She walked away once...
When ER nurse Kristi Chang met former Army Ranger Malik Jones in Antarctica eighteen months ago, they agreed to sex with no strings. She had no idea that Malik would turn out to be the most fun she'd ever had. Or that a big, bad soldier could be so sweet. Or that she would still be thinking of him more than a year later. Now working with an international aid organization in Nigeria, Kristi regrets letting him go. When gunmen suddenly attack and tear her from her medical unit and force her at gunpoint to care for their leader, she knows she'll have to use her wits if she wants to stay alive. She warns her captors that she's married to a Ranger named Malik who will kill any man who touches her. If only that were true...
Now he'll do anything to free her...
Malik hasn't forgotten a single incredible moment he spent with Kristi. When he gets the news that she's been abducted, he is gutted and wants to get Cobra's guns into the fight to free her. A veteran of more than a few rescues, he knows only too well how brutal captivity can be for a woman and wants to get her out of there as soon as possible. But the State Department decides to let local authorities handle the situation and gives Cobra a different assignment, leaving Malik no choice but to quit the job he loves to go after Kristi himself. But locating her in an area bigger than the state of Texas and freeing her from a band of ruthless killers by himself isn't going to be easy.
But the threat is greater than they realize...
When Malik appears out of nowhere and saves her life, Kristi thinks she's dreaming. As she recovers from her ordeal, the heat between them once again flares into passion. This time, however, it's not just about lust and physical pleasure. Their hearts are on the line. But in rescuing Kristi, Malik has kicked the proverbial hornet's nest, unleashing the wrath of a ruthless criminal organization bent on revenge. It will take all of their strength and skill to survive—and turn this second chance at romance into the love of a lifetime.
Read an excerpt below...
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CHAPTER ONEKinu Village
Kaduna State, Nigeria
Eighteen months later
Kristi Chang opened the plastic vial with gloved hands and squeezed the cholera vaccine into the mouth of a sweet little girl who couldn't have been more than five. "What a great job you're doing. You're standing so still."
When every precious drop was in the child's mouth, Kristi tossed the vial into the trash, watching to make sure the girl swallowed. "All done."
She was lucky that most people in Nigeria spoke at least some English, the country's official language. She spoke fluent Mandarin and decent Spanish—two languages that were useless here. In rural areas like this, people were more likely to speak Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba—or any one of the more than five hundred languages and dialects native to the country.
The little girl gave her a shy smile.
"Now, it's your mama's turn." Kristi opened another vial and stood to administer it to the little girl's mother, who was visibly pregnant. "You're all done."
Normally, they might hesitate to administer cholera vaccines to pregnant women, but these weren't normal times. The risks to a woman's fetus or her pregnancy from cholera far outweighed any risk from the vaccine.
It had been a long, wet rainy season, and Nigeria was in the midst of a cholera epidemic that had already left hundreds of people dead of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. Rural areas in Kaduna State had been hit especially hard. Kristi was here with four others from her mobile medical unit and a group of Nigerian public health volunteers to vaccinate as many villagers as they could and to provide whatever medical care might be needed.
Rural parts of the country often lacked access to basic medical care, so their team came prepared for everything, complete with a van equipped as a mobile operating room. Kristi, as one of only two registered nurses, spent most of her time assisting Dr. Adamu. So far today, she had treated several people for malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV, and assisted the surgeon in removing a teenager's inflamed appendix.
Still in her blue surgical scrubs, Kristi was filling in for Chinara, one of the Nigerian volunteers, who was taking a very late lunch break. The long line snaked out of the tent, proof that the village health coordinator had done an excellent job getting out the word. They'd brought eight hundred doses of the vaccine, but now Kristi worried that it might not be enough.
""Hey, there." Kristi smiled at a young boy, who opened his mouth for her like a baby bird. She emptied the vial onto his tongue. "Well done."
She worked as quickly and efficiently as she could, keeping the line moving while still doing her best to make each person feel seen. Every vaccine she delivered meant another person who wouldn't become a victim of this epidemic. She loved being a nurse, loved knowing that her work made a real difference in people's lives. Though she fell into bed exhausted every night, the nine months she'd spent in Nigeria had been the most rewarding of her nursing career.
Antarctica was a close second but for reasons that had nothing to do with nursing and everything to do with a certain sexy operative. She hadn't heard from Malik since the day he and his team had flown off, but then they had agreed to no strings. Kristi had wanted to ask Samantha for his email address—her fiancé, Thor, worked with Malik—but each time, Kristi had stopped herself.
If Malik wanted to get in touch with you, he would have done it already.
It was then she noticed him—a tall wiry man in a red T-shirt, a green vest, and tattered jeans. He watched her as she worked, his gaze never leaving her. Maybe she was the first person of East Asian descent he'd seen, though Nigeria did have a small Chinese minority. Focused on her work, she put him out of her mind until he stood before her.
He was much taller than she was, so she handed him the vaccine and told him what to do, letting him squeeze it into his mouth. He dropped the empty vial into the trash bin. "Are you a doctor?"
"No, I'm a registered nurse." She twisted off the top of the next dose, expecting him to step aside.
He remained where he was, something in his gaze making her uncomfortable. "You take care of the sick?"
"I care for patients and help the doctors." She stepped back, glanced over at the entrance toward the security guard. "If you need medical help, you can find that in the next tent. This tent is for vaccines only. Excuse me."
He raised two fingers to his mouth and gave a sharp whistle that made her jump.
Gunfire exploded outside the tent, women and children screaming and dropping to the ground. Adrenaline hit Krist's bloodstream in a rush. She would have gotten down like the others, but a strong arm encircled her neck, cutting off her breath.
He spoke directly into her ear. "Where are your tools and supplies?"
They were being robbed.
She'd been told not to resist in case of an attack, so she pointed, choking out the words, "Next...tent."
The bastard shouted something in a language she didn't know and dragged her toward the door, arm still around her throat.
Was he abducting her?
Oh, hell, no.
Enraged and terrified, Kristi clawed at his arm, tried to bite him, tried to twist away, her pulse pounding in her ears.
"Come with us, or we will kill all these people!"
She fought to answer him. "I ... can't ... breathe!"
He loosened his grip but didn't release her, muffled sobs following them outside.
The security guards lay dead in the dirt, men whose faces were hidden behind balaclavas and bandanas pointing large rifles at the terrified crowd.
Were they Boko Haram?
No! Shit. Shit. Shit.
"In that tent?" he asked.
"Yes." She swallowed her fear. "I'll get you whatever you need, but don't kill anyone else. You didn't need to kill anyone."
"Shut your mouth, woman." He drew her into the medical tent, stopped, looked around, two of his buddies following them inside, rifles raised.
Patients huddled together. Those in beds stared, wide—eyed.
"Wh-what do you need?" Was this really happening? "You won't find it without my help."
He let her go. "We need to treat a bullet wound that has gone bad."
Kristi fought back her fear, let her training carry her. "Where is the wound? Is the bullet still there?"
He hesitated, as if this were secret information. "The bullet is in his leg."
Infection. Blood loss. Tissue damage.
"You could have just brought him here. We would have treated him without asking questions." She picked up a bag and opened one plastic supply crate after the next, packing things into an empty duffel bag.
Gunshot wound kit with hemostatic bandages. Drain kit. Trauma kit. Sterile gloves. Oral antibiotics. Oxycodone. Suture kit. Lidocaine gel. IV kits. IV fluids and broad-spectrum IV antibiotics. A pre-op scrub kit with extra sponges. Ibuprofen and Tylenol for fever. A vial of Versed. Syringes.
There was O-neg blood and plasma in the surgical van, but she wasn't about to lead the bastard to where Dr. Adamu was working.
She held out the bag. "That's everything you need."
He grinned, grabbed her by her hair. "You're coming with us."
"No!" Kristi fought to hold her ground, her mouth dry, her heart flailing in her chest. "Let...me...go!"
If they took her away, she would likely never see home again.
But he was stronger than she was. Fist in her hair, he pulled her along with him to a battered white SUV, rough hands pushing her into the back seat. Men with rifles climbed in beside her, one firing his weapon into the air and laughing at people's terrified responses. Then someone put a hood over her head—and the vehicle began to move.
Malik Jones parked in the garage at Cobra HQ, jogged to the elevator, and punched the call button with the side of his closed fist, rage thrumming in his chest.
Kristi had been abducted. Assailants had attacked her mobile medical unit, killing the security guards and taking her by force. Witnesses said one of the attackers had threatened to kill her patients and had dragged her away by her hair.
Fuck! Son of a bitch! Damn it!
Malik wanted to find him—and rip him to pieces.
He had gotten the news twenty minutes ago from Samantha, who'd heard it from Kristi's parents, who'd just gotten word from the State Department. They'd said it had happened at about three in the afternoon Nigerian time—five hours ago—but they had no idea who had taken her.
If it was Boko Haram...
Malik had gone up against those fuckers in a few covert ops in his Army Ranger days. They had no respect for human life and treated women like chattel, kidnapping young girls, raping them, forcing children into sham marriages, and killing those who refused. They abducted boys, too, using them as child soldiers and unwilling suicide bombers. If they had Kristi, they would hurt her, and, eventually, they would kill her.
He punched the call button again. What the fuck was taking so long?
Malik wanted to find Kristi—and kill every bastard who'd been part of her abduction. If he had anything to say about it, he and the rest of the Cobra crew would be wheels up in a few hours, bound for Lagos.
He should have stayed in touch with her. Not a day had gone by since leaving Antarctica when he hadn't thought of her. So many times, he'd come close to sending her an email. Every time, he'd stopped himself. They had agreed to no strings, and there was no chance that they could be together. He'd figured his feelings for her would fade with time and distance, but they hadn't. And now...
He'd warned Kristi. He'd told her to go somewhere else—Botswana or Tanzania. As beautiful and vibrant as Nigeria was, it wasn't safe. Boko Haram was to blame for most of the brutality Malik had witnessed, but not all of it. Corrupt special police, so—called bandits, and drug rings committed their share of atrocities, too. That's why Cobra had been tasked so many times with protecting US government representatives and business executives who traveled there.
The elevator car arrived with a ding, the doors opening to reveal Elizabeth Shields, Cobra's head intel analyst, who was perusing something on a tablet.
She looked up. "Hey, Malik."
Malik didn't wait for her to exit the elevator but stepped in and punched the button for the top floor. "Come with me. I'm going to speak with Tower. You should be in on this."
If she was surprised, she didn't show it. "What's wrong?"
The elevator began to move.
"Do you remember Kristi Chang?"
"The name is familiar." Shields' brow furrowed. "The op in Antarctica, right?"
"Yeah." Malik did his best to seem calm. No one but Thor Isaksen, Lev Segal, and, of course, Samantha knew that he and Kristi had hooked up during that assignment. "She's been working as a nurse in Nigeria for the past nine months. She was abducted from a mobile medical unit by armed assailants about five hours ago."
"Oh, shit. Do they know who did it?"
Malik shook his head. "No, not yet."
"How did you find out?"
"Samantha. She and Kristi are pretty close."
Shields nodded. "Oh. Right."
"I want Cobra to get tasked with this job."
Shields didn't seem surprised. "I suppose that could happen."
She didn't understand.
"I want Cobra to make it happen. We came to Glasgow to help you and McManus when you were knee deep in shit, remember?"
"Yes, but we're Cobra operatives, and there was a terrorist connection. The Brits invited Cobra to join in. Kristi isn't an employee of the company or someone's spouse."
"She's a friend. She helped save Isaksen's life—or have you forgotten?"
The elevator doors opened, and Shields followed Malik to Derek Tower's office. One of Cobra International Security's two owners, Tower was a former Green Beret and a hard-as-nails badass. Malik respected the hell out of him—even if he could be an asshole.
Shields paused at the door. "I think he's in a meeting."
Malik didn't give a damn. "Kristi's life is on the line."
Tower called out to them. "Come back in five—"
Malik opened the door and stepped into Tower's office.
"Malik!" Shields whispered.
Malik had interrupted his boss in the middle of a video chat with his little girl, Layla. The three-year-old looked down at her father from the large flat-screen monitor, dressed in some kind of dinosaur costume, a sparkly blue tiara on her blond head.
"This must be important." Tower glared at Malik then looked up at his daughter, his voice going sweet and gooey. "Okay, Princess T-Rex, Daddy has to go now. I'll see you tonight. Be good for your mommy, okay?"
Malik and Shields shared a glance, Shields biting back a smile.
Seeing Tower in daddy mode was new to Malik and ... strange.
Then Jenna, Tower's wife, appeared. "See you later, honey. Say goodbye, Layla."
Layla waved, her tiara tottering. "Bye-bye, Daddy."
The screen went dark.
Tower turned his chair to face them, irritation on his face. "What's so important that you two had to barge in here?"
Malik met Tower's gaze, fought to rein in his emotions. "Samantha, Isaksen's fiancé—"
"I know who Samantha is."
"She called me at home a half hour ago. A good friend of hers, Kristi Chang, was just abducted by unknown armed assailants in Nigeria, where she was working as a nurse with some international aid organization. The bastards killed the security guards and dragged her away. She was the only one taken."
"Shit." Tower nodded, then arched a brow. "Why did Samantha call you? Where's Isaksen? Shouldn't he be the one pounding down my door?"
And just like that, Tower had him.
Malik stammered out an answer. "He's, uh, on his way, sir."
Shields took over. "Kristi Chang was the nurse who helped save Isaksen's life when he was shot at Amundsen-Scott Station last year. She gave him round-the-clock medical care. The team on that op all got to know her pretty well."
Tower nodded, understanding on his face. "She's important to this company and its staff. That's what you're telling me?"
Malik and Shields answered, almost in unison. "Yes, sir."
"We're leaving in three days for a week in Burkina Faso. I'll connect with Corbray and have him check with the State Department. If they've got some idea where she's being held, maybe they'd be willing to bankroll a rescue before we head home."
Malik shook his head. "She'll be alone with those bastards for at least ten days."
And every hour would be a living hell.
Most hostage rescues take weeks or even months. You know that." Tower picked up his smartphone. "Shields, start working on an intel package. Give us something to wave at the Pentagon. If you find a terrorism angle, so much the better. They like that."
"Yes, sir." Shields took Malik's arm, drew him out of the office with her, closing the door behind them and following him to the elevator. "Did you think he was going to put us all on the plane today?"
"Yeah." Malik pushed the button, stepped inside the elevator, helplessness welling up inside him at the thought of what Kristi might be going through. "Maybe."
Shields waited until the doors closed. "So, you and Kristi, huh?"
She had figured it out. Of course, she had. Damn CIA types.
"It wasn't like that. It was just..."
Just sex?" Shields didn't look like she believed him. "You almost kicked down Tower's door over a woman you had just sex with? I don't buy it. Tower will figure it out, too, if you don't dial back the rage."
"Right." Malik drew a breath, his mind made up before he exhaled.
If Cobra didn't get tasked with this rescue, he'd take leave and go after Kristi himself.