Bianca Devlin could be accused of many things: working too hard, never making time for herself, being crazy willing to go into dangerous places for good causes. It would go a long way toward explaining why the day before she had been sitting next to a crystal-clear swimming pool, drinking frothy concoctions from fake coconuts with little umbrellas, and today she stood in the middle of the jungle, still wearing her one-piece white bathing suit with its tattered sarong as she dug her own grave.
An unmarked grave in the middle of the jungle didn’t lend itself to an epitaph, but she liked to think they’d go with She meant well, she did her job. Too bad vacation killed her.
Just went to show all those vacation days she’d saved should have stayed in the bank.
“¡Andale!” The sharp shout from the pistol-wielding guard as he motioned for her to get moving roused her from her stupor, and she thrust all of her weight onto the heavy shovel and into the dirt. She’d barely reached a foot of depth. If they really wanted her to dig a six-foot grave, they might be here a while.
Funny, her life might be extended by her inability to dig. Of course, guerilla soldiers who kidnapped small children from resorts then took them by forced march through the jungle to the middle of nowhere didn’t seem to have a lot sympathy for the foolish woman who’d tried to stop them.
Another scoopful of dirt landed atop her paltry little pile. She tried not to grimace at the rubbing sensation of the handle against her slick, sore palms. Her hands were already scraped raw from falling several times during the hard march. Each time she’d shoved herself upward against hard underbrush, jungle growth, thorns, and sharp vines sliced at her bare skin.
Who knew how clumsy she’d have turned out to be in flip-flops? Of course, they weren’t designed for jungle travel. As much as she’d wrinkled her nose at the idea of frozen alcoholic beverages when she arrived at the resort, she’d sell her soul for one right now. Sweat soaked through her bathing suit and slicked her arms and back. She must have smelled absolutely delightful to the insect life fluttering at her constantly. At least a half-dozen bites irritated one of her legs, another nasty one on the inside of her wrist. They all itched horribly.
When the guard snarled something else to her in Spanish, she paused her haphazard digging to look at him.
“I don’t speak Spanish. If you want French, Russian, or Mandarin, great. And yelling at me isn’t going to make me dig any faster.”
With a menacing step toward her, the guard raised his weapon as though he planned to strike her. Her bravado only went so far, and she flinched. Another shout cut him off, thankfully. The guard had already struck her with the pistol once, and she had the bruised and bloody cheek to prove it.
That blow had been earned when she’d tried to shield Collin. The little boy’s tears had earned the ire of their captors, and the guard went to smack him with the weapon. She’d seen stars and tasted blood.
Collin had been terribly brave right up until the moment they separated her from the sobbing child. She had no way to communicate with her captors to tell him she wouldn’t interfere, just let her stay with the little boy so he wouldn’t go through this alone. They didn’t want to hear what she had to say or maybe, like her, they were trapped on the wrong side of translation.
Another man in dirty camouflage joined the first. He didn’t look any friendlier. They snarled and shouted at each other. Without the gun being pointed at her head, she didn’t feel any great hurry to get the task done.
Wearing a fierce expression, the second soldier marched over to her and suddenly jerked the shovel from her hand, gesticulating wildly at the first soldier. When their voices rose, she took advantage of the break to retreat from the two men. If they decided to shoot each other, she didn’t want to be anywhere near them.
Fieldwork in Africa, in the Middle East, and in the Asian subcontinent had made her all too familiar with how fast a poor situation could get worse. The argument escalated, and she warred with watching the two men and keeping her head down. This wasn’t her first rodeo with gun-wielding bullies—a lowered gaze reduced her threat level.
That her life experience included being threatened by everything from military juntas to scavengers, pirates, and rebels should probably tell her she needed a new line of work. At least, she’d had more than one friend suggest she went looking for trouble. Perhaps true, but it was also the downside of what happened when a person was invested in trying to save the world.
Maybe she couldn’t really save the world, but she could save people. She had saved them—inoculations, rebuilding decimated villages, transporting refugees, searching for survivors… And today? Today she’d held a terrified little boy’s hand so he didn’t have to face this nightmare alone.
With another snarled invective, the second soldier flung the shovel into her poorly dug grave, then seized her by the arm. His fingers biting into her flesh hurt like hell. When he dragged her away, she tempered the brief flare of elation.
She had no guarantee wherever he took her would be better.
Bits of foliage snapped at her legs as they cut through the jungle. Even though she hurried to keep up, he kept increasing his pace.
When they reached the village, she studied the collection of mud-brick huts surrounding a central fire pit. It had a tribal feeling to it, hastily constructed and using only local materials. No women or children were visible, just more guerilla soldiers like the one dragging her, a couple of pigs, and one very sad-looking cow. The sun-heated ground left little waves rising in the air, shimmering and waving.
Her captor dragged her right up to one of the little buildings, opened the door, then flung her inside. She landed on the dirt floor. The torn skin on her knee opened up, and pain jarred through her. The door slammed closed—with him on the other side of it—leaving her alone in the hot building.
“Is it you?” Collin’s horrified voice reached her. When she pushed herself up, she turned in the direction of the voice, then suddenly found herself with an armful of little boy.
Wrapping his arms around her neck, he held on fiercely.
“Hey, kiddo, sorry about that. They wanted to see if I was any good at gardening.” Keeping the quip light would hopefully alleviate his fear, even if it didn’t do much for hers.
“They’re going to kill you.” Collin’s voice trembled and climbed. He wasn’t old enough to have gone through the voice-cracking changes of puberty. And she was determined he be allowed to live long enough to endure the perils of said development.
“Not today,” she assured him. Faking confidence she could do. Fake it until she could make it. “What about you? Are you okay?”
She couldn’t really assess his condition in the dusty gloom of the cabin. What windows the place had were closed over by shutters. It stunk of urine, sweat, and what she could only describe as fear.
“Really hungry,” Collin complained. “And there’s water in the corner, but it’s nasty.”
Water in the corner, really? They could both use some fresh water right about now. Her lips were dry and cracked. With all the sweating, she hadn’t had anything to replace the fluid she was losing. In the short term, that was okay. In the longer term, dehydration could do wicked things to the body and mind.
“We’ll take a look at it, shall we?” She rose on shaky feet, and Collin helped. He wouldn’t release her hand, maybe desperate for the security that contact with a stranger provided. Though they really weren’t strangers anymore, were they? She was a friendly face in the hellish destruction erupting into his safe life.
She understood the need. They’d faced the fear once. They could do it again.
Hand in hand, she and Collin walked over to the barrel. A musty, almost brackish smell came from the water. It wasn’t too briny—likely it had just been sitting in the barrel a long time. In these hot conditions, though, that meant insects could be in the water, and the very thought made her skin crawl. Using the hem of her torn sarong, she dipped it in then lifted it to test the fluid against her lips.
Parasites sucked, but she’d have to live long enough to have an issue with it. She also had all of her shots up to date, another perk of traveling the world. If it existed, she’d been inoculated.
“Gross,” Collin announced. His courage seemed to have buoyed with her arrival. Grateful for his colorful response, she still grimaced. The water didn’t taste foul, but it wasn’t pleasant, either. If they could boil it, they’d both be better off.
With her eyes gradually adjusting to the low light inside, she tried to see what they had. A fireplace was inset against one wall, with a funnel leading up—hopefully to release smoke. There was no wood stacked near it. She doubted they had peat…maybe they used dung? If she could get some wood or enough material, she could get a fire started.
In the corner of the room was an oversized box frame with a dilapidated mattress, stained to hell, with no blanket or pillow.
They’d apparently spared no effort in the five-star accommodations.
“Hey, kiddo, are you hurt? Are you bleeding anywhere?” She turned her attention back to Collin. Her leg was dripping blood where she’d torn open the scrape. It hurt like a bitch, but she’d certainly survive.
He shook his head solemnly. “Just hungry. And I don’t want to drink that water.”
“I get it. Let’s see what we can do about making it taste little bit better.” Bianca tried to extract her hand from his grip, but he refused to release her. When his eyes widened, she gave his fingers a squeeze then nodded toward the bed.
“If we can find some wood or debris over there, we can use it for burning.”
Maybe there would be loose boards or something she could chip away. Not that she had any tools, but one problem at a time.
“Start a fire?”
Holding up two fingers, she winked. “Better than a Boy Scout.” Volunteers with Doctors Beyond Borders, her parents raised her to be prepared.
“You couldn’t be a Scout,” he said, a hint of uncertainty in his tone. “You’re a girl.”
“I know, but I know how to make a fire. Want to help?”
“Yes.” A single, sharp nod. The kid’s courage impressed her. Whoever he was, he’d been important enough the guerillas raiding the resort seemed to make a beeline for him. If he was important enough to take, then he would be worth a rescue effort. All she had to do was keep them alive long enough for the cavalry to come and get them.
“I have another job for you first. Think you can handle it?” Even if she got the fire going, they needed something to boil the water in.
His expression brightened at the challenge, and he nodded with more enthusiasm.
“Search through here and see if you can find us something like a cup or a bowl—hopefully metal—that we can put the water in.”
“Okay.” Though he hesitated briefly, he let her go. Collin headed to the other side of their tiny one-room house.
Getting wood off the bed was going to suck, but she gripped the mattress and pulled it out. Something skittered from under the bed and disappeared into the dirt in the corner. Putting the creepy crawlies out of her mind, she forged onward. Wood slats stretched from one side of the bed’s box frame to the other. Bracing her weight on the side with one hand for balance, she slammed her foot down, snapping a slat free.
That was one.
Maybe her boss had been right; maybe she did have a martyr complex. If she got out of here, she’d send him a cookie. But the only thing that mattered was the kid.
She would save Collin or die trying.
Twenty-four hours later…
His wolf stretched within him. His other half was ready, and radiating patience. Today was the day Sergeant Carlos “Cage” Castillo proved his mettle. Funnily enough, his wolf held no concerns or illusions. It was the man who had to concentrate, because today he had his first field command as senior on a four-man field op. He tapped two fingers against his M4 as he sat at relaxed ready in the helicopter hurtling them across the countryside toward La Amistad International Park. They’d deployed from a carrier group currently participating in peacetime exercises in the Caribbean Sea.
“Thirty minutes to insertion point,” the pilot called back. The helicopter dropped lower, hugging the trees and running well below radar. The Central American country they were about to “invade” didn’t have much in the way of military resources. The rich, verdant economy depended on a lot of factors—including tourism.
Time to go to work.
“Review the op,” Cage ordered. Once they hit the ground, they had to move. A full day had elapsed since Collin Valenzuela had been kidnapped from the Amanacer Hermoso resort. Beautiful sunrise…irony.
“Strictly a search and rescue,” Silver acknowledged. The corporal served as his second for the team, as well as sniper. The wolf’s easygoing attitude and sense of honor made him probably the most well-liked member of the whole of Bravo Team WOLF, even if he was also the one most likely to tease the others. “Our target is eight-year-old Collin Valenzuela. His mother is the US Ambassador to Costa Rica. She and her family were at the resort for a function celebrating American investments in the region. It is undetermined at this time if he was the direct target of the assault or taken because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
A hint of a growl underscored Silver’s words. Taking kids rubbed them all the wrong way. Children were to be cherished, protected, and above all else, never used as tools.
“According to Kat’s report, no one has taken responsibility for the kidnapping, no contact has been made with the embassy—also currently on lockdown with the ambassador secured,” Butler said in an even tone, picking up the thread as he leaned forward in his seat. Though his pack lived in Canada, his alpha agreed that protection of pack secrecy overrode nationalism or borders. “Based on satellite surveillance and interviews with the staff, Kat believes we’re dealing with a splinter group hidden in La Amistad International Park.”
Corporal Kaitlyn “Kat” Amador, the team’s intelligence officer as well as mate to the team’s captain, Jax, vetted all of their ops now. Someone somewhere in the government’s hierarchy suspected the team’s origins and capabilities. After running into a trap on a previous op, the team had taken a more circumspect approach. They went where they were ordered, but they wouldn’t go in blind.
“Are we sure only the boy was taken?” This from the fourth and final member of the team, Jeremiah. The dark-skinned wolf had a bland, almost studious attitude, which belayed a vicious and brutal fighter. Though often a man with few words to offer, he didn’t miss much and often zeroed in on nuances Cage or the others might not see.
“Maybe,” Butler hedged. If he had any hesitancy in the answer, it was because Kat’s gut told her something was off. “The resort hadn’t done a full accounting of their guests. The event the ambassador attended also included some two hundred other individuals not staying at the resort.”
“Which means we trust Kat’s gut on this.” Cage didn’t have to explain why. During her initial training with the team, Kat impressed them all. It took a great deal of stamina and character for a human to not only run with the wolves but also prove herself invaluable. She’d done both. “Our primary objective is to rescue the kid. If we find any others with him, we get them out, too.”
They all nodded.
Though he hated the idea of a child in danger, Cage needed to compartmentalize the primitive reaction. Only 110 percent focus on their mission promised to achieve success. “Now for the rub, we each have an item of the child’s in sealed containers. We have no idea where they took him. Satellite imagery didn’t find him, and without more information on his kidnappers, it’s up to us. We’re dropping five klicks from the resort perimeter, but inside the park. We’re going to have to go old school on this and track the kid. Weather may work against us. No rain has been reported in the hours since they took him, but that’s not going to last.”
Cage and his team deployed as soon as they had their orders, but it had taken hours before the request for their Bravo team even arrived.
“Our mission is strictly search and rescue.” Repeating the command might not be necessary, but it also reinforced his control—and his wolf’s. “If we get intelligence on these guys, fine. If we take some out, fine. Once we have the kid, though, we run and get him out.” They could go back later for the mop up.
No argument from the other wolves, not when it involved a child. The team might be comprised of wolves from different packs, some of whom didn’t get along with each other, but on the team they’d become allies and brothers-in-arms. Cage trusted them to have his back and he would have theirs. They would not fail.
Cage wouldn’t allow them to. Not only was the rescue important, but he’d waited too long for the opportunity to prove his value. Jax wouldn’t be captain forever, and Cage had his eye on that position. The son of an alpha, Cage had been born to lead.
“Ten minutes.” The pilot’s warning kicked them into action. Final checks of gear were a habit. They checked before they armed themselves. They checked again when they boarded the helo, and they would review before they rappelled into the jungle. Once they were on the ground, they were on their own.
How they liked it.
Determination and attention to detail paid off in success. This wasn’t their first rodeo. Cage rolled his head from side to side. His wolf had been absolutely silent since they received the deployment orders. It wouldn’t last; it never did. His wolf, like Cage, preferred to assess every situation, weigh the pros and cons, then react. Growing up, he’d never been the wolf most likely to fly off the handle. Pack education required wolves to study with others of equal age—it helped in dominance issues as well as encouraged healthy competition while bonding the packmates. When fights broke out in his year group, it hadn’t been because he couldn’t control his temper.
But he’d finished every fight he’d ever been dragged into.
Twenty minutes after their drop, Silver caught the scent. They’d ventured as close to the resort as possible while remaining out of sight. Their presence was not to be advertised, which suited Cage fine. With four on the team, two traveled on four feet while Cage and Butler moved on two carrying their extra gear and weapons. Though in wolf form his sense of smell would be stronger, they were all more than capable of tracking scent in their human forms. Still, it was better to cover all their bases.
Spreading out, they moved on parallel trajectories. Once Silver identified the scent, they moved to the farthest marker; if the trail suddenly diverted, they would find it. Moving at a sprint, they delved deep into the lowland jungle. There were no paved roads in the park. Access was generally by horse or foot from one of the four Puestos on the Pacific side.
The wild, untouched nature around them left Cage’s wolf hungry for a venture deeper into these jungles, without a mission. He wanted to travel the widely diverse habitats, from tropical lowland rainforest, to cloud forests and the northernmost occurrence of the tundra-like páramo ecosystem in the world. Much of the park has never been explored, which appealed to him on a most basic level.
A sharp whistle from Butler alerted them to the trail’s shifting, and Cage adjusted his course. The four of them had worked together long enough that they navigated the virgin terrain without comment or need for explanation. Cage sorted through the scents twining around the boy’s. Identifying them would take time, but he managed to separate out at least seven males and one female.
A hint of copper rose from the foliage and he paused—the iron-rich scent of blood mingled with a hint of orchid…and coconut oil? Someone had been injured, not badly, but definitely hurt.
Female. His wolf recognized the marker. Maybe a fall or a cut. There were some sharp vines twining through the underbrush. Another mile, and more blood—what the hell were these guys doing to the woman? An unreleased growl rumbled in the back of his throat.
The trail he followed twisted west, so Cage released a shrill whistle, short and to the point. The birds overhead silenced at his call, but he continued, following the scent of blood. It clung close to the boy’s scent, painting a picture. The female’s scent markers overrode the boy’s in some places—likely they moved together, perhaps even hand in hand. The child’s fear clouded the boy’s natural scent—or at least the one they had for a sample—while the female’s resonated with determination.
She’s protecting the kid. They had no details on a missing woman from the resort. Maybe a nanny? Wouldn’t be the first time someone in power overlooked a servant or worker as a potential victim, especially not when the missing was a young child. The parents would be focused on him, and his connection to an ambassador meant they had to focus on him, too.
Hopefully, she’s still alive. Ten miles of twisting paths and overgrown jungle later, Cage settled into the brush and studied the mudbrick huts. Smoke rose from one—a cooking fire maybe. It was too sultry warm in the midst of all the overgrowth to need one for another reason.
A half-dozen men sat around a couple of ramshackle picnic tables, cleaning their weapons, drinking beer, and giving each other shit. Everything about the place cried abandoned. Whoever their targets were, they’d likely co-opted the structures for their use. Most of the men were dirty, some bearded, some not. They all had similar features and skin tone—if they weren’t part of the indigenous people, they likely descended from them.
Silver shifted, then took his gear and settled in a half-mile away on a rise. He could pick off the targets easily from his vantage but waited for a signal. They didn’t plan on taking anyone out until they located the boy.
And the woman… His wolf had roused during their tracking, the blood inciting Cage’s baser, more protective instincts. More men exited one of the huts, though not the one where the smoke continued to rise. These men moved with purpose. Anger radiated off of them. Even those cleaning their weapons quieted at the new arrivals.
Cage studied them, identifying the leader as the bearded fellow in the center with the slicked-back hair and faux camouflage gear. It looked like army surplus and didn’t fit the man well. Holding up two fingers, he spread them apart and focused his attention on that man. Silver would get the signal.
Knowing who was in charge meant the head of the snake came off first.
More men filled the clearing. When their number hit twenty-five, Cage narrowed his eyes. Their four-man op may require a little more finesse than snatch and grab.
Shouting rose from the group; two of the men were arguing. The words carried, and Cage deciphered the Spanish easily enough. The first man wanted a crack at the woman, the second just wanted to shoot her. When it continued to escalate, the bearded leader grabbed one of the guns. He shot the first man, then swung the gun to fire a round at the second.
The woman was still alive.
Silence draped the assembled as the leader swung his gaze over them. Into that hush, the man said in Spanish, “Any other challengers?”
Cage’s wolf sat up within him.
Oh yeah, he had that bastard’s challenger right here.