was classified.
“It was, ultimately.”
That told Matt a lot. He nodded, and then saw his sister Alexa, looking winded, dash into the room. He smiled. His type-A fraternal twin sister wore her red hair up in a bright pink plastic clip, making her look more like a Virginia farm gal than a top security executive. Right now, the East Coast was in the midst of the dog days of summer to everyone’s continued discomfort.
“Am I late?” she asked, breathless, placing her electronic tablet on the table opposite the two men.
“Nope, you’re right on time,” Matt assured her, looking at the clock on the wall. “Meet Nolan Steele, Alexa. Nolan, this is my kid sister, Alexa.”
Smiling warmly, Alexa reached across the table, shaking his hand after he stood up. “Oh, sit, Nolan. I love it when a man is a gentleman. But around here, it’s a lost art,” she chuckled.
Releasing her hand, Nolan nodded. “Nice to meet you, and yeah, I’m like your brother here—a throwback to the Neanderthal age.” He liked her warmth and sincerity. Her hair made her look a little on the wild side, but hell, red-haired women were always only half-tamed, anyway. Nolan smiled to himself as he sat down.
“I’m here,” Wyatt Lockwood greeted them in his deep Texas drawl, entering.
“Me too,” Cav Jordan called, right on Wyatt’s heels. He turned and pressed a button to close and lock the secure door.
Nolan watched Wyatt sit at the head of the planning table, with Cav on his left, Matt on his right, and Alexa across from him. Matt introduced Nolan to everyone in the room and handshakes were given.
Wyatt stood at the end of the table, half of it comprised of a surface computer built into it. He tapped the touchscreen, turning it on, both wall screens lighting up with photos and intel. “Did Alexa give you the mission brief electronically, Nolan?”
“Yes,” he said, opening up his tablet.
“Okay,” Wyatt said. “The people we have assembled here are directly connected with Mission 025. Your mission, Nolan.” He tapped on a recording device. “And by the way, we record everything here.”
Shrugging, Nolan said, “Fine by me,” and then gave Matt a crooked grin. “I have nothing to hide.”
That brought a collective round of laughter at the table, since they had all been in black ops and had secrets they’d take to their graves. Alexa wrinkled her nose and smiled, shaking her head.
“Yeah,” Wyatt said. “You’re about as transparent as granite. We all know that.” He touched a key and gestured toward the wall screens. “Okay, I’m gonna roll with this mission. Keep your questions until I’m done. I want to give you an overview and then we’ll get down to specifics later.”
Nodding, Nolan appreciated the Texan’s easygoing, yet organized, approach to presenting a mission briefing. “Go for it,” he said, pulling a stylus from his pocket. The mission would automatically be transferred to his tablet so he could follow along.
“We just received a report from Kitra in Sudan. Kitra, which is Arabic for ‘abundance,’ is a Delos Safe House Foundation charity village. It sits about twenty miles southwest of Khartoum, in the desert of central Sudan.”
Nolan studied the map of Sudan up on one of the screens; he was already very familiar with the area because he’d been part of an operation in Khartoum two years ago.
“Ayman Taban, our security chief at Kitra, sent us a report that got our immediate attention last week. One of his staff, who protects Kitra from being robbed by hungry, unemployed Sudanese, spotted Enver Uzan in the slums of Khartoum five days ago.”
Nolan saw a color photo of Uzan appear on the screen. The al-Qaeda operator was dressed in typical Pakistani battle garb, the AK-47 butt resting against his hip. The word “black” immediately sprang to mind, from his obsidian eyes to his black beard and the long, greasy hair draping his narrow shoulders. His expression was angry, his eyes glaring.
“Uzan is an officer in the Pakistan Army, but in reality,” Wyatt said, “he works as a captain for the Pakistani billionaire, Zakir Sharan. He’s sent on a variety of missions to get Sharan’s dirty work done.”
Nolan flicked a look over at Matt. “You killed one of Sharan’s sons, didn’t you?”
Matt nodded. “Yeah, I took out Sidiq in Afghanistan. Tal killed his other son, Raastagar, a year earlier. Sharan’s sworn a blood oath of vengeance against the Culver family and all the Delos charities around the world as a result. You know, of course, that that part of the world believes in ‘an eye for an eye.’ This past June, we asked each director of our charities to send weekly encrypted email reports to us on the political situation in their area, particularly on anything that might threaten them in the region where they are located.”
Alexa leaned forward. “Nolan, we’ve also sent info on Sharan and the mercenaries he employs to do his dirty work to all eighteen-hundred charities. He’s specifically targeting Americans working for them, although he’s sworn to kill anyone who gets in his way. Uzan is an explosives expert. He’s blown up buildings, set fires, and created maximum destruction against his targets.”
Wyatt put another photo up on the screen, this one of Kitra, the village that sat out on the red clay desert of Sudan. “We believe he’s in Khartoum to case Kitra and identify any Americans working there. And he’s looking to either kidnap or murder them. We have no actionable intel yet because Uzan was spotted only once. Ayman is sending out three of his most trusted men into the slums, undercover, to see what intel they can pick up on why this al-Qaeda operative is in Khartoum.”
Cav broke in. “All of us believe Uzan is there to make a statement by attacking Kitra, one of our showcase charities. We’re trying to verify it, but until then, we need you to become a bodyguard for the American business administrator who helps run that charity.”
“Her name,” Wyatt said, “is Teren Lambert.” He posted her photo on the other screen. “She’s twenty-nine years old, an information technology and business specialist, and she’s lived at Kitra since she was twenty-two years old. She’s single, has built an Internet store for the abuse survivors who were taken into Kitra, and taught them how to sew and sell clothing. Teren speaks Arabic and helps Farida, the director of this branch, with all the daily details of keeping a huge conglomerate like this on its feet and thriving. She’s from Somerset, Kentucky, smart as hell, and a computer genius. I talked with her via Skype two days ago. She’s now aware that we’re going to be sending over a security contractor to protect her.”
Alexa said, “And we chose you for this mission, Nolan, because your prior Delta Force experience was in Sudan and Ethiopia. You speak fluent Arabic, French, and some local dialects. You know Sudan like the back of your hand. We need to put someone in there who has that kind of background, and you fit perfectly.”
Nolan nodded, his gaze riveted on the photo of Teren Lambert. Someone had taken the photo in what looked like a barn; she was dressed in a sleeveless tan T-shirt and dark green trousers. This was no glamour shot—she looked sweaty, her brown hair piled messily on top of her head, long strands of it sticking to her high cheekbones. He saw sheep in the background. She had on a leather cuff around each of her wrists, a rope in her hands, and her attention was drawn downward. More than likely, Nolan thought, they were shearing one of the sheep.
It was her profile that made his heart beat a little faster. She looked lean and tall, clearly athletic, judging by the sleek muscled firmness of her arms.
It was the way her full mouth was tightened, those winged brows of hers drawn downward, that look in her stormy-gray eyes, that told Nolan this woman took no prisoners. It was the energy she radiated that said, “I’m not taking anybody’s crap,” that made his mouth faintly curve upward. This was a woman warrior, no question. Her eyes were large and filled with keen intelligence.
His lower body stirred as his gaze settled on that full mouth of hers. Damn, she was sensual and hot-looking, despite where she was and what she was doing. Suddenly, Nolan felt like the heavens had opened up and he’d been given a gift.
The pleasure thrumming through him as he absorbed Teren’s photo surprised the hell out of him. Since he’d lost Linda four years earlier, he’d been frozen emotionally, dead inside. But right now, he felt a river of ice beginning to thaw and slowly snake through him, winding upward and encircling his heart, awakening his feelings once more. His reaction to Teren was deep and intense.
Nolan had seen his fair share of good-looking females in his life, but he’d never had this kind of reaction to any of them—and this was just from a photo!
So what was it about Teren? Was it that aura surrounding her that the photograph couldn’t capture, but that he could feel with his now highly developed intuition? As focused as she was, her mouth gave away her woman’s sensuality in a heartbeat. Teren was earthy. Like the word “terra,” which meant “earth.” That was a mouth that could send him to heaven in a helluva hurry, and Nolan allowed the pleasure of drinking that truth into himself.
Maybe he wasn’t dead after all. Nolan had given up the thought of feeling anything remotely like this again. Like all operators, he knew how to stuff down the darkness until it never reemerged. At the time of his wife’s death, he couldn’t allow it out of that kill box inside him, or he’d have felt an overwhelming avalanche of grief. It had been devastating to lose both Linda and the baby she’d carried. And four years ago, Nolan couldn’t deal with it.
Now, Teren’s photo was popping the rivets off his sealed heart, triggering hope, fanning his sexual hunger and fascination for her as a woman. He’d always favored earthy women. How could one photo affect him this much? He’d never experienced that before.
Now he scowled, fighting down these new feelings so he wouldn’t become distracted.
Then Wyatt flashed another photo of her up on the screen and Nolan groaned inwardly, even more hooked on the woman than before. This photo was a three-quarters view of her face and slender, strong body. This time, she was standing at a dusty table with shearing equipment, white fluffs of sheep hair here and there across its expanse. It was her wide-spaced eyes, a color that he’d seen on the mourning doves near his Virginia farmhouse. Teren had warm slate-gray eyes with black pupils and a black ring around the outer iris, giving her a penetrating look.
Nolan liked intense people. Operators were that way themselves. He tilted his head toward Wyatt, meeting his gaze. “Does she have a military background?”
“No,” Wyatt drawled, grinning a little, “but she looks the part, doesn’t she? When I first saw these photos, I thought for sure she was ex-military. But she’s not. Teren is a civilian, with a two-year community college degree in computer repair and programming. I’ve seen some geeks who have the same look. She writes software programs for Kitra’s business admin needs, plus for their online store, so Teren is a highly focused, disciplined person.”
“Intense,” Nolan murmured in agreement.
“You could say that,” Wyatt said. “She’s a woman on a mission. She’s a type A whose word is her bond, and she gets things done. And she’s a real ass-kicker if she needs to be.”
“You’d have to be,” Alexa added, “because Teren is the business hub and heart of Kitra. We need someone exactly like her there to keep all the balls our charity is juggling presently up in the air.”
“Yes,” Matt told Nolan. “Kitra is more than just a safe house for women. While they take in women and children who have been abused, they have also created since its founding in 1959, a thriving community. It has its own vegetable gardens, a fruit tree orchard, two wells, an electric substation, and a school for the children of these women survivors. Sewing with a treadle machine was introduced by an earlier director, and over time, Kitra established a school to teach women from surrounding villages how to sew as well. Their goods are sold online around the world. Plus, there is a thousand-acre sorghum field that is tended and the sorghum sold annually, which helps continue expansion of all that Kitra undertakes to get these women back on their feet.”
“Kind of reminds me of an Israeli kibbutz, making a Garden of Eden out of a desert,” Nolan said. The photo earlier had shown goats and cattle in pens with a nearby barn. There wasn’t a Sudanese village that didn’t have camels and these other animals as part of their livelihood. Sheep’s wool was used to weave into clothing, goats for milk and meat, and camels for transport—these were the fabric of Sudanese village life.
“Kitra is in a class of its own within Delos,” Alexa added. “Most of our charities are not this huge, but some do grow in this direction, depending upon the country they’re in.” She motioned to his tablet. “In there is the history of Kitra. You’ll see how each director has added to it, expanded it, and how it has become a poster child for all our charities. Kitra shows what can be done with local help and great administrators running things. That’s why our Delos people are so important to us, and why we need to do everything we can to protect them from terrorism in the world we live in.”
“I would imagine,” Nolan said, “that because it’s so affluent and has plenty of food, water sources, and animals, you have a lot of people wanting to come in and steal from it.”
Wyatt grunted. “Yes, which is why Farida, the latest director, hired Captain Ayman Taban when he retired from the Sudanese Armed Forces. She gave him a yearly budget and he hired men he trusted. There’s twenty-four-hour security surrounding this village, and if Ayman’s people weren’t in place, the poor would rob Kitra blind in a day.”
“Make that a few hours,” Nolan replied, knowing too well the squalor and starvation of the people in certain areas of Sudan.
“Either way,” Alexa said, “Ayman has been there for us, and he and his men make a major difference. There are way too many people who would steal food, animals, or equipment from within Kitra and get money for it in Khartoum. It’s an ongoing issue.”
Wyatt said to Nolan, “Ayman was a graduate of the Military College at Wadi Sayyidna, near Omdurman. It’s a well-respected military facility, and I’ve talked to Ayman a number of times about setting up this mission briefing. He knows the lay of the land, the issues, the challenges, and how to keep Kitra safe.”
“And he was the one who also had his man spot Uzan?” Nolan said.
“Precisely. Ayman is a real hawk—he doesn’t miss anything. We all feel you’ll get along well with him.”
“He knows I’m coming?”
“Yes. But to avoid tipping off Uzan or any of his paid spies about who might be in the area, we’ve asked Teren to pick you up at the Khartoum airport. You’ll be undercover as her employee, a second IT person coming into Kitra to help her. That way, it looks normal and won’t raise suspicions.”
“Good plan,” Nolan agreed. He privately liked the idea of being close to Teren. Why? He hadn’t been interested in women except for spending one night in bed with them and then walking out of their lives. Nolan never led a woman on—he was up-front about the fact that he wanted sex for the night and that was it. In the morning, he left. It was all he could handle right now, because inside, he was dead.
Sure, he could give a woman sexual gratification and pleasure, but he’d been unable to share the feelings he knew women wanted and deserved. He felt like a bank emptied of all its emotional currency. But when he looked at Teren’s photo, he felt as if he were looking at a treasure chest he wanted to open, touch, and explore. It was a crazy situation; one he’d never encountered before.
“Questions?” Wyatt asked him expectantly.
Nolan looked at his notes. “Weapons?”
“Our people have cleared it with the Sudanese government. We already have a license in hand to give you so you can carry a concealed weapon at all times.”
“Does their police department know about this situation?”
“No,” Wyatt said. “There’s too much graft and corruption. Cav here has someone inside the government who’s a trusted individual. She’s the one who approved your concealed-carry license. She won’t talk. All this stays at a very high level of their government; it doesn’t trickle down to their police department.”
“Good,” Nolan grunted, “because that place reeks of bribery and other crimes, and there are a lot of gangs in the area.”
“That’s a given,” Cav confirmed. He was their expert on Asia and Africa. He took a folder and pushed it down to Nolan. “Here’s everything you need for weapons use, confirmation that you’re a Delos employee with proper credentials, and any other government-granted documents. There’s an electronic copy that’s been sent to your tablet, as well. You’re not going to get hauled into a police station.”
“Good to know,” he said, taking the folder. Turning his attention to Wyatt, he asked, “What if we get into a firefight with Uzan?”
“Ayman is already in touch with the Sudanese Army, up high with a general. He’s aware of the potential for conflict. And if Kitra gets hit broadside with an attack by Uzan and his mercenaries, the general will be sending in, by helo transport, a quick reaction force—a QRF—to protect Kitra and its people. They already have a detailed plan in place. That’s also in the intel that Cav sent to your tablet. Always go through Ayman for anything you need. Don’t go to the general directly.”
“Got it. Is Ms. Lambert carrying?”
Wyatt shook his head. “No, she’s a civilian.” Then he added, “But Ayman keeps weapons in the armory within Kitra. He’s trained her and she’s a good, solid shot. She has a license to carry but doesn’t. Ayman was a highly respected officer in the Army and he has a powerful network of friends whom he can trust, so Kitra is well off with him there.”
“And Uzan? If I capture or wound him?”
“Ayman will step in and take over. Uzan is a wanted man in Sudan for many reasons, and the government doesn’t want al-Qaeda operatives in their country. They’ve got their hands full with Darfur. They don’t want men like him coming in and stirring up trouble.”
“And I’m to keep Ms. Lambert safe because she’s probably the object of Uzan’s focus?”
“Affirmative,” Wyatt said. “Ayman agrees with our analysis. We figure he’ll try to kidnap her, demand ransom, and later, probably behead her, record the execution on video, and then put it across the Internet.”
“And you want me to case Kitra for potential attacks? Work with Ayman if I spot deficiencies or weak points within the village?”
“Yes. He knows you’re coming and he knows your skills. He’s looking forward to working with you. You’re one more gun in the fight as far as he’s concerned.”
“Sounds good,” Nolan said, closing up the tablet. “I’m ready to kit up and take off.” And he was damn sure no one guessed how much he was looking forward to meeting Teren Lambert at the Khartoum airport.