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Her Hero After Dark
Cindy Dees

Not interested in waiting for the handoff of the wild American, El Mari strode toward his own people, passing up her hired mercenaries and sneering at the American prisoner.

As the warlord drew even with the American, all hell broke loose. Rich Boy yanked his fists sharply and the chain around his waist snapped. With a single, violent twist of his torso, he wrenched the poles free from all four guards, leaped forward and pounced on El Mari. His attack was vicious and efficient. In a single shockingly swift move, he knocked the Ethiopian man to the ground and broke his target’s neck with his bare hands, all but tearing the warlord’s head off. There was no question that El Mari was dead as his body fell at a grotesquely unnatural angle.

Jennifer watched in stunned horror, uncharacteristically frozen in place as the crouching American unclipped the poles from his collar and flung them away. His limbs bunched. He sprang, charging her in a half crouch like a raging silverback gorilla.

He shouted something incoherent and took a flying leap at her, slamming into her just as a barrage of gunfire erupted. He barely knocked her out of the way of the flying bullets in time. Had he intentionally saved her life, or had that just been luck? The American was unbelievably heavy and smashed her flat, his large body completely covering hers. No air could enter her lungs, squashed as she was by his massive weight.

He pressed up and away from her into a bestial hunch. Galvanized into motion, she snatched her pistol out of its holster. Rich Boy’s eyes flashed in chagrin as she scrambled to her knees and pointed the weapon at him.

But then she yanked his shoulder down with her free hand and fired past him at his captors, emptying her clip rapidly, and providing much-needed return fire for her men to reload their weapons and resume, effectively if not intentionally, covering their retreat.

The dismay in Winston’s eyes turned to gratitude. She shrugged. One good turn deserved another, right?

He nodded briefly in thanks and then growled hoarsely, “Let’s go.”

“Right.” So. There was a man inside the beast.

They sprinted for the Land Rover. A quick glance behind her revealed wholesale carnage on both sides of the firefight. The American shoved her at the passenger door and raced around to the driver’s side. They jumped in simultaneously, and he slammed the car into gear without bothering to close his door. Gunfire aimed at them erupted. She ducked as the rear window shattered. The tires spun on the gravel as the Land Rover did a fish-tailing one-eighty and peeled out.

“My men!” she shouted at him.

“Paid to die,” he retorted as he horsed the Land Rover around the first bend. The vehicle careened forward wildly for several miles before he finally eased his foot off the accelerator a little.

Terrified, she risked a look at the killer beside her. He truly did look more beast than man with hair hanging in his eyes and most of his face obscured by a heavy beard. What skin was visible was filthy, which only lent to the whole ape-man look. She rapidly rethought her childhood attraction to Tarzan. Jane could have him.

“Where’s your plane?” His voice was guttural. Frightening, frankly. She ought to be terrified of him, but that brief glimpse of humanity in his eyes back on the road had reassured her just enough that she didn’t bail out of the moving vehicle. Maybe she was stupid to trust him based on a single look, but her gut instinct was rarely wrong about people.

“Akimbe Airport,” she replied, her mind racing. How much trouble was the United States in for letting El Mari be killed? What would the diplomatic ramifications be? And what on God’s green earth was she supposed to do with Rich Boy now?

He drove on grimly. Since he didn’t ask her for directions, she gathered he was familiar with the local area. The intelligence analyst within her duly noted it.

The Land Rover pulled up next to a sleek, unmarked business jet on the tarmac at Akimbe. Hmm, interesting. He knew which plane was the U.S. government bird without being told.

“Get on,” he ordered, pointing at the plane.

Was she his prisoner? Was he planning to use her as a hostage to assure landing permission somewhere? Did he plan to kill her when they got wherever he was going? The trick in playing a game of cat and mouse was to make the other guy think he was the cat when he was the mouse all along. But she sensed this man was going to be very tricky, indeed, to manipulate. Where did a savage murderer flee to, anyway?

Jeff scowled as the beautiful, raven-haired CIA officer huddled in her airplane seat, hugging herself. He poked his head into the cockpit long enough to snarl a destination at the pilots, and then he fell into the seat across the aisle from his rescuer.

He couldn’t believe she’d shot at the Ethiopian Army on his behalf. He’d been sure when she’d pulled out her gun it was with the intent to kill him. He would never forget grim determination in her eyes as she had shoved him out of harm’s way. As if she could actually protect him from anything. It was laughable, really. But her impulse sent a ripple of warmth through his gut, nonetheless.

Bad idea to think about his gut. He became aware of the pain ripping through it until he was nearly crazed with the hellish agony consuming him. It took every ounce of willpower he possessed not to scream aloud.

“Buckle up,” he gritted out at the woman.

Her hands shaking so badly she could barely follow his command, she managed to get the seat belt fastened around her lap. He followed suit, although he highly doubted it was necessary in his case. Probably not worth finding out the hard way, though.

He threw his head back, closed his eyes and gave himself up to the ever lurking, ever patient pain. Just a little while longer. He’d almost made it home. Soon. Soon he’d be able to give his body what it so desperately craved—what every last cell was begging for, and would keep begging for, until the pain drove him mad … or killed him.

Doc Jones would fix him up, though. He’d finally get some relief from the beast consuming him from within. And then maybe the beautiful woman beside him would quit looking at him like he was some kind of monster.

A groan escaped his throat.

Jennifer watched surreptitiously as the man across from her moaned in what sounded like tortured agony. He thrashed about, and she prayed he didn’t accidentally stick his fist through the window beside him. He looked strong enough to do it.

Under normal circumstances, she might try to assist him. To hold his limbs down gently so he didn’t hurt himself in his apparent delirium. But the idea of laying her hands on the monster across the aisle was repellent, not to mention terrifying. She had no intention of coming within arm’s length of him. At least not without a taser on its highest setting in her hand.

She eased her cell phone out of her pants pocket and dialed a phone number quickly. She spoke in a bare murmur, “I have the American prisoner, but El Mari is dead.”

Navy Commander Brady Hathaway—he supervised military operations run out of H.O.T. Watch while she was in charge of all civilian intelligence operations in the surveillance facility—exclaimed in surprise. “What the hell happened?”

“Rich Boy got away from his guards and all but tore the Ethiopian’s head off with his bare hands. Who is this guy?”

A shocked pause was her only answer. Then Hathaway replied, “I have the same file on Winston that you do. Private prep schools. Harvard math undergrad. Master’s in microbiology from MIT. Jet-set lifestyle since college—beaches in Monaco, skiing in St. Moritz, fast cars, yachts, beautiful women. Classic spoiled, rich kid.”

“He violently murdered a man tonight. What the heck am I supposed to do with him now?”

“I wouldn’t bring him back to the States. Our extradition treaty with Ethiopia will get him sent right back there to face murder charges, and I don’t think that would make Leland Winston very happy. Go ahead and take him to Paradise Island for debriefing like we planned. Meanwhile the powers that be can sort this mess out.”

Paradise Island also had the advantage of being close to the volcanic island in the Caribbean that housed the H.O.T. Watch facility. Normally, Paradise was a private getaway for H.O.T. Watch’s staff when they needed a break from their high-stress jobs, but it occasionally doubled as a debriefing site.

Brady spoke again. “I’ll do some more digging and see what I can find on your prisoner.”

She caught a flutter of the American’s eyelids. Awake, was he? Well, then. She murmured aloud in a theatrical whisper, “News flash. I think I may be the prisoner.”

“What?” Brady squawked.

A quick movement made her look up sharply. It was the American. Holding out his hand expectantly, calloused palm up. The veins in his wrist were big and prominent. But then she already knew the guy was incredibly strong. It took tremendous strength to break a man’s neck the way he had.

Without answering her colleague, she laid her cell phone in Winston’s outstretched palm. She stared in shock as he crushed the thing in his fist, the plastic case shattering and the metal motherboard nearly folding in half.

No doubt about it. He thought she was the prisoner.

She forced herself to look him in the eye. She expected to see the same wildness from the road, the same murderous madness. But the blue eyes that stared back at her looked reasonably sane. At least for now. Was the guy schizophrenic or something?

“Why did you kill El Mari?” she ventured to ask.

“He was an animal. A butcher.”

That was almost comical coming from him. She thought back frantically to her hostage training. Her best bet to stay alive was to get on this man’s good side. Convince him she was a person with thoughts and feelings, and not some object to be crushed like her phone and cast aside.

“Would you like me to get that collar off of you?” she asked.

Surprise flickered momentarily in his cobalt gaze. Maybe even a hint of warmth shone there. The American was becoming more human by the second.

He slid out of his seat and knelt in the aisle beside her, offering her the back of his neck. Temptation surged to clobber him as hard as she could across the base of his skull. Except she wasn’t at all sure she could hit him hard enough to knock him out. And if she failed, he’d do the same to her that he’d done to El Mari. Or worse. Memory of his ridiculously muscular body smashing hers flat flashed through her mind. She shuddered.

Nope, her best bet was to befriend this psychopath for now.
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