Well, didn’t this just turn out to be a clusterfuck.
“They’re gaining on us,” John ‘Rocket’ Hardin called from the rear of the van.
“I’m pushing this baby as hard as it will go,” Matt ‘Viper’ Roman ground out.
The tension inside the van was so thick they could almost see it. Disaster was always waiting for them around the corner, but Scott ‘Blaze’ Hamilton knew if anyone could get them to the exfil point, it was Viper. No one could outdrive him.
“Damn it,” Blaze swore under his breath.
A previous rescue attempt by another group had failed and put the hostages in jeopardy. That was always when Galaxy was called. When Blaze had done his research, he’d learned that the only reason the hostages were still alive was because the kidnappers needed them to make sure the ransom was paid. At first, it had sounded like a by-the-book rescue. Jim and Nita Rosen, one of America’s one-percenter couples with money to burn, had been kidnapped for ransom. Their daughter, Angela, afraid her parents would be killed if she called in the FBI, had paid it, but the jerkoffs had come back and asked for more.
When the first people she’d hired had botched the job, that was when she’d turned to Galaxy.
For the four highly trained former SEALs, this should have been a simple retrieval. Tapping into every source, they were unhappy to learn that the kidnappers were less than sophisticated. They were offshoots of a cartel whose leader was barely second tier and had big ideas about establishing himself. Kidnapping was his prime source of income while he built up enough of a bank to take on the big cartel chiefs. These people were the most dangerous kind, since they had oversized egos and small brains. The crew who worked for him came from the dregs, which meant things could easily go wrong.
Reaching out to all their contacts, they’d gotten the location where the Rosens were being held—an old warehouse just outside the little town of San Felipe. Only two guards were on duty at any one time, an indication of the kidnappers’ stupidity and arrogance. The one good thing was that the so-called brains behind this kidnapping only showed up once a day, about midday, to check on their victims. It certainly sounded like amateur hour to Galaxy, but sometimes those were the ones that went sideways.
After a drive-by to scope the place out and take pictures, the team planned the operation. They would breach the building, grab the Rosens and get the hell out of there in their borrowed van before the leader and the rest of the bad guys showed up for their daily visit.
‘Saint’ Francis, their official pilot, would be waiting for them at an extraction point with the helicopter.
Easy peasy, right?
As they’d learned in the military, if something can go wrong it will.
Fucked up beyond all repair.
Especially with kidnappers like these, who were not very smart.
At first, it was smooth sailing. Only one vehicle, an old car, was parked by the warehouse. They knew from their source that this was the one driven by the two men left to guard the Rosens, so they were good to go. Using an infrared scanner, they were able to determine the location inside of the guards—away from the captives, sitting near the entrance to the warehouse. Breaching the door was kindergarten work for them, as was disposing of the guards before the two knew what was happening. They grabbed the Rosens and hustled them out to their waiting van.
Just as ‘Viper’, their designated wheelman, cranked the engine, a car drove up to the warehouse. Three well-armed and unpleasant-looking men tumbled out, even before the vehicle had come to a stop. One looked to be in charge, pointing at the Galaxy van, and at once the others began shooting at them. They pulled out onto the road before the doors were even fully shut, but the other vehicle was after them at once. Blaze thought there must be a hell of a motor in that thing, because they barely got out to the road before the other vehicle was practically on their tail.
Now they were racing down the two-lane road to the extraction spot with shots from the vehicle behind them peppering the van they were using. It pissed Blaze off that a cheap-ass operation like this one had managed to grab two high-value targets and get away with it. But even more, that best-of-the-best Galaxy was barely escaping a deadly showdown.
“Fuck it all,” Viper cursed.
“It’s true, you know,” Blaze reminded his partners. “The only easy day was yesterday.”
“And today will be our last,” Rocket snapped at him, “if we let ourselves get beaten by these pieces of shit.”
“Never fear. The Viper is here.”
Viper was swerving back and forth to avoid the bullets as they sped down the road at a speed that would dry the spit in the mouth of most people.
“Yeah?” Blaze shifted in his seat. “Well, get us the fuck out of here, then.”
The Rosens, thankfully following orders without question, were huddled down between the front and middle seats as directed. In the far back seat, John ‘Rocket’ Hardin and Vic ‘Eagle’ Bodine had knocked out the glass in the windows and were firing their Glocks at the pursuing vehicle.
“We need more firepower,” Blaze said. “They’re coming hot and fast.”
He lifted his LaRue Tactical AR15 PredatAR rifle and turned so he was kneeling facing the rear. With great care, he balanced the barrel of the rifle on the back of the seat. The Aimpoint red dot optic allowed him to focus more accurately on his target, and he sighted carefully.
He zeroed in on the man in the passenger seat. From the brief glimpse when they’d emptied out at the warehouse, he’d pegged him as the leader.
Take out the man at the top and the rest will fall apart.
The vehicle was so close to them he knew that if he hit the driver, the car could jump out of control and rocket into them.
“Heads down,” he shouted.
Rocket and Eagle obediently bent forward, allowing Blaze a clear line to his target.
The car behind them swerved crazily. It was still close enough that Blaze could see the splintered windshield as well as the blood splatter on the glass. But it still kept coming. Are they crazy?
Yes, he answered himself. Or they would never have done this.
He figured the tires were bulletproof, but a well-aimed bullet from his PredatAR could penetrate the special composition of the rubber.
Now the car swerved sharply to the right and Blaze saw the flattened rubber. But the damn fucking thing kept on coming. Shit! The piece of crap wouldn’t die.
Then they were at the rendezvous, the helicopter waiting two hundred yards away with its rotors already turning.
“Get the Rosens to the chopper,” Blaze yelled as they rocketed to a stop.
He slid out and shouldered his rifle. Two men piled out of the car behind them, guns drawn, one of the men covered in blood splatters from the dead man. Blaze had thought for sure the idiot thugs would back off, but apparently they were too stupid to know that would be the smart thing to do. As Viper and Rocket hustled the Rosens toward the helo, Blaze took precise aim and fired, taking down another of the kidnappers. The last one stood frozen for a moment. Blaze was already moving toward the chopper, Eagle with his own weapon moving beside him. Then the man lifted his weapon to fire it.
“I got it,” Eagle told him. With one well-placed shot, he disposed of the last of the thugs.
Before anyone could arrive to investigate the gunshots, the two men jumped into the chopper and in seconds Saint had them in the air. They were a good fifteen minutes away from San Felipe before either of the Rosens spoke.
“Thank you.” Jim Rosen was holding his wife’s hand. “I don’t know who you are or where you came from, but thanks is such a small word for what you did.”
“Yes.” Nita Rosen gave a brief nod in agreement. “What Jim said.”
Blaze had his first chance to look them over carefully. They seemed to be fairly ordinary people dressed in disheveled but obviously expensive clothing. They also appeared to have somehow kept their shit together during their ordeal, which Blaze knew could destroy a lot of people.
“I’m glad you two are doing okay.”
“Okay?” Jim’s laugh was anything but humorous. “Trust me. We are far from okay. But we’ve been through a lot of tough times to get where we are. You learn that keeping it together is the only way to survive.”
“The kidnappers weren’t very smart,” Blaze told them. “And those can be the most dangerous kind.”
“Well, thank you again. We owe you a lot.”
“We’re just glad you’re safe now.”
Blaze leaned back in his seat, pulled out his cell and texted Angela Rosen that the team had her parents and was on the way back to the hangar. He was more than ready to deliver them to her, get showered, get out on the town and get laid in spades. He’d learned long ago that high-octane sex was a much better mood relaxer than any alcohol on the market. Thank god he knew plenty of women whose drug of choice was no-strings sex.
His cell dinged and he read the message, then sifted to look at the Rosens.
“I texted your daughter, Angela, earlier to let her know you were okay. She just texted back to let me know she’s waiting at the hangar.”
“Oh.” Nina Rosen took a deep breath. “Oh, thank you.”
“Yes.” Jim nodded. “More thanks. I—” He paused, swallowed. “We are more grateful than you can imagine. And happy that we can come home to our daughter.”
Neither of the Rosens said much after that. Blaze was pretty sure the aftereffects of their harrowing experience were finally taking over their bodies and minds. They wouldn’t be forgetting this for a long time, if ever. He buckled into the seat next to Saint, his location of choice. Watching the world slip by beneath them helped settle him after one of their missions.
He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, thinking about the night ahead. He’d call Fran as soon as they landed, ready for a night of hot, unrestrained sex. Just as when he’d been an active SEAL, the work came first. When he was on a mission, he was totally focused on it. No distractions. But when the job was done and there was down time, he played as hard as he worked.
Fran was one of few women he felt comfortable with, a woman who made no emotional demands of him and wanted nothing more than a great night and hot, steamy sex. Fran was focused on her own career, as she’d told him the first time they’d had dinner, and she had neither time nor energy to invest in a relationship.
Fine by him. She had a body he could lose himself in, luscious breasts, full lips that knew exactly with to do with his cock, and—
As images flashed through his mind, said cock swelled and tried to push its way through the denim of his fly. He tried to shift without calling attention to himself, but Saint slid a glance at him and laughed.
“Getting a little ahead of yourself there? At least wait until we land.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Blaze growled.
“By the way.” He glanced over at Blaze. “Your brother called while you were doing the retrieval.”
Blaze lifted an eyebrow. His brother seldom called, busy as he was at the hospital. “Nolan? Called you?”
“Texted, actually. Said he wasn’t sure if you were around or not but knew I could get hold of you.”
“Huh. He’s usually too tied up with patients to call during the day. Did he say what he wanted?”
“Just that he gave your number to someone and you should definitely take her case.”
That was weird. Nolan never got involved in Galaxy business. The man’s position as head of the surgical department took up enormous amounts of his time, although Blaze knew Nolan wouldn’t have it any other way. Nor could he imagine who Nolan, in his very conservative world, would have come into contact with that he thought needed Galaxy.
“I don’t suppose he gave you a name or anything.”
“Yeah, as a matter of fact, he texted me the info.” He pointed to the cell phone in a side pocket of his seat. “Go ahead. Look it up. You know the code.”
One of the things they had all agreed on from the beginning was how they handled their cell phones. With no landline, by design, they’d purchased the most powerful cells made, phones that they could use to call someone on the ground and maintain a conversation from the air if necessary. They also knew each other’s codes. In a high-risk situation, they needed to be able to access one another’s information.
Blaze picked the phone up and punched in the code to unlock it, then hit the text icon and found Nolan’s.
Hey. Can you pass along to Blaze that a woman named Peyton West will be calling his secret phone? Take good care of her.
Blaze read the message twice.
“That’s it? That’s all he said?”
Saint nodded. “He called me because he knew the four of you were actively involved with the rescue while all I did was sit my fat ass here in the chopper waiting for you guys.”
Blaze chuckled. “That’s one way of putting it.” He looked at the screen again. “I’ll wait until I check with my brother. I wonder if it’s anything urgent?”
“Dude.” Saint maneuvered the helo into a new flight path. “Everyone who calls you guys is urgent.”
Blaze supposed that was true. When the four of them had gathered to celebrate becoming civilians after sixteen years as SEALs, little had they expected that their festive dinner would change their lives so dramatically. But getting a little drunk and buying a hundred dollars’ worth of lottery tickets had seemed a good way to celebrate. Who knew they’d win the largest Powerball lottery ever, and wind up with almost one-point-six billion dollars?
Blaze’s mind still tripped over that every time.
But after the original craziness had settled down, the four of them had realized the sky was now the limit. They could afford their dream, and Galaxy was born. With a Gulfstream 500 that served both as their office and transportation, a luxury cabin cruiser and a small racing boat docked at Viper’s home on Davis Islands, they were ready to go anywhere at any time. It suited all of them not to be tied down to regular offices and their type of clientele didn’t want a paper trail.
He wondered idly what kind of woman Nolan had connected with and what her story was that he’d felt compelled to give her the phone number. Although he and his brother were close, they were also extremely busy with their own lives. He didn’t think any of Nolan’s patients were the kind to need Galaxy’s services, but of course he never knew. But he was damn curious what had brought about the out-of-character phone call.
After they landed and got the Rosens reunited with their daughter, he’d give his brother a quick shout. If it sounded okay, he’d contact the woman to see what the deal was. Then he’d go home to his luxury townhouse on the water, call Fran and get ready for a night of unequaled sex.
Five minutes later, they touched down at the private airstrip and double hangar they’d built on land they’d bought just north of downtown Tampa. Blaze and Viper helped their passengers out of the chopper and guided them toward where their daughter was waiting on the tarmac. He loved reunion scenes like this. It made everything they did so worthwhile.
They all stood back to give the family room as Angela came running over to them. She wrapped her arms around Eagle, who had been the contact for her, and Blaze thought for a moment she’d drown him in her tears.
“I have no idea how to thank you.”
Eagle grinned. “That hug was a pretty good start.”
“Well, you’ll like this even better. I already called my bank and had your fee transferred to the account you gave me. You just don’t know…” She stopped and swallowed hard.
“I do. We all do. Thanks for the prompt payment of the fee.” He grinned again. “And the hug.”
At last they got everyone to Angela’s car, accepted all the thanks and gratitude, and saw the Rosen family off.
“That could have turned to shit,” Viper commented.
Eagle nodded. “I know this sounds weird, but I’d rather deal with professional criminals every day. Guys like these are unstable and unpredictable.”
“Amen to that.”
“You gonna call that woman?” Saint asked, finished now with hangaring the helicopter.
“Yeah. Forward the text to me.”
In seconds, his phone dinged with the incoming message.
This is Peyton West. Your brother, Dr. Nolan Hamilton, gave me your number. I have a desperate situation involving my sister and he said if anyone could help, it was you. Please call me.
Her number was included.
For a moment, he was tempted to leave it until tomorrow. But again, he thought how unusual it was for his brother to do this. The woman must be in a very desperate situation.
Swallowing a sigh, he sent a text to his brother.
Is this woman legit?
All the way. Get on board. Please.
Please. Well. Curious to see what had put the bug in Nolan’s ear, he tapped in her number. He wasn’t prepared for the sound of the voice that answered. Soft, musical, something that vibrated through his blood. But it also held a heavy overlay of desperation.
“This is Peyton West.”
“Yeah, this is Blaze Hamilton. You called.”
“Oh. Uh, I really need to meet with you. I have a situation that your brother said you could probably handle.” Pause. “I have nowhere else to turn.”
How many times had he heard that? Galaxy specialized in being the last chance for people, the agency that took jobs no one else could or would do. He wasn’t about to ask her for details on the phone. Galaxy clients only delivered information in person.
“Okay. I can book you on a flight tomorrow afternoon. Say one o’clock.” Enough time to get his act together after this case. Hot, raunchy sex always did that for him.
Another pause vibrated across the connection. When she spoke, the tightness in her voice was evident.
“If you could make it today, I’d really appreciate it.”
Today. Everyone wanted their meeting right now. Everything was an emergency. Sadly, it often was.
“Look, Miss West—” he began.
“No, you look.” The musical quality was gone from the voice, replaced by intense need. “My brother-in-law is dead. My sister is in a coma she may never wake up from and everyone from the local police to the FBI are hands-off on the case. You’re my last and only hope.” She paused. “I have money, if that’s the problem. I can pay.”
Fuck. Why was everything always so urgent?
Because you and the other guys have made a habit of dealing with urgency. That’s what you wanted, right? Right.
He sighed and mentally said goodbye to a night of dirty, raunchy sex. The SEAL in him took over.
“Fine. Okay. We just finished a…situation. Let me check with my pilot and see when he can be ready to go again.”
He muted the phone and walked over to Saint, who was leaning against his car, watching.
“I figured I’d better hang around. I can be set again by four this afternoon as long as we make it a short hop.”
Blaze nodded. “Thanks, big guy. She sounds desperate.”
Saint cocked an eyebrow. “Don’t they all?”
Blaze unmuted the phone.
“I’m going to text you an address. Use your GPS to find it. Be here at four sharp.”
“I’ll see you then.” She disconnected.
When Galaxy had been formed, the partners had determined that they did not want a cookie cutter private contractor agency. They wanted the clients no one else would handle. The jobs others turned away from. Maybe it was the adrenaline rush, or the challenges presented by off-the-book situations, or maybe it was just a commitment to keep using the skills they’d learned as SEALs. Whatever it was, they’d become the go-to place for those who had exhausted all other channels.
They’d agreed from the beginning on having no formal office. They didn’t want to be confined to a building, hemmed in by the walls. Their meetings would be held where there was no chance of eavesdropping or wiretapping or any other listening device. When they’d bought the Gulfstream 500, they’d outfitted it with every electronic device they might conceivably need. Meetings were held in the air so there was no way anyone could eavesdrop or interrupt.
He drove home to shower and change and run the name of Peyton West through all the databases he had access to. What he found didn’t sound any alarms. She’d had three tickets for speeding over the years, but so what? Who didn’t have at least one? Not married. Not in a relationship that even his deepest search could find. She lived in Texas—San Antonio—and was a multi-published author of romantic suspense novels set mostly in Texas.
Was she looking for help with a book? Galaxy didn’t do that kind of stuff. It made them too visible.
He learned her sister and brother-in-law had recently been in a car accident, hit by a speeding vehicle in front of a hotel. The brother-in-law had been killed and the sister was still in a coma. Blaze vaguely remembered reading about it online when he was idly skimming—just three paragraphs, and there hadn’t been anything that rang his chimes. Hit and run, that was it. He hated those, because no one was ever made to answer for it, but nothing had seemed out of the ordinary.
Besides, Galaxy didn’t investigate auto accidents. That was what the cops were for. Did that mean she had an overactive imagination and there was little substance to whatever she wanted from him? He mentally shook his head. No, his brother was too much of a pragmatist to send him someone who saw shadows where there were none.
Before he checked further, he decided to reach out to Nolan and get the skinny on Peyton West and her situation. His brother shocked him by having five minutes free at that particular moment.
“She’s not a nutcase,” he said at once. “This isn’t something she made up for one of her novels, I promise you that. This is some serious shit and everyone everywhere is stonewalling her. If you can find out who the driver was, that ought to open up the whole can of worms. But I believe her, Blaze.”
He couldn’t ask for better validation than that.
He was waiting when the black sedan headed down the gravel drive exactly at four o’clock and parked by the hangar. All four of them tried not to prejudge clients before interacting with them. Appearances, as they all knew, could be very deceiving. But the woman who exited the Mercedes, tense and buttoned-up as she was, made every bit of saliva in his mouth dry up.
She was of medium height, the slacks and sweater she wore doing little to disguise the mouthwatering curves of her body or the natural sway of her hips as she walked. Thick, glossy chestnut hair was pulled back tightly into a ponytail. When she came close enough, he could see her eyes were a rich dark green that looked out at him from beneath chocolate lashes. Out of nowhere, he was seized with a desire to strip off her clothes and run his hands over her body.
Where the hell had this come from, anyway, and what the fuck was wrong with him? He never, ever reacted to clients like this. He’d better get his shit together in a hurry. And figure out why he had lost his brain somewhere on the tarmac.
But then his common sense caught up with him. He saw the rigid way she controlled herself, the look of strain etched into her face and the mixture of rage and panic that swirled in her eyes. It was a look he’d seen in so many of the clients who came to Galaxy. And that was enough to make his hungry dick, the one that had been looking forward to some action tonight, deflate in a hurry. This was business. A mission. This was what they did. What she was here for. Thank god for his SEAL discipline.
He held out a hand to her. “Scott Hamilton, but please, call me Blaze. We’re all used to our military code names.”
They had decided to use those with clients, since they addressed each other that way and there’d be less confusion.
“Peyton West. I have a desperate need for your help, and I can’t stress that word enough.”
He nodded toward the plane, waiting in front of the hangar. “All right. Let’s take a little flight to nowhere and you can tell me all about it.”