Book Three in the LCR Elite Series: Running Scared
Riley Ingram escaped hell, taking secrets with her that could get her killed. As an Elite operative for Last Chance Rescue, Riley’s single-minded focus is on saving others from a similar fate. A survivor of unspeakable horror, she hides behind a cool mask of indifference, vowing to never let her guard down again.
A family tragedy brought Justin Kelly to LCR. Saving lives and protecting others is a way of life for him. The phenomenal connection he shares with his intensely private LCR partner surprises everyone but Justin. He knows that beneath Riley’s icy façade is a warm, caring woman with tremendous depth.
When the past comes calling, colliding with the present, the LCR duo have no choice but to face it together. Relying on each other’s strength and courage, they’ll work to destroy one of the most horrific monsters LCR has ever faced.
But some secrets can’t stay hidden. And sometimes plans fall apart. It’ll take every bit of their grit and fortitude for Riley and Justin to stay alive to have the future together they’re just now realizing they want more than anything.
Eight years ago
She was free!
She had told herself this day would come. Over and over again, she had repeated the mantra that had given her hope, the will to survive. She had told herself that she would one day escape. That there would be one moment of inattention. One moment when he wouldn’t be around, the servants would be distracted, an opening would present itself, and she would be able to find her way out. She had almost given up, almost believed it would never happen.
Had there been other opportunities and she had missed them? It shamed her that this might be true. She had been drifting in a state of despair and pain for so long, she had stopped looking for an opening. But after his declaration tonight, she’d had three choices. Accept that she would be tied to a monster forever, kill herself and end her misery, or find a way to get the hell out of there. In her mind, there had been only one acceptable choice. If she died in her attempt, then so be it. At least she would not have died a coward.
The click of her heels against the asphalt had her looking down at her clothing. A floral patterned dress and three-inch heels weren’t exactly travel wear, but she didn’t care. She counted herself fortunate that her opportunity had come when she was wearing something decent. There had been too many times that she had—
No, she wouldn’t think about that now. She was free, and that was all that mattered.
A different kind of fear hit her as she abruptly took in her surroundings. She had been so focused on getting away that she hadn’t given thought to where she was going. Where was she? All around her were tall buildings—skyscrapers. And people. So many people. For so long she had existed in silence. All the sounds together, the traffic rushing by, people chattering on their cellphones or with each other, horns blowing, machinery grinding. The noise was deafening.
She wanted to ask someone the location but feared what might happen if she did. What if they thought she was crazy for not knowing where she was? What if they took her to the police? Maybe they knew him. Maybe they would call him and he’d come for her. What would he do to her this time? The one and only time she had tried to leave, he had…
No. No, she couldn’t take the risk. She would just walk around until something looked familiar.
As if she were just another person and knew exactly where she was and had a destination in mind, she blended with a crowd waiting at a traffic light. When they went, she went. When they stopped, she stopped. It wasn’t until she’d walked several blocks that she realized that none of the conversations taking place around her were in English. How was that possible? Everyone at the mansion had spoken English. Although he’d had an accent, he had always spoken English. She had thought she was in the US.
Skidding to a stop, she ignored the irritated sounds coming from the people who bumped into her, almost ran over her. She assumed they cursed her. Raising her head, she looked at signs above businesses. She recognized a few of the letters. An old saying popped into her head: It’s all Greek to me. And it was true. The signs above her were written in Greek. Did that mean she was in Greece? If so, what city? She didn’t speak the language. How was she going to find someone she could communicate with? Someone who wouldn’t turn her in?
The blare of a ship horn startled her. She glanced to her left and realized she was close to the docks. Giant cargo ships, small boats, and cruise ships were lined up in a neat row. At the very end, a ferry was slowly shuttling away from the dock.
Disappointment swamped her. That would have been her best bet to escape. Even though she had no money, she might’ve been able to sneak onto the ferry and hide in one of the cars. It would probably return in a few hours, but she couldn’t wait around. She had to find a place to hide.
Another loud blare came, this one from a giant vessel at the end of the dock. A cruise ship. It was large, at least ten stories high, and would hold hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Could she sneak onto the ship? It was so big she could stay hidden until they reached another port of call. She didn’t care where it took her. As long as it was far away from him, that was all she cared about. She had to try!
Her mind made up, she headed toward the ship. For the first time in her life, she made a decision for herself. It didn’t matter where she was going, and a part of her didn’t care if she lived through the adventure. She only knew that she was at last free. If freedom meant death, then she would accept her fate. She had no fear of death, not if the alternative was to be returned to him.
Going back to that monster was something she would never do.
Shots whizzed by, dimpling the crusty dry ground, pinging the rusted abandoned cars around them. Riley Ingram forced herself to stay focused. She was tempted, oh so tempted, to turn around and look. Even more tempted to turn around and return fire.
Breath rasped from her aching lungs. Bruised ribs from a training exercise last week throbbed with an unceasing ache. They hadn’t expected this kind of action. What should’ve been a low-risk op to gather intel had turned inside out in seconds.
“Dammit, Ingram. Move it! I’m going to be very pissed off if you get shot today. Haul ass! And I mean…now!”
Too busy trying to save said ass to be offended, Riley ground her teeth and kept running. Her partner, Justin Kelly, was several feet behind her, firing random shots. Killing any of the scum-suckers chasing them wasn’t in their plan, but neither was getting shot at in the first place. Dammit, she should have figured out another way.
“Head north,” Justin shouted. “Fox and Thorne are waiting.”
Without a break in her stride, she veered north. If either she or Justin were injured, the chances of them surviving were slim to none. These thugs were out for blood, and thanks to her screw-up, something even worse than a bullet awaited her if she was caught.
She’d already made a mess of this op. She was absolutely not going to get her partner killed, too.
Gritting her teeth, Riley gave it all she had.
Justin was breathing down her neck, almost even with her. She spared a glance back. In an instant, Riley comprehended his thoughts, his body language. She’d seen that fierce, protective look in his eyes too often not to recognize it. He was considering doing something stupid, like hauling her over his shoulder. Which would slow him down. No!
Reaching for her last ounce of adrenaline, she surged forward.
Didn’t matter. Her partner was stronger, faster, with an indomitable will that wouldn’t back down. He would do what he felt was right, one hundred percent of the time. Without any seeming extra effort, he reached out and pulled her off her feet. Half carrying her, half dragging her, he raced toward the black SUV on the other side of a rusted fence.
Stopping abruptly, Justin released his hold on her and yanked out his wire clippers. Riley whirled around and fired shots in the direction of the men running toward them. The bullets struck the ground just short of their feet, right where she wanted them to.
“Let’s go,” Justin growled.
Getting off one last round, Riley went through the opening her partner had created. The instant she was on the other side, she resumed shooting. Justin slipped through behind her, then pulled her with him toward their rescue vehicle barreling toward them.
The SUV squealed to a stop, and the doors popped open. Aidan Thorne grabbed Riley’s hand and dragged her into the back with him. Justin leaped into the front seat. Sabrina Fox was behind the wheel. The instant they were inside, she tore down the road.
“Everybody okay?” Sabrina asked.
His heart still thundering in his chest, Justin Kelly twisted round to check on his partner. That had been too close for comfort. Riley’s face was a stark-white mask. This should have been an easy op of intel gathering and nothing more. That kick to her ribs a week or so ago wasn’t healed yet. Even though they’d expected no trouble, he should’ve suggested she sit this one out. He knew better than anyone that unexpected shit happens.
Knowing she would resent being babied, Justin growled, “Ingram, you want to answer the question?”
“I’m fine,” Riley gasped out. “Just a few twinges in my side.”
Justin didn’t even bother to argue. He knew she was in pain, but until they could get to safety, none of them could do anything about it.
“I’m sorry, Justin. I overreacted, and it blew up in our face.”
He noted three distinct things. First, she had called him Justin, something so rare he could count on one hand the number of times it had occurred. Second, she had apologized to him in front of other operatives. Riley Ingram didn’t show vulnerability. Ever. And third, she had apologized.
The last was the thing that pissed him off.
“What are you apologizing for?” he snarled. “Fighting for your life or fighting to keep from being raped?”
“If I hadn’t slugged that guy, none of this—”
Justin held up a hand, stopping more idiotic words from coming. “Let me get this straight. You think I’m upset that you didn’t allow those bastards to attack you while I stood by and watched?”
“Well…no. I just—”
He leaned over the back of his seat and got in her face, more furious than he’d ever been in his life. “Listen and listen good, Ingram. The day I stand back and let my partner get attacked just to save my ass is the day I walk away from this job for good. You got that? You did the right thing.”
As if realizing their conversation had gotten a little more intense than she’d planned, she nodded and clamped her mouth shut.
Breaking the tension, Thorne asked, “So, you guys want to tell us what did happen?”
Justin gave a frustrated one-shouldered shrug. “Got blindsided on our way to the meet. Five dirtbags thought they’d get their kicks by harassing two strangers. When they realized Ingram was female, they got other ideas.”
“I should’ve kept my mouth shut.”
Justin glared at her and then cursed himself for doing so. She didn’t need any more blame put on her. She was doing a damn good job of that all by herself. Ever since she’d been injured last year, her confidence level had dipped. And lately…lately he didn’t know what the hell was going on with her.
“Dressing like a guy was your best defense, Riley,” Sabrina said. “Don’t beat yourself up. It should’ve worked.”
As small and slight as Riley was, they’d had no choice but to dress her as a young boy. The bullies had seen someone smaller. While two of them had tried to distract Justin, the other three had gone after Riley. Their intent had been to harass and intimidate, probably to rob. When they’d looked closer, saw the delicacy of her features and realized she was female, their intent had taken on a darker tone.
Facing the front again, he pulled out his cellphone. “We need to let Malak know what happened.”
“Already done,” Thorne said. “He texted that you hadn’t shown up. We figured there was trouble, so we made the appointment across town.” He checked his watch. “In about twenty minutes.”
“Good,” Riley said. “We’ll keep the same plan as before.”
A tense silence filled the vehicle. Justin knew that both Sabrina and Thorne were waiting for him to object. He should. Not only was his partner hurting physically, she’d lost even more confidence. And that was exactly why he wasn’t going to object. Even though he’d always known much of Riley’s tough attitude was a self-defense mechanism, she needed to regain her equilibrium. Coddling her would further erode her confidence.
And bottom line, he trusted his partner. If she believed she was up to the task, then he damn well believed it, too.
“Sounds good,” Justin said.
He dared a look behind him. The relief on Riley’s face reinforced his thoughts. Now to get the information they’d come for and get out without bloodshed.
Riley allowed herself to relax back against the seat. The car weaved in and out of traffic with an ease she admired. Sabrina navigated the narrow streets as if she’d been born here. Riley kept her eyes open for possible threats, grateful to be in the company of some of the most competent LCR operatives she knew.
LCR leader Noah McCall had chosen each operative on the Elite team for his or her talents and skills. She was only one of a handful without military or covert experience. The biggest reason she was even a member of the Elite team was sitting in the front seat—two hundred twenty pounds of aggravated male. Though he wasn’t known for his easygoing attitude or friendly expression at any time, today Justin Kelly’s granite-like expression would rival even the fiercest of ancient warlords. He was worried about her, and when he worried, he had a tendency to act like a hungry bear with a bee up his butt.
She and Justin became LCR partners before the Elite team was formed. He was former special ops and by rights should have had a partner with the same level of experience. But from the moment of their first assignment together, they’d worked as if they’d been with each other for years. They had a connection she couldn’t explain. She only knew that when in the midst of action, they read each other as if they were of one mind. Noah McCall had told them he wasn’t about to mess with a winning team.
Riley reminded herself of her own competence. Even though she didn’t feel particularly capable at this moment, she knew she could get herself out of any situation. She’d been through too much, escaped hell to become a lethal operative for the most well-known and admired rescue organization in the world. Not only would she not let LCR or her partner down, she refused to let herself down.
“Okay.” Aidan pointed toward an abandoned, ramshackle structure. “There’s the place where Malak told us to meet him.”
“I’ll let you guys out about a half block away, drive a few blocks,” Sabrina said. “We’ll be back to get you in five. Radio us if we need to get back sooner.”
Justin gave Riley a quick once-over. “Stay beside me. If things go sour again, I want you to get out ASAP. I’ll handle the jerks this time.”
She wanted to argue, but now was not the time. Lives depended upon them getting this information and in a timely manner. They couldn’t miss this opportunity. There would be a chance later to discuss this new autocratic position he’d taken.
Riley adjusted her clothing, then opened her door and stepped out. Justin got out behind her and then stood in front of her as he assessed the danger.
She huffed out an exasperated breath. “Dammit, Kelly, get out of my way.”
“Zip it, Ingram. We can talk about my overbearing ways later. Right now your ribs are hurting and you’re not at full capacity. I take the lead, or you get back in the car. Your choice.”
“Fine,” Riley snapped.
“Looks clear. Let’s move.”
They went down the broken sidewalk together, both appearing to stare straight ahead while still scanning for threats. Stopping at the meeting site, Justin took one more sweeping glance and then eased the door open. Riley stood at his back, her eyes roaming everywhere. She would not mess this up again.
As Justin stepped inside, he grabbed hold of Riley’s belt and pulled her with him. She could complain later. For right now, he wanted her glued to him.
“Malak?” Justin called out.
“I am here, my friend. Sorry you had troubles.”
Malak Salazar stepped out from behind a half-empty bookcase. Short in stature, with a heavy beard and wire-rimmed glasses, he appeared to be the least-likely candidate for intel sharing that Justin had ever seen. Which was exactly how he’d become one of the best in the business.
“No worries. We handled it. You have what we need?”
“Yes. Please follow me.”
Justin’s trust would go only so far. “Why can’t you give us the info here?”
“Because I have something for you.”
Justin shared a questioning glance with Riley. Malak had been a friend and ally to LCR long before either he or Riley had become operatives. Had something changed? Had he been bought out?
As if unaware of their doubts, Malak started ahead, apparently expecting them to follow.
“What do you think?” Riley asked softly.
What did he think? He thought he wanted to throw his partner over his shoulder and get the hell out of here.
“He’s never done anything to make us doubt him before.”
“You’re right,” Riley said. “Let’s go.”
Hoping they weren’t making the worst decision of their lives, Justin walked beside Riley, following behind Malak.
Gun in her hand, ready to fight for both herself and her partner, Riley peeked inside the doorway where Malak had gone. Her breath caught on a gasp at the unexpected and new complication.
“What the hell?” Justin muttered softly.
Malak stood beside two young women, standing in a corner. “They are from a village close-by. Their father has sold them, and they are to be taken tomorrow. I’m asking you to rescue them.”
Their low-risk, no-worries op had just become a major complication.