Taken By Surprise by Tonya Ramagos

Taken By Surprise by Tonya Ramagos

Taken By Surprise
The Heroes of Silver Springs, Book 7
by Tonya Ramagos

Siren-Bookstrand

eBook ISBN: 1-61034-123-6

Rhonda’s future plans didn’t include a man until she met temptation in a set of exotic eyes and a six foot package of pure sex appeal. When Rhonda falls to the mercy of a drug lord, DEA Agent Michael Cosmos will put his career and his life on the line to save her.

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Chapter One

Silver Springs, Mississippi
Michael Cosmos watched her step falter as her gaze locked with his. Lust kicked his pulse up a notch. A beauty like hers could bring a man to his knees. He nearly proved it as she started walking again, each step bringing her closer to him. Needs exploded in a flurry of heat. He wanted to touch the long, blonde hair hanging in natural spirals around her angelic face. He wanted to kiss her sultry lips, to lick a path over her high cheekbone to her ear. He wanted to stare into her large sapphire eyes as he sheathed his cock deep in her sodden pussy.
Her eyes flickered with surprise, then sparked with an interest he knew she couldn’t act on. A mirroring awareness rode on a hot tide of need he knew he had to ignore. It washed over him, shorted out his senses.
He blinked, and the interest disappeared. So did the tormenting vision of Rhonda Ramsey, gorgeous and smart in a way that rocked his equilibrium, as she moved toward him that long-ago, fateful day. He peered through the windshield as he slowed his SUV. Rhonda, with her full breasts beneath a thin tank top, and the cock-teasing display of her shapely legs beneath short shorts, gave way to a view of the docks under a growing cloud of billowing smoke. Everything in the last two years seemed to lead him back here, back to a kingpin he had yet catch and a woman he still couldn’t have.
“Catch the kingpin, and you can have the woman.”
It worked well in theory, the prize of a lifetime in return for a painful sacrifice. Watching her walk away the first time tortured his mind, his body. Being the one to do the walking the second time ripped his heart from his chest. No man would ever call him a coward, but the thought of what could happen to Rhonda if Phay got wind of their association scared him to death.
“That’s why you have to catch the bastard.”
Michael pulled to a stop behind the emergency vehicles parked haphazardly near the woods to the left of the docks. One road, blocked by the responders already on scene, led to the cluster of beach houses hidden behind the trees. He would have to foot it the rest of the way.
Catching the kingpin proved to be one of those easier said than done statements. Veng Kim Phay managed to elude authorities at every turn. US Navy SEAL Team Six came the closest of anyone to taking down the Cambodian drug lord on his own turf four years ago. The mission, though unsuccessful in capture, sent the kingpin underground. Two years later, he resurfaced with a fury in the lands between Thailand and Cambodia.
Hell-bent on revenge against the SEALs, and with a new enterprise of liquid opium and narco-terrorism, Veng Kim Phay thrived stronger than ever, trading drugs for weapons and trafficking liquid opium by the boatload onto the coastal soil through the docks in Silver Springs. Michael had spent the last two years working in conjunction with the SSPD Narcotics Division and an elite team from the Waterston office of the FBI setting up sting operations. Together, they intercepted trafficking attempts by the Phay Cartel and traced the supplies that managed to make it on land. They discovered the Phay Cartel took to turning the liquid opium into tablets. More, the cartel manufactured them in locations throughout Silver Springs and surrounding areas rather than bringing them in, therefore lessening their risk of detection.
Lessening but not eliminating. The DEA, SSPD, and FBI had exposed three of those labs already, taking fourteen men into custody and effectively seizing more than seventy pounds of liquid opium and finished tablets. Those numbers didn’t include the street pushers who they’d arrested and often flipped to gain the intel on the locations of the super-labs.
And with each bust, each takedown, each dealer you manage to flip, you move one step closer to capturing the man in charge.
Michael cut the engine and got out, his attention focused on the rapidly darkening sky. He heard the call less than fifteen minutes ago over his radio scanner. The sheriff’s department received a tip of a possible fire at an abandoned beach house near the docks. First responders noted the smell of toxins. SSFD HAZMAT on scene reported the findings of a methamphetamine laboratory.
One step closer indeed.
He double-timed it past the squad cars, ambulance, rescues, and fire trucks until he reached the edge of the clearing. It didn’t surprise him to see a motorcycle strategically parked on the side and DEA Agent Adrien Bingham leaning against it watching the show. Adrien shot him a cocky grin and motioned him over.
“About time you got here, sweetie.” Adrien wore leather pants and a tie-dye T-shirt. The look stood out in contrast to his usual suit-and-tie apparel. His blond hair, typically styled to perfection even after taking off his helmet, appeared to be purposely disheveled.
“Some of us drive vehicles that can’t be squeezed through the cracks. What’s with the look? Never took you for the leather-wearing alpha male biker. Planning on getting a tattoo next?”
Adrien scoffed. “You think I would mar this body with a tasteless tattoo?”
“I’ve seen some that were pretty tasteful.” And one in particular he would love to taste in a variety of different ways.
Rhonda had shocked him several months back by presenting her right leg for his inspection. She’d gotten a half-moon flanked by a witch’s broom and wine cup inked just above her ankle. His astonishment didn’t come from the design. He knew about her Wiccan faith, understood the moon, besom, and chalice to symbolize the belief. The fact that he’d found the tattoo mouthwateringly sexy enough to ignite a fire in his tongue baffled him speechless.
“I bet you have.” Adrien’s smirk revealed his knowledge of Rhonda’s tattoo and Michael’s fascination, if not for the artwork, then for the woman who wore it. “Alas, I don’t think one would look so yummy on me. I’m dressed this way tonight because I was heading back from the club when I got the call about this.”
Michael lifted a brow. “Got the call?”
Adrien shot a telling glance at the fire engine closest to the blaze, his gaze lingering for a half second on the firefighter busily working the control panel on the side of the truck. “Thaddeus was one of the first on scene. He, umm, thought I might want to know what Max found inside.”
Max Jasper, Silver Springs Fire Department B-shift lieutenant and HAZMAT engineer. Michael nodded. Max knew his stuff. Michael didn’t doubt for an instant that the firefighter recognized the burning chemicals from the smell in the air before the HAZMAT truck rolled onto the fire scene.
“You’re racking up more inside connections than I’ve got, Bingham, and here I am supposed to be team leader.”
“Jealous?”
Michael chuckled at the teasing inflection in the agent’s tone. “Not a bit. You can fill me in, though. What did Max find in there?” He indicated the burning structure with a lift of his chin.
The fire appeared to be almost under control. He saw two firefighters in full hazardous material protective suits lead a hose in through a side door, heard the warning over the crackle of several nearby radios to proceed with caution and watch for triggers. He counted four other firefighters tackling the blazes from the outside on the front and side of the house.
“High-tech equipment, vats, beakers, and other goodies used to turn out a sizeable amount of our deadly little tablets.” Adrien paused, clucked his tongue. “On the flammable side, we have ether, iodine, and red phosphorus for sure. Exactly how much I don’t know yet, but it’s enough to raise some serious alarms.”
“Any word on how the fire started?” Michael had attempted to check on the identity of the informant on his way over. So far, the sheriff’s department had been unsuccessful in obtaining that information.
“Unofficial guess when I arrived is a match, but…” Adrien ended the sentence with a shrug.
Michael understood. In other words, Captain Dean Wolcott and Lieutenant Max Jasper, the commanders on scene, thought the fire had been intentionally set.
“SSFD encountered a nice little present waiting for them.”
“Booby trap?” Hence the warning to watch for triggers that Michael had heard over the handhelds.
Adrien nodded. “With a sizeable boom. I don’t know the specifics. It happened just before I got here.”
That explained the enormity of the fire despite the quick response of the Silver Springs Fire Department.
“Apparently the very gorgeous and highly capable men and women of the SSFD were ready for it. They contained the flames before it could spread and catch the chemicals inside. If they hadn’t, we would’ve seen one hell of an explosion tonight.”
Michael didn’t doubt that. The toxins in the air confirmed the presence of all three chemicals. The quantity inside determined the magnitude of the explosion, but he’d seen super-labs do everything from taking out a line of trees to leaving a crater in the earth where the house once stood.
Watching the beach house burn took him back to his early days on the DEA. He remembered one of his first meth lab takedowns and the dealer who turned confidential informant for the team in which Michael had been assigned. The CI’s words as he walked into what little remained after a super-lab explosion had stayed with Michael throughout his career.
“Smell that?” The CI had thrown his head back and taken a deep breath. “The sick, sweet aroma that stays in the air?” He’d sighed as if he loved what he smelled. “That’s the smell of production, boys. That’s the smell of money. Remember that the next time. Maybe you’ll catch it before it gets to this state.
Michael smelled it then as he did now, and he remembered. He associated it not only with production and money, but with addiction and death. “Phay’s cartel wanted this place found.”
“And they wanted to take out as many emergency personnel as they could,” Adrien agreed. “It’s retaliation. Do you think they got wind of the sting?”
Michael studied the burning structure for a long moment, choosing his answer carefully. Finally, he shook his head. “No, I’d put my bet on this being a message to us.”
“Leave us alone or we’ll take you down instead?” Adrien guessed.
Michael nodded. Rayne Jasper had relayed a similar message to him through her battered lips last year. Boran Roumduol, one of Veng Kim Phay’s most trusted, promised to come after him if he didn’t stay out of the Phay cartel’s way.
Michael hadn’t listened then any more than he planned to listen now. He turned his back on the fire, confident the SSFD had the situation under control and knowing he could do little more than stand here until the fire department completely extinguished the flames.
“Anything new at the club?” They were investigating another angle in their coastal-wide war against the Phay Cartel and his horrific drug. This one pointed them to Club Vixen, a popular BDSM club across the bridge from Silver Sprigs in the city of Billings. Nicknamed Mini Las Vegas due to the neon lights of its many casinos, Billings proved to be the perfect hot spot for fetish clubs and dangerous drugs.
“You mean besides the creepy?” Adrien shuddered. “I don’t understand how Christa stands it.”
“From what I hear, the club is right up her alley.”
Christa Hutchens joined the DEA a few scant weeks before all hell broke loose during Hurricane Emilio two years ago, during the time when the Phay Cartel first made their presence known in Silver Springs. A coastal resident since birth, she knew her way around. Her hard-edge reputation enabled her to weasel into virtually any crowd despite the DEA badge she carried with pride. Her status as a regular at Club Vixen, a known player in the BDSM lifestyle, a respected dominatrix made her the perfect agent for the case.
“She can have it. I can play the straight guy with the best of them, but pretending to be a woman’s boy toy is stretching it a bit too far, boss.”
Michael barely suppressed a chuckle. “You don’t have to, Bingham. According to Stone, the feds are sending one of their men to play Christa’s toy. He’ll fit right in with the cover she’s already got in the works about looking for fresh meat.”
“You know who they’re sending, right?” Adrien looked skeptical. When Michael simply nodded, he said, “And you think he can handle Christa? From what I hear, the guy is pretty straitlaced.” He chuckled and shook his head. “Club Vixen will rip a guy like that by the balls and send him running home to Mommy.”
“Stone thinks he can handle it.” Michael saw it again, that telltale flicker in Adrien’s eyes when he mentioned the FBI agent in charge of the elite team working with the DEA and SSPD. He knew Adrien spent a lot of time talking with Cameron Stone. Michael had been the one to introduce the men.
That fateful day at this freaking dock, Michael thought sardonically. And around and around we go back to the beginning again.
“Stone isn’t giving you trouble, is he?” Michael watched Adrien for any indication that the other agent might not tell him the truth. Being a gay man, no matter his skill and intelligence, often brought Adrien unwarranted problems when working with those outside their own office. He didn’t think that had been the case with Adrien and Stone. He thought the two agents came to an instant understanding. Maybe he had been wrong.
Adrien sighed, but when he answered, Michael didn’t detect any hint of lie. “About me being gay? No. About the agent we know the feds have inside the Phay Cartel? Yes. He won’t tell me jack.”
“Last I heard, he doesn’t know jack. The coordinates of Phay’s compound in the jungles of Cambodia somewhere near the Thailand border is the last communication received from his inside agent.” Michael didn’t even know the guy’s name who infiltrated the Phay Cartel shortly after the kingpin resurfaced.
“Operation Liquid Tab is set to go down in, what, a little over a month? Half of our team, Stone and his men, and Team Six are preparing to go in, and you don’t even know what you’re facing.”
“Team Six will be there for their own agenda, on their own orders. It’s connected to OLT, but they won’t be working directly with the DEA or FBI.” Michael wished the SEALs were slated to be involved in the takedown. He would much rather the badasses he knew at his side than men of the Royal Cambodian and Thai armed forces.
“If Ziegler gets his chance, he and his men will change that.” Adrien’s prediction held a fifty-fifty shot of coming true. Lieutenant Commander Korbin Ziegler and the rest of SEAL Team Six wanted the kingpin as badly as anyone. The drug lord’s attempt to take out former SEAL Ryan Magee, followed by the kingpin’s success in reaching another of the team’s men shortly after, made the spec ops warriors hell-bent on retaliation.
“Then we’ll do it together.” Michael had his own reasons for going after Phay, personal and professional.
Catch the kingpin, and you can have the woman.
Yeah, that summed it up in a nutshell.
* * * *
Bangkok, Thailand
She missed him. Rhonda Ramsey checked her e-mail, heaving a disappointed sigh when she didn’t find anything from Cosmos228. She promised herself she wouldn’t do this. The fact that she kept doing it pissed her off.
“Is something wrong, girl?” Nancy Aaron stood in front of the hotel room mirror where she had planted herself after leaving the shower ten minutes before, a brush in one hand and a can of aerosol hairspray in the other.
Wrong? Absolutely. I want what I can’t have, what I promised myself I wouldn’t go after. I’m furious with what I want and how badly I can’t stand being without it. I let what I swore I wouldn’t let happen happen, and now I’m paying the price.
“Not a thing.” Rhonda moved her thumb over the keys on her BlackBerry, pulling up her Facebook page in her cell’s browser and pushing the image of her Mr. Exotic Eyes clad in his signature dark suit and tie out of her mind. She might miss him, but damn if she would continue to beat herself up over him.
“Everything’s okay with Lucas, isn’t it?” Nancy waved her brush in front of her face, coughing at the cloud of ozone-destroying vapors she let loose in the air while effectively gluing her gray-speckled brown hair in place.
Rhonda bit back a grin, remembering how she used to watch her grandmother do the same thing. At fifty-eight, Nancy wasn’t quite old enough to be her grandmother, but that didn’t stop the resemblance or hamper Rhonda’s love for her dear friend.
“Lucas is fine,” Rhonda answered and let the smile come as she said her boy’s name aloud. She missed him, too, and wouldn’t feel an ounce of guilt for that one. “He sent me a message a few hours ago telling me all about his night.”
“A message.” Nancy tsked. “What would you young people do these days if you actually had to talk to each other? I tell you, girl, that Internet is ruining kids. And all that Facebook and tweety stuff…”
“Twitter.” Rhonda giggled. “I think you mean Twitter.”
Nancy waved the brush dismissively before turning back to the dresser. She exchanged the brush for a tube of mascara and began applying a generous amount to her lashes. “Young people these days would rather spend all their time posting and texting than having a real conversation. I tell you it’s not good, girl.”
“I’ll agree it can do real damage to some people. I certainly can’t say it helped my marriage any.” If anything, it made Preston more distant, lazier, and unresponsive to her and Lucas. Not a good thing to happen to a relationship already knocking on the doors of divorce court.
Nancy turned again, this time waving the mascara wand at Rhonda like a director’s stick. “Honey, even I can’t blame the Internet for that. You didn’t have a marriage to begin with.”
“True.” Her nine-year marriage to Preston Ramsey ended a long time before the date on the divorce decree from a year and a half ago. She stayed with him for convenience, out of the trepidation of making it alone, and for Lucas. She ignored his negativity, put up with his lack of goals, and dealt with the lashes to her own self esteem until she simply couldn’t do it any longer.
“And you’re happier now because you’re finally out of that mess.” One of Nancy’s gray-speckled brows winged up as if she expected Rhonda to argue.
Rhonda couldn’t. “True again.” She didn’t remember being this happy, not in her pre-Preston days and certainly never with him. Even in the early days when she loved him, he never made her as happy as she found herself these last months.
Nancy frowned, and Rhonda chuckled again. “But if that Facebook stuff is what finally gave you the courage to get the hell out of that mess, then I guess I can’t say the Internet is all bad after all.”
Rhonda’s courage had come from finally realizing what she deserved rather than what she forced herself to endure, but she didn’t bother to explain that to her friend.
“It’s done a lot for my career, too,” she pointed out. “Without the Internet, I probably wouldn’t be a published author.” Or so very close to being able to quit the restaurant and say good-bye to waitressing forever. She had found her niche writing erotic romances, and, with the growing popularity of e-books, her career had begun to soar. “And without sites like Facebook and Twitter, promotion would be a real pain. They’re great for reaching readers.” She scooted to the edge of the bed, sitting on her knees, and turning her BlackBerry toward Nancy so her friend could see the screen. “Look at the thread on my fan page about where I am right now. My readers are busting a gut laughing at one another as they try to figure it out.”
Nancy gave the cell phone a cursory glance. Her lips twitched. “Keep them guessing, girl.”
“I intend to.” Rhonda settled back on the bed again, scanned her readers’ posts. They put her everywhere in the galaxy from the swamps of Louisiana to the sparkling beaches of Jamaica to the never before explored Pluto. “Hmm, I wonder what little pebble I can toss down for them to follow this time?”
“Make it something vague,” Nancy suggested. “Tell them you can see the sweeping view of the city skyline from your hotel room window or something like that.”
Rhonda grinned. “Nice one.”
Nancy shrugged. “I read it in the hotel brochure. You post that, and they’ll have you in New York or San Diego. They’ll never believe you’re in Bangkok.”
I still don’t believe I’m in Bangkok. It’s amazing! And it’s all thanks to you.”
Nancy, in a miraculous roll of the casino dice, had won a trip for two to the luxurious Chatrium Suites in Bangkok, Thailand, and insisted Rhonda accompany her. The older woman wouldn’t take no for an answer. Not that Rhonda tried very hard to decline the invitation.
“You needed a vacation, sugar. Besides, who else would I bring? Tina’s got her muscle-bound hunk, and I don’t like anyone else at the restaurant these days.”
Well, if that didn’t make a girl feel wanted, Rhonda didn’t know what would. She bit back a smile, knowing her friend didn’t mean anything by the comment. “You could’ve asked Bobblehead. I bet he would’ve closed the restaurant for a week just to come with you.”
Nancy reached behind her, grabbing for the hairbrush on the dresser. “I ought to bop you a good one for even thinking that.”
Bob Rainer, manager of The Gold Corral Seafood Restaurant, got his nickname because of his bowling-ball-sized head on his toothpick-sized neck. Wide shoulders, even wider chest, potbelly gut, and bird legs completed the package to make him a truly laughable sight.
“Better yet, I’m going to tell your mother.” Nancy spun back around, her nose stuck haughtily in the air. The glimmer in her wrinkled-rimmed eyes gave her away.
“After the night Lucas treated her to, I doubt she will want to hear anything about unruly children for a good long while.” Rhonda had left her nine-year-old son with her mother for the week. She figured if she got lucky, she would only have to listen to her mother guilt trip her out for a few weeks after she returned. She added a month to that prediction when she learned Lucas had been allowed to have a sleepover last night.
“That sweet boy of yours doesn’t know how to be unruly.”
“Shows how well you know Lucas,” Rhonda muttered, refreshing the page on her browser before situating the cursor in the “What’s on your mind?” box to start her latest post. “When he gets together with Timmy Magee, the best thing you can do is grab a drink and a book and head for the bedroom.”
It’s exactly what she did two nights before leaving for Bangkok when she let Lucas and Timmy get together at her house. She made the boys popcorn, blocked the bad channels on the television, plugged in the game systems, and headed to her bedroom with a steamy romance novel and a glass of cabernet.
And ended up spending the night fantasizing about him.
Those fantasies replayed in her mind in super-fast want-to-do-you mode before she could stop them. She saw Michael dressed to impress in a dark Armani suit over a white shirt that tempted her to unbutton it and peel it off his wide shoulders. He leaned casually against the desk in his office, feet crossed at the ankles, lips tilted in a come-get-me smile. Her heart tripped as wetness pooled in her panties.
She imagined herself walking toward him, slowly removing her clothes and watching as the desire ignited in his exotic eyes. He extended his left hand, and she took it, entwining their fingers as he spun her around and lifted her to sit on the desk. His hands grazed up her arms, then down her sides, barely touching, yet sending her senses into a riotous overload. A shiver of debilitating awareness moved through her as he urged her thighs to spread and sank to his knees.
She actually felt the silky strands of his dark hair fisted in her fingers as the warmth of his breath fanned the sensitized flesh of her pussy lips. Oh, sweet merciful gods, if felt so good, too good. He slipped a finger between her sodden folds. Her hips wanted to buck against that touch, but his free arm wound around her body to hold her still. He would touch her, taste her, maybe even take her right here in his office. The sheer naughty excitement of it only heightened her pleasure.
The anticipation of his mouth on her aching core caused her breath to quicken. Then—oh, yes—he leaned in to lick at her mound, spread her folds apart, slip his tongue inside, and…
“I don’t suppose you thought to share that bit of advice with your mother.”
Rhonda shook off the fantasy, biting hard on her lower lip as she glanced up at Nancy. Her cheeks heated in a telltale blush. Thank the gods something in her friend’s suitcase monopolized the bulk of her attention. “She didn’t ask. Besides, she raised two kids of her own. She should know the tricks to maintain sanity by now.”
Nancy straightened at the three short raps to the hotel room door. She paused on her way to answer it, shooting Rhonda a look. “Mothers tend to forget those little tricks with age, no matter how many children we’ve raised.”
Since Nancy had raised four children of her own and played a large part in the lives of her six grandchildren, Rhonda figured the woman knew her stuff. “The things I get to look forward to,” she mumbled good-naturedly and typed, Speculations abound. She smiled, pleased with herself for thinking up this contest to get her readers involved in her work. Though this trip to Bangkok was definitely a vacation, she had already started making notes for her next book.
“Room service.”
Rhonda noted the heavily accented voice muffled by the still closed door with half her mind, the other part continuing with her post. Ready for today’s hint?
“We didn’t order anything.” The sounds of the lock disengaging and the knob turning accompanied Nancy’s statement.
“Room service,” the voice said again.
Rhonda decided to give her readers a bit more than a pebble, remembering something she’d told another friend when asked where she would be spending the next week. I’m in a place of exotic beauty towering over a river that sparkles like diamonds.
“You must have the wrong room.”
I can see the sweeping view of the city skyli
Rhonda paused, the insistence she heard coming into her friend’s voice causing a prickle of apprehension to dance across the back of her neck.
“Compliments of the hotel, madam.”
Rhonda looked up, the prickle morphing to a wash of fear as her gaze slammed into the cold, calculating eyes of a man she had seen only once in a photo nearly two years ago. The photo of Michael had been in the hands of a man who worked for the drug lord Veng Kim Phay, a man who nearly killed Ryan Magee, had Timmy Walker kidnapped, and Rayne Jasper beaten.
“Boran Roumduol.” The name rolled from her lips as her blood turned to ice. One thought managed to take hold through the terror: Help. Her gaze locked on his menacing face, she typed, SOS Bing, and lowered her BlackBerry as Roumduol raised his gun.
* * * *
Silver Springs, Mississippi
One week later
What kind of a man got off on self-inflicted pain?
Michael jammed a hand through his hair and pushed a hard breath from his lungs. Apparently he did. Worse, there didn’t seem to be an end to the suffering he dealt himself.
He pulled open the cabinet in his kitchen, letting out a sardonic chuckle when his gaze landed on the box of Cocoa Krispies on the shelf. While everything in his life these last two years seemed to circle back to the docks, his pain had really begun with a chance meeting in the cereal aisle of the grocery store. He still couldn’t look at a box of Rice Krispies without thinking of her, without wanting her.
Married. Nothing spelled “hands off” more definitely than that particular M word. Still, it hadn’t stopped the obsession from starting. In those few short minutes, Rhonda Ramsey got under his skin, into his soul, and he’d wanted her. The want turned to an emphatic need when that M word morphed to an S word followed by the letters i, n, g, l, and e six months later. Still, she kept her distance.
He understood her hesitation, realized a woman so recently out of a debacle of a marriage would need time and space. He accepted it, but he’d been unwilling to walk away. He weaseled his way into her life by claiming he could be satisfied with a simple friendship. He would do anything to be near her, to get to know her, to have her in his life. Then he realized the danger that selfishness posed on her, and he’d walked away after all.
But you didn’t let her go.
He rubbed the bridge of his nose. With the world of technology at his fingertips, he figured it likely he’d never let her go. And therein lay his self-inflicted pain.
He snatched his cell phone off the counter and moved his thumb over the directional pad. The most recent text message—a quick check-in from one of the guys on his field operative team—disappeared, and the notification of a Facebook post by Rhonda recaptured his e-mail box. He didn’t have to see her profile picture for the need to wrack his body. Simply reading her name caused the full effect of his desire to claim his senses.
“Pathetic, Cosmos,” he mumbled. “You’re really pathetic.”
He started to delete the e-mail when the message it contained caught his attention. The time put the post at more than seventeen hours ago. Somehow he’d missed it when the notification came through to his phone.
He read it now, and something about the words she had typed made his gut tighten. Her post ended abruptly and made very little sense. Reasoning that not all the message made it through the transfer to his e-mail, he strode to his desk in the corner of his living room. He noticed she seemed to be toying with her fans lately, playing some sort of guessing game for a contest. Was that post another part of her game? He would have easily dismissed it as such if not for the way it ended: SOS Bing.
SOS. Help? Or did she mean the acronym to stand for something else?
Michael settled in his desk chair and pulled up the Internet. His mind reeled even as he attempted to silence the warning bells drowning his thoughts.
Bing. That, too, could hold a meaning he wasn’t aware of. It didn’t necessarily stand for Bingham.
But what if it did? What if the SOS Bing meant exactly what he feared? Help, Bingham.
The cell phone in his hand began to vibrate. A cursory glance at the screen read: Bingham, A. Michael pressed the speaker button.
“Don’t you ever sleep?” He put the phone on the desktop, his other hand busily clicking the mouse as he moved through icons and brought up Rhonda’s Facebook profile page on the screen. Her picture caused him a moment’s pause. He remembered thinking how happy she looked when he first saw that picture after her divorce.
Happy? Ha! The description that really came to mind had been sultry, sexy, drop-dead gorgeous, dick-achingly perfect.
“About as much as you do,” Adrien said.
Yeah, Michael figured that. He wasn’t the only one playing the self-inflicted pain game these days. He didn’t know the details and wouldn’t dare ask, but he’d watched Adrien step back from a budding relationship with SSFD Firefighter/Engineer Thaddeus Carter a few months ago, and that wasn’t the only shadow he noticed following the agent lately.
“Good, saves me from having to apologize for waking you.”
Adrien barked a laugh. “Like you’ve ever apologized for that. Besides, Cameron would’ve beaten you to it tonight.”
Michael leaned back in his chair, his likely unwarranted concern over Rhonda momentarily forgotten. “You heard from Stone?”
“Actually, I called him.” The inflection in Adrien’s tone made his words sound like a confession, as if he should feel guilty for contacting the FBI agent. “I got tired of waiting on him to call me back.”
Michael bit back a grin when that statement made him think how Adrien sounded like a jilted lover rather than a team player.
“Since I hadn’t heard from you, I figured you didn’t know—”
“Didn’t know what?”
“About the coded message the FBI received a few hours ago from their agent inside Phay’s compound.”
Michael sat up. “What did it say?”
“That’s what I was waiting to find out from Cameron.” Adrien didn’t sound happy. “He still doesn’t know entirely. They’ve got a team of analysts working to unscramble it now, but what they managed to decode doesn’t sound good. On the upside, the message contained what appears to be the coordinates of the weapons the SEALs and feds are after.”
That meant when Operation Liquid Tab went down, the teams involved would have a better clue of what they were facing and where to find what they were after.
“But there’s a downside,” Michael prodded.
“A couple of potentially bad ones.”
“Is his cover blown?”
Danger was the name of the game in any branch of public service. The men and women of the DEA, FBI, military, police, and fire departments put their lives on the line willingly and proudly every time they put on their uniform or grabbed their badge. Going undercover to infiltrate a drug cartel, establish a bond with the kingpin himself, and relay the intel on drug and weapon locations to the FBI was a dangerous game few agents could successfully play. It took the FBI’s guy three years to be trusted enough to obtain anything of value to transmit back to the agency. If Phay found out now, the agent would face certain death.
Adrien sighed. “Certain parts of the message are leading the FBI to think it might have been. Stone finally gave me the guy’s name. It’s Alec McIntyre. He’s known in the Phay Cartel as Alec Veansa, thought to be born to an American soldier with a Vietnamese mother.”
“I’ll be damned.” Michael knew Alec McIntyre more by reputation than person. The agent had hit triple-D status—dedicated, dangerous, and deadly—shortly after stepping through the doors at Quantico. He ranked with the best of the best and made it his specialty to excel in undercover assignments. “Isn’t he close friends with Stone?”
“Yeah, Cameron is pretty shaken by the message.”
In the years Michael had known Cameron Stone, he’d seen the man in everything from kick-ass FBI mode to laid-back surfer boy cool. He never once saw the man shaken.
“There’s more,” Adrien continued. “It’s also believed Phay has taken at least one, possibly two, American women hostage. Stone thinks that’s the primary reason McIntyre sent the coded message, to alert the FBI, to request a rescue attempt.”
Michael’s gaze flew to Rhonda’s profile picture, then dropped to the last update on her Facebook page. “Adrien, where’s Rhonda?”
Adrien didn’t miss a beat at the conversational shift. “On vacation as far as I know, why?”
Icy fingers of dread rang the alarm bells in Michael’s mind. “Vacation where?”
“She wouldn’t tell me. All I could get her to say is that she was headed to a place of exotic beauty—”
“Towering over a river that sparkles like diamonds,” Michael interrupted.
“Yeah, how did you know?”
“I’m reading it on her Facebook now.”
“She finally left it as a clue, huh? She’s got this contest running on her profile. She’s leaving her readers little hints and having them guess where she went. It’s turned out to be pretty smart. The response she’s getting is incredible.” Adrien chuckled. “I guess she didn’t want me to win. Crazy girl forgets all I’ve got to do is hit a few keys and I can find out her complete itinerary, from the plane she took to get there to the hotel she’s staying in.”
“I don’t think she’s forgotten that, Bingham.” Michael had never known fear like he did in that moment. “I’m starting to think she’s counting on it. What does SOS Bing mean to you, because that’s how her last clue ended.”
“You think she sent me an SOS?”
Michael could hear Adrien’s fingers moving over a computer keyboard. He typed in the URL and pass codes to bring up the necessary information, too. Adrien got it a second before he did.
“Shit. She’s in fucking Thailand.”
Michael closed his eyes. “He’s got her, Adrien. Phay’s got her.” He knew it. The icy fingers that had poked at him since he found the message in his cell phone e-mail turned to razor-sharp blades of certainty.
“What do you want me to do?” Shock resonated in Adrien’s voice, but the man’s words showed his readiness to act.
Michael pushed aside every emotion that slammed into his gut, his chest and called on his training and experience. His feelings for Rhonda wouldn’t save her. His ability to do his job might.
“Get in touch with Stone, fill him in, and tell him Operation Liquid Tab is a must ASAP. I’m going to pull some strings and get to Ziegler. Between the four of us, we should be able to cut through some red tape and make this happen.”
“You don’t have authorization to execute Operation Liquid Tab for another three weeks,” Adrien reminded.
“Rhonda doesn’t have three weeks.” Michael refused to think about what the kingpin and his goons might have done to her already. He snapped off the images that threatened to drag him down. Flashes of Rhonda with her hands and legs bound, clothes torn, flesh bruised and bloody, and her face…
“Get the coordinates to the fucker’s compound, Bingham. I’ll go in myself if I have to.”
“Playing Rambo isn’t going to help her, sweetie.”
“Then let’s make sure I don’t have to.”

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