Hard Target



Derek Tower has spent his life at war, first as a Green Beret and then as the owner of a private military company, Cobra International Security. When a high-ranking US senator asks Cobra to protect his daughter, a midwife volunteeringin Afghanistan, Derek’s gut tells him to turn the senator down. The last thing he wants to do is babysit an aid worker. But Jenna isn’t just another assignment. She’s also the younger sister of his best friend, the man who diedtaking bullets meant forhim. There’s no way Derek can refuse.

 

Jenna Hamilton doesn’t need a bodyguard, especially not one hired by her intrusive and controlling father. She knew the risks when she signed on to work in rural Afghanistan, and the hospital already has armed security. She also doesn’t need the distraction of a big, brooding operative skulking about, even if he is her late brother’s best friend—and sexy as hell. As far as she’s concerned, he can pack up his Humvee and drive into the sunset. And, no, nothing her hormones have to say about him will change her mind.

 

From the moment his boots hit the ground in Afghanistan, Derekdoes his best to win Jenna over, posing as her brother so the two of them can spend time alone.Except that what he feels for heris anything but brotherly.Stolen moments lead to secret kisses—and an undeniable sexual attraction that shakes them both to the core. But events have been set into motion that they cannot escape. When a ruthless warlordsets his sights on Jenna, Derek will do whatever it takes to keep her safe, even if it costs him his heart—or his life.



Ebook ISBN

ISBN-13: 978-1-7335251-1-4

ISBN-10: 1-7335251-1-4

 


Read an excerpt below...



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Excerpt



CHAPTER ONE

November 10


Derek Tower strode down the hallway toward Conference Room One, a mug of black coffee in hand, his reflection moving with him along walls of burnished steel. A woman’s silky laughter told him that Holly and Nick Andris were already there. A husband-and-wife team—and two of Cobra’s best operatives—they had just returned from a covert job in Colombia and were here for a debriefing.

 

It needed to be quick. Derek had a flight to catch.

 

He was due in Istanbul tomorrow morning. A Cobra operative had infiltrated a ring of IS recruiters, and tomorrow they were going to take that ring down. It was the kind of covert work Cobra did well, the kind that involved perfect coordination, flawless execution, and complete secrecy.

 

Derek entered the conference room, its glass walls sound-proof and equipped with built-in blinds that were already closed. “Morning.”

 

Andris dragged his gaze off his wife. “Morning.”

 

“Hey, Derek.” Holly’s lips curved in a smile that turned men into idiots.

 

Naturally platinum blond with big brown eyes and lethal curves, she could have been a movie star. Instead, she’d put her brains and good looks to work for the CIA, gathering intel through close contact with men deemed a danger to the United States. When she’d been exposed and almost killed, Derek and Javier Corbray, Derek’s business partner, had offered her a job. They’d also taken on Andris, a former Delta Force operator who’d worked as muscle for the CIA.

 

As far as Derek was concerned, Holly was Cobra’s most valuable asset. Anyone could be trained to point a gun and shoot, but not many could gather intel while being groped by a drug kingpin, terrorist organizer, or foreign assassin.

 

“You got him. Good work. How was your flight?” Derek sat and punched a button on the control panel that would turn on the view screen and bring Corbray into their meeting from Washington, D.C.

 

Andris shared a look with his wife. “We slept most of the way.”

 

Right.

 

The two of them were crazy in love. They’d once been caught on camera fucking on the table in Conference Room Two. Derek didn’t understand love, but he understood lust plenty well. He would bet his ass they hadn’t slept at all. “Corbray, you there?”

 

“Great job.” Javier Corbray’s grinning face appeared on the screen.

 

Corbray, a former Navy SEAL, had worked with Derek to put this company together, lifting Derek from the ashes of his private security firm—Tower Global Security, which had been forced into bankruptcy. Corbray spent a lot of time in DC, where his wife, Laura Nilsson, worked as a television journalist.

 

That was fine with Derek. He didn’t miss dealing with the suits in Congress.

 

Derek glanced at his watch. “I need to get to the airport, so let’s do this.”

 

Corbray went first. “I had a message from the Attorney General in my inbox this morning. She is elated to have this asshole in custody.”

 

The asshole in this instance was Christopher David Hansen, a former Coast Guard officer who’d been using his position to help a Colombian cartel run cocaine into San Diego. When he’d realized the DEA was onto him, he’d fled to Colombia and tried to hide in the jungle. The DEA hadn’t been able to get near him. There were too many leaks, too many eyes along the roads, too many people ready to tip off the cartel bosses the moment anyone asked about him.

 

But the DEA’s intel had revealed that Hansen liked to beat up hookers and left his lair a few times a month in search of prey. That’s when they had given Cobra a call.

 

Andris slid his written report across the table. “Based on the intel we received, we set up our operation outside Characa. There’s a little cantina in town where he likes to drink and pick up working girls.”

 

Holly told them how she’d driven to the outskirts of town, wearing a mic but alone, while Andris and his team had placed themselves strategically out of sight. She’d walked into the cantina pretending to be a tourist whose boyfriend had ditched her and whose car had broken down.

 

“When no one spoke English, I started crying and asked for a drink and then another. I pretended to get wasted. He sat in the corner with one of the working girls, watching. I did a little drunk dancing, and eventually, he took the bait.”

 

“Of course, he did,” Derek said.

 

Helpless, drunk, and drop-dead gorgeous—an irresistible combination for a predator like Hansen.

 

Holly told them how she’d tagged Hansen with a micro GPS transmitter during a hug just in case he didn’t try to pick her up. But then the bastard had offered to let her stay at his place and send a tow truck for her car. She had feigned gratitude, let him buy her another drink, and left the cantina with him—and his two armed sicarios.

 

Derek had worried about this part of the plan. It had been risky as hell for her to be alone with that fucker and his trained killers.

 

Then again, Holly was a pro, and managing risk was part of the job.

 

“He stopped a few miles down the road and had his men take away my phone and passport—for safekeeping, he said.”

 

“Safekeeping.” Corbray’s words were sharp with sarcasm. “What a hero.”

 

If Holly had been an ordinary tourist, her life would have ended that day. Hansen would have destroyed the phone, taken his time raping and beating her, and then blown her head off and tossed her body in a marsh.

 

Holly finished her part of the story. “He told his guys to get out of the vehicle because he and I were going to have some fun. I waited till he was out of his pants and then threw up on him. He slapped me, but he lost his erection.”

 

Andris’ jaw tightened, his expression hard. “The target stepped out of the vehicle to clean himself up and still had his pants around his ankles when we moved on him. We eliminated the two bodyguards, bagged Hansen, shoved him into the back of our vehicle, and headed straight for the airport. It took less than two minutes.”

 

Hansen was lucky Andris hadn’t gelded him on the spot.

 

“Did you run into any—” Derek was cut off by the persistent buzzing of his cell phone. He glanced at the display. Fuck. “I need to take this.”

 

“Istanbul?” Corbray asked.

 

Derek shook his head, got to his feet. “Senator Hamilton.”

 

Corbray grimaced. “What the fuck does he want?”

 

“I’m about to find out.” 

 

Derek bit back a burst of laughter. “You want me to fly into Afghanistan with a team and abduct your daughter? I can’t do that, sir. It’s illegal.”

 

What a crazy son of a bitch.

 

“I don’t give a goddamn what’s legal!” Hamilton shouted into his ear. “Jenna won’t listen to reason. She has no business being there. The Taliban kill midwives.”

 

It was the truth. Talibs deliberately targeted midwives. When they’d attacked the town of Ghazni last summer, they’d made their way to a midwifery school in the city and put a round through a midwife’s head while the student midwives hid in a safe room. They claimed that midwives were violating the rules of Islam by giving women contraception, even though Islam permitted contraception.

 

The truth was more straightforward than that. Nothing frightened Talibs more than an educated woman.But that wasn’t the issue here.

 

“Cobra cannot use force to bring a U.S. citizen back to the country without a warrant and the orders of DOJ.”

 

“Don’t forget what you owe my family.” Hamilton’s voice turned cold. “My son died for you. It was for his sake that I helped you get financial backing for your first company. Without me, you never—”

 

“I know what you’ve done for me, sir.” Derek knew what Jimmy had done for him. But no way was he putting up with this guilt trip. “Nothing changes the fact that I cannot kidnap a U.S. citizen. Once she’s here, what happens then? After she sues Cobra and wins, she’s free to fly back to Afghanistan—unless you’re willing to lock her up.”

 

“I would do no such thing.”

 

Derek wasn’t so sure.

 

Before Jimmy had joined the Army, his old man had tried to control every aspect of his life—how he wore his hair, where he went to college, the classes he took, the girls he dated, his choice of career, even his diet. If Jenna had gotten the same treatment as her brother, she’d no doubt left the country to get away from her asshole father.

 

For a moment, Senator Hamilton was silent. When he spoke again, there was anoily tone to his voice. “Jenna is my only living child. Grab your gear, get on a fucking plane, and talk her into coming home, keep her safe.”

 

“You want me to act as her bodyguard?”

 

“It’s not just the Taliban. It’s the militias, too. Those men think nothing of inflicting suffering on the civilian population. Besides, Jenna is wasting her potential over there. I didn’t raise her and send her to the best schools so that she could help poor people overpopulate the world with kids they can’t feed. She needs to come home, find a husband, and stop trying to fix that place.”

 

Could the man be any more of an asshole?

 

Derek knew what it was to be poor. The orphan son of a teen mom who’d overdosed on heroin, he’d been found in an alley and had grown up with nothing, moving from foster home to foster home, being raised by drunks and losers who liked the extra money from the state but didn’t give a damn about him.

 

“Where is she?”

 

“At a clinic in a rural area outside of Mazar-e-Sharif.”

 

Balkh Province.

 

It was one of the safer parts of Afghanistan. The Taliban controlled about forty-five percent of the country at the moment, but Balkh Province was under the protection of a wealthy warlord-turned-politician who hated Talibs even more than he hated the U.S. But as the attack on Ghazni had proven, no city was truly safe.

 

“Doesn’t she have local muscle guarding the hospital?”

 

“Yes, yes. She’s got Afghan guards with American weapons, but I don’t trust them. How much do you think it would take for someone to bribe them? What if one of them tells his Taliban cousin about the American midwife?”

 

Okay, so the senator had a point. Still, it wasn’t a simple thing to fly into Afghanistan with weapons and ammo and set up a babysitting operation.

 

“My presence there could provoke an attack on the hospital.” Did Hamiltonnot understand this? “By sending me, you could bring about the crisis you hope to avert.”

 

The local militias and likely the Taliban, too, would know that some American military guywas hanging out around the hospitalbefore Derek’s boots hit the dirt, and that might prove irresistible to someone looking to put another notch in his AK-47.

 

“I thought you special operators were the best. I thought you could go anywhere unseen, change how you look, disappear into the local population.”

 

Derek was about to explain that there was a world of difference between a covert military operation and driving up to a hospital in an armored vehicle and standing guard in broad daylight, but Hamilton cut him off.

 

“If you don’t get your ass on a plane tonight and do your best to bring Jenna home, I will ruin Cobra. I’ll make sure the company is never tasked with a government assignment again.”

 

It wasn’t an idle threat. Hamilton sat on the Armed Services Committee. Cobra could probably survive without his support, but he could make life rough for a while, especially given the demise of Tower Global Security.

 

Derek’s reputation in the private military field had been rock solid—until the day al-Qaeda had used a new kind of cell phone hack to get the jump on his men, killing his team and kidnapping Laura Nilsson, who was now Corbray’s wife. The attack had happened live during one of Laura’s news broadcasts. Millions had watched terrorists gun down his men and carry Laura, screaming, from the room. The resulting backlash had driven his company into bankruptcy.

 

Derek didn’t want to bring controversy down on Cobra.

 

“Don’t threaten me.” Hetried to meet Hamilton halfway. “I’ll get in touch with our assets in Mazar and get men I trust—”

 

“I want you there. I know you would do anything to keepJames’ little sister safe.”

 

Stick the dagger in and twist it.

                                                                                                                                   

Fuck.

 

Jimmy had been Derek’s best bud in the Green Berets. He had died saving Derek’s life, and Derek didn’t want anything to happen to his little sister. Derek could fly to Afghanistan and explain the dangers to her. If she refused to come home, at least he would know that he’d tried.

 

You’re going to regret this.

 

“Okay, I’ll take the job, but I won’t abduct her. That’s not even open to discussion. Expect an invoice this afternoon.”

 

“That’s fine. I don’t care about the cost. Just get on that plane, and talk her into coming home.”

 

That was the other thing.

 

“I won’t be able to head to Afghanistan for a few days because of a priority operation that has the president’s signature on it. I’m due in Istanbul tomorrow.”

 

“Just bring Jenna home.”

 

Derek ended the call and walked back to the conference room, where the debriefing was all but completed. His fury must have shown on his face because thediscussion stopped when he walked in.

 

“What’s wrong?” Holly asked.

 

Derek looked up at Corbray’s image on the screen. “I need to catch my ride to the airport, so I’ll fill you in on the way. In the meantime, start pulling assets together for Balkh Province. After Istanbul, I head to Afghanistan.”

 

 

 

Jenna Hamilton sat on the floor,surrounded byvillage women and doing her best to keep the conversation on the subject of prenatal warning signs. This village was the last stop on her three-day education and outreach tour of the countryside. Almost forty women of all ages had come and now packed the small space, their burkas cast off or pulled back like veils, smiles on their beautiful faces.

 

Their enthusiasm and their welcome were heartening. Their lack of knowledge about their bodies was not.

 

It was a tragedy. Afghanistan had once been a developed country where women walked the streets without veils, went to college, and worked as professors and doctors and artists. Now, thanks to religious extremism and decades of fruitless war, those days were gone. A generation of women had been deprived of education, forced to stay indoors, isolated from the world, their lives controlled entirely by men.

 

“Swollen ankles—who has seen a pregnant woman with swollen ankles?” Jenna spoke in Dari, using words that everyone would understand and not clinical terminology.

 

Faces old and young lit up, and women spoke all at once.

 

“My daughter’s ankles were fat with her first child.”

 

“Swollen ankles are part of being pregnant, aren’t they?”

 

“I had swollen ankles with all eight of my children, but I am well.”

 

Jenna waited until the talk died down to go on. “When a pregnant woman has swollen ankles, it is a warning sign.Her relatives should bring her to the hospital so that we can check her and make sure she isn’t getting sick. Swollen ankles can be a sign of a serious problem like high blood pressure, and that can kill both the mother and the baby.”

 

She wasn’t sure the women understood what blood pressure was, but that didn’t matter. As long as they knew what to watch for, lives could be saved.

 

Jenna knew what it was to grow up without a mother. Her mother had committed suicide when Jenna had been tiny. She barely remembered her mom—but the hole that her death had left in Jenna’s life was too real. If Jenna could save even one mother, this entire trip would be worth it.

 

Then a woman named Afarin spoke. “My daughter-in-law’s ankles were swollen for weeks. One day she fell on the ground and started to shake. We asked my husband to take her to the hospital, but he refused. She died that night with the baby still inside her.”

 

It was one of the harsh realities of life here. Men controlled women’s access to healthcare, and too many of them refused to let their wives, daughters, and daughters-in-law leave home for medical treatment, even when it meant days of needless pain—and preventable deaths.

 

Delara, one of the Afghan midwives at the hospital, had said it best.

 

“It is better to be a goat in Afghanistan than a woman.”

 

Afarin took in the words of comfort offered by the other women. This exchange of sympathy had become a social ritual in the lives of Afghan women—a response to oppression and suffering beyond anything Jenna could comprehend.

 

It was their suffering that had brought her here. She’d read the statistics about the one-in-eight lifetime risk Afghan women faced of dying from pregnancy-related causes. As a midwife, she’d felt she had to do something, so she had signed up to teach and work at a hospital that also served as a midwifery school. Training a generation of Afghan women to become skilled birth attendants was the key to improving maternal and infant mortality in the short term—and enabling Afghanistan in the long term to meet its own healthcare needs.

 

Jenna waited for a lull in the conversation to make her point. “If your husband had brought your daughter-in-law to the hospital, we could have given her medicine and done surgery to take the baby out. We might have been able to save both her and her baby.”

 

The women fell silent again.

 

Jenna let that sink in. “Bleeding is another warning sign that you should come to the hospital. Sometimes early in pregnancy, it’s normal to bleed a little, but lots of blood means you should come to the hospital right away.”

 

“We soak cotton in whiskey to stop bleeding,” said an older woman, her face wrinkled like an old apple. “We put that inside a woman if she bleeds too much after giving birth.”


Heads turned to see what Jenna would say about this.

 

“Bleeding happens when the womb won’t contract hard enough after a baby is born—or when a piece of the afterbirth is stuck inside. At the clinic, we can give a mother medicineto make her womb contract. We can also put her to sleep so she won’t feel pain and take out the part of the afterbirth that’s stuck. If she has lost a lot of blood, we can give her a blood transfusion. All of this can save her life so that her child will have a mother.”

 

“Won’t you hurt her liver if you reach inside her?”

 

Jenna turned and pointed to the side-view cut-away diagram of the pregnant woman behind her. “The womb is closed at the top. See? You can’t reach a woman’s liver through her womb. The liver is here.”

 

The conversation went on for another two hours over sugared almonds and cups of sweet kahwah, a kind of green tea spiced with cardamom and cinnamon bark, prepared by Sayah, their hostess and the wife of the village headman.

 

Jenna had just finished telling them that fever was also a warning sign when she heard the rumble of big engines and a shout outside the door.

 

The room fell silent, and the women donned their burkas. None of them had known an Afghanistan that wasn’t at war.

 

Jenna drew her grayheadscarf over her hair, stood, and closed the anatomy chart just in case. “I’m sure all is well.”

 

“Inshallah,” Sayah whispered. God willing.

 

Farzad and two of his men stood guard,together with men loyal to Sayah’s husband, against any incursions by the militias or local Talibs. Farzad had her paperwork—the letter from the region’s governor, Abdul JawadNoor, that gave her permission to work in Balkh Province. But written words meant nothing to men who couldn’t read and wouldn’t help her at all in the case of the Taliban.

 

She heard Farzad telling someone that it was the will of both God and The Lion of the North—the name Noor had earned during his days fighting Soviets as a Mujahedeen—that the women of this village should meet today.

 

Someone shouted something in a dialect Jenna didn’t understand.

 

Farzad spoke again in Dari. “It is a meeting of only married women discussing childbirth. It’s of no consequence. If you have questions, you should callThe Lion.”

 

Then Sayah’s husband spoke. “Friends, we have no disputes between us. Come. Let us drink tea together.”

 

The silence stretched on, Jenna’s pulse ratcheting.

 

Men’s laughter.

 

The rumble of engines as the intruders drove away.

 

Jenna exhaled, smiled. “All is well.”

 

A moment later, Farzad knocked on the door. “Miss Jenna, it is time to go!”

Farzad, an Afghan of Tajik heritage who had trained and worked with U.S. forces, had been head of the clinic’s security unit for the six months that she’d been here. She trusted him with her life. If he said it was time to go…

 

Jenna embraced Sayah, thanked her for her hospitality and kindness, and urged the women to share what she’d taught them today. Then she gathered up her anatomy chart and other materials and wishedthe women farewell. “Khoda hafiz.”

 

May God protect you.

 

A chorus of good wishes followed her out the door, putting a knot in her chest. In the six months she’d been here, she’d come to love Afghan women. She’d never met people who were more welcoming than they were. In six months, they had taught her so much about generosity, hospitality, and resilience.

 

Had she taught them anything today? She had no way of knowing.

 

Jenna hurried with Farzad through the November cold to their vehicle. “Who were they?”

“Militia.” Farzad opened the rear passenger door for her, rifle slung over his shoulder.

 

“I’ve seen their leader before. He’s Uyghur, a foreigner. I don’t trust him. Never trust the motives of a man who won’t share a cup of tea.”

 

If Farzad didn’t trust him, neither did Jenna. “Let’s get back to the hospital.”


 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

They drove through the gate at Noor Women’s Hospital just after sunset, Jenna breathing a sigh of relief as the heavy panel of steel closed behind them. Snow was beginning to fall and—

 

What the hell?

 

An armored Land Cruiser sat in the courtyard.

 

“That’s not Afghan Security Forces,” Farzad called back to her before she could ask, shouting so that she could hear him through the Plexiglas that separated the men in the front seats from the women who rode in the back.

 

“Is it militia or Coalition?” Jenna called back.

 

She had yet to run into the Polish troops that patrolled the province.

 

“I don’t think so. Stop the vehicle.”

 

The driver stopped just as a man stepped out of the Land Cruiser. Tall and dressed in khaki pants and a parka, he looked military to Jenna. She’d bet her life he was armed.

 

“Stay here, miss.” Farzad climbed out, weapon in hand, and closed the door behind him. “Salaam aalaikum.Peace be upon you.

 

 “Wa’alaikum salaam.” Peace be upon you, as well.

 

The man returned the Arabic greeting, then broke into flawless Dari. But there was no way he was Afghan. He had no beard, his jaw square and clean-shaven. His short hair gleamed blond in the headlights, and he stood at least a full head taller than Farzad, who was taller than most Afghan men.

 

“I’ve just been to pay my respects to The Lion of the North,” he told Farzad. “Abdul Jawad Noor sends his wishes for peace and health to you all.”

 

As Jenna listened, she found herself wondering where she’d seen him before. He looked familiar somehow. Had he told Farzad his name? No, she didn’t think so.

 

Farzad seemed to relax. “Health and peace be upon him as well. I am Farzad Mazari, head of security here.”

 

“I’m Derek Tower, Jenna Hamilton’s half-brother. I’ve been sent by our father to bring her home.”

 

Stunned, Jenna gaped at him through the closed window.

 

Derek Tower.

 

She recognized that name, but he wasn’t her half-brother. He’d been her brotherJames’best friend, the fellow Green Beret whose life her brother had saved at the cost of his own. But Derek’s lie wasn’t what made her blood boil.

 

Her father had sent Derek to bring her back to the United States.

 

To hell with that!

 

Jenna threw open the door andjumped to the snowy ground. “You can turn your fancy Land Cruiser around and get out of here. I’m not going back to the U.S.”

 

She knew she had probably startled Farzad with her lack of hospitality, but this wasn’t any of his concern.

 

She’d spoken to Derek in English, but he kept speaking Dari, a smile on his face as if he were happy to see her. “Hey, sister. I’ve missed you.”

 

“This man is your relative?” Farzad asked in Dari.

 

Jenna had no choice but to go along with the lie—unless she wanted Farzad and his men to beat the hell out of Derek and drag him away. “Yes.”

 

Farzad seemed satisfied. “He says he has come at your father’s request to take you home to America.”

 

“That’s too bad.” Jenna turned and reached inside the Land Cruiser for her anatomy chart and other things. “I’m not going anywhere.”

 

Farzad seemed surprised. “But your father sent him.”

 

Jenna took the venom out of her voice. None of this was Farzad’s fault. It wasn’t Derek’s fault either. “In the United States, a grown daughter can do as she chooses without her father’s approval.”

 

Farzad turned to Derek as if to confirm this.

 

“She tells the truth,” Derek said. “She can go wherever she wants—even if it is unsafe and gets her killed.”

 

“I came here to save women’s lives and train student midwives, not to be safe. I’m sorry you made the trip for nothing, brother.” Jenna shut the vehicle’s door and stomped off through the snow to the dormitory, leaving Farzad and Derek in the cold.

 

She keyed herself in and walked back to her small dorm room, where she dropped the chart and other materials on her bed.

 

Oh, the gall!

 

It was just like her father to do something like this. He always claimed he was acting in her interests, but it was really all about control. She was thirty years old, for God’s sake, not seventeen. The man had no say in any aspect of her life. It wasn’t really about her anyway. Her father was a toxic narcissist who viewed his children, his staff, and everyone around him as nothing more than extensions of himself. The more she tried to block him out of her life, the more he tried to interfere.

 

“We need to talk.”

 

Jenna whirled to find Derek behind her. “You can’t be here. It’s a women’s dorm. You’ll get all of us in trouble.”

 

“I won’t stay.” He was so tall that his head almost touched the top of the door frame, his body filling the space. He stood there, arms crossed over his chest, watching her through hard blue eyes, his skin tanned from the sun, his face rugged—and irritatingly handsome. “Your father is worried about you.”

 

She ignored the punch of attraction—or tried to. “He told you that?”

 

Derek nodded. “You’re his only surviving child, and he wants you out of the line of fire. He paid me a fortune to fly here just to ask you to come home.”

 

“Well, you’ve got your answer. Hopefully, he paid for your return flight as well.”

 

“He did—but I’m not leaving yet.”

 

Delara buzzed her on the old intercom system. “If you’re back, I need your help. We have six women in labor, and one is in distress.”

 

“I’ll be right there.” Jenna hung up her coat and adjusted her headscarf. “I need to go. You know the way out.”

 

Derek moved just enough to let her through. “We’ll finish this conversation later.”

 

“There’s nothing to talk about.” She caught the clean, masculine scent of his skin as she passed, the warmth of it curling inside her.

 

Ignore it. You’re probably just ovulating.

 

She didn’t look back but made her way through the secured doors into the hospital’s labor and delivery wing.

 

 

 

Derek watched Jenna disappear, women’s cries drifting through the doorway. Well, this was going exactly as he’d thought it would. Why had he let Hamilton guilt him into taking this job?

 

You’re a fucking idiot. That’s why.

 

Behind him, someone pounded on the door. “Tower! Come out!”

 

Women poked their heads out of their rooms to see what was happening. Some gasped to see him there, disappearing quickly behind closed doors again. Others pulled scarves over their faces, their eyes wide.

 

Hell.

 

He couldn’t be here. If villagers believed midwives were keeping company with unrelated men, it could put their lives, as well as Derek’s, in danger. He headed outside again to find the security guard standing there, fury on his face.

 

“It is not proper for you to be in there! This is for women only! You will have to speak with your sister outside.”

 

“My apologies.” Derek couldn’t pretend that he couldn’t read the sign on the door, given that he spoke Dari. “In my impatience, I didn’t think.”

 

Farzad seemed to accept this. “Let us get out of this cold and have some tea.”

 

The snow had picked up, icy flakes falling hard and fast as Derek followed the man out of the compound toward the concrete building that was the guards’ barracks. Inside, it was warm and well lighted. The hospital compound had been built with UN money and, unlike much of the countryside, had electricity, a backup generator, and running water.

 

A dozen men in uniforms sat together on the carpeted floor, some wrapped in patoos—traditional woolen shawls—for warmth, weapons propped against the walls behind them. They fell silent as soon as they saw him.

 

Farzad introduced Derek, told the men why he’d come. “Like his sister, he speaks our tongue, so watch what you say in front of him.”

 

The last part was mostly meant as a joke—but not entirely.

 

Derek pushed a grin onto his face, sat beside his host, accepted a cup of steaming kahwah. “Tašakor.” Thanks.

 

A basket of naan sat on a low table beside a dish of dried dates, empty bowls stacked to one side.

 

“Dawar, bring our guest a bowl of lamb stew.”

 

Derek wasn’t hungry but didn’t say so. Hospitality was the cornerstone of Afghan culture. Until he persuaded Jenna to go back to D.C. with him, he was stuck here. He needed to cultivate goodwill among these men, get them to trust him. He also needed to check each one of them against Cobra’s database of suspected Talibs, escaped IS fighters, and al-Qaeda sympathizers.

 

The youngest of the men stood and hurried off toward what must have been the kitchen, returning almost immediately with a bowl.

 

Derek thanked him, reached for a piece of naan, and used it as a spoon. The stew was hot and savory. He nodded his approval, bringing grins to the men’s faces. “Mmm.”

 

“Are you a soldier?” Dawar asked.

 

 

“Dawar!” Farzad admonished him. “Let our guest eat.”

 

This was a question Derek wanted to answer. He didn’t want word getting out that a U.S. soldier was hanging around the clinic. It might bring the Taliban or one of the provincial militias down on their heads.

 

“I’m not a soldier,” he told Dawar between bites. “I am a security guard like you.”

 

That wasn’t exactly true, but it was close enough.

 

“You came to take Miss Jenna home?” Dawar asked.

 

“Yes. Her father—my step-father—wants her to come home. He is afraid for her safety if she stays here. He knows the Talibs have killed midwives.”

 

Dawar and a few of the others looked insulted by this, their protests overlapping.

 

“We would not let that happen.”

 

“We watch over her and the others.”

 

“The Talib scum are no match for The Lion and his men.”

 

Then Farzad told them that Jenna had refused to go, raising eyebrows.

 

“Can you not simply command her to go with you?” Dawar asked.

 

Derek wanted to laugh. He hadn’t spent more than a minute with Jenna, but years of covert operations had made him a good judge of people. No one commanded Jenna Hamilton. “Under our laws, women are as free as men to live as they please. My sister must decide for herself.”

 

“What will you do?” asked a guard who said his name was Hamzad.

 

“I have no choice but to stay here to watch over her and hope I can change her mind.” He let the men digest this bit of information while he finished his stew, mopping up the juices with another piece of naan.

 

That’s right. I’m not leaving. Get used to the idea.

 

“But there is no need,” said Farzad. “We are here.”

 

There were murmurs of agreement, and Derek knew he was risking offense to his hosts if he implied that they weren’t capable of keeping Jenna safe themselves.

 

“Her father is grateful to you and to The Lion for watching over her, but he is still a father. Is it not a father’s nature to worry?”

 

This earned Derek a few sympathetic smiles.

 

He went on. “I stay because if I return to my country without her, I will have to admit to her father that I failed.”

 

In truth, he could deal with Hamilton, but he knew his words would strike home for Farzad and his men. Admitting failure was something no Afghan man wanted to do.

 

The men’s smiles faded.

 

Farzad gestured at the room around them. “Miss Jenna has been good to our women and children. You can sleep here where it’s warm. We have a spare bunk.”

 

Derek managed another smile. “Tašakor.” Thanks.

 

Staying here in the barracks would put him right where he needed to be—close enough to Jenna to keep her safe and close enough to these men to make sure they were all who they seemed to be.

 

 

 

Jenna dragged herself out of bed at six, walked down the chilly hallway to the only shower in the dorm, and turned on the spray, washing quickly because the water was never truly warm. She tried to visualize the water rinsing away her exhaustion and the sadness that had followed her through the night, but it didn’t work.

 

Shima, a girl of only fourteen, had arrived at the clinic late last night after two days of labor with her second baby. Jenna had quickly confirmed that the baby was transverse, which made a vaginal birth impossible. With the girl’s mother-in-law acting as the go-between, she and Marie, the clinic’s French OB-GYN, had pleaded with Shima’s husband, a man in his forties, to allow a C-section, but he had refused. Jenna hadn’t been sure the mother-in-law was explaining things to him accurately, but custom forbade Jenna or any of the other women from talking with him.

 

They had managed to turn the baby—an agonizing ordeal for Shima—but by then it was too late for the baby. The little boy had slipped lifeless into Jenna’s hands.

 

It was hardly the first stillbirth Jenna had attended here. Still, the senselessness of it ate at her. Shima was too young to be married, too young to give birth to her second child, too young to endure so much suffering and loss.

 

Stop. Don’t do that. Don’t dwell on it.

 

She’d go crazy if she did. Things were what they were. She had known what to expect before she’d come here.

 

They had at least been able to save Shima’s life—and insert an IUD. When her mother-in-law had stepped out of the room, the poor girl had begged Jenna for contraception, something her husband wouldn’t discover. Jenna had taken the unusual extra step of trimming the strings to be extra safe.

 

That was all she’d been able to do for Shima.

 

Jenna finished her shower and dried off. She didn’t feel more awake, but at least she was clean. She hurried back down the hallway to her room, put her hair into a ponytail, and dressed—long underwear, turtleneck, blue scrubs, a long white coat, and, of course, her headscarf. Though the hospital was heated, it never felt warm.

 

In the small kitchen, she found Delara making tea for everyone. Though a small kitchen staff made food for the patients, the midwives and students cooked for themselves.

 

“Good morning.” It had been Delara’s turn to take the night shift.

 

“How was the night?”

 

“Quiet.”

 

“I’m glad to hear it.”

 

A loaf of roht, a kind of sweet bread, sat on the table. Together with tea and the occasional egg, that was breakfast.

 

Delara handed Jenna a cup of tea, then sat and took a piece of roht, whispering a prayer before eating. “Bismillahi wa 'ala baraka-tillah.In the name of God and with God’s blessing.

 

Jenna sat, too, and drank. The tea was hot and sweet, bringing her back to life.

 

One by one, the student midwives drifted in, books under their arms—Guli, Nahal, Chehrah, Lailoma, Mahnaz and her sister Mina, Zari, Ruhkshana, and Parwana. They talked about their lessons, asking questions.

 

Nahal looked down the length of the table to Jenna. “Who was that strange man last night, the one who came into the dormitory?”

 

The kitchen fell silent.

 

Oh, God.

 

Jenna had forgotten about Derek Tower. “I apologize for that. He is my half-brother. My father sent him to talk me into coming home. He didn’t know that he couldn’t follow me inside.”

 

He almost certainly did know, but it hadn’t stopped him.

 

Now all of the women were staring at her.

 

Delara’s eyes had gone wide. “You are leaving us?”

 

Jenna gave Delara’s hand a squeeze. “No, I’m not. He’s leaving. I’m staying.”

 

Smiles of relief.

 

Jenna finished her breakfast and decided it was time to send Derek on his way. She put on her winter coat, adjusted her headscarf, and went out the back entrance. She found him carrying gear from his Land Cruiser to the men’s dormitory outside the concrete walls that surrounded the hospital and women’s dorm.

 

Was he moving in?

 

She called to him in English. “I thought you would be on your way by now.”

 

He stopped, turned toward her, those blue eyes looking right through her. “I’m not leaving without you, sister dear.”

 

Was he crazy?

 

“Just so you know, I signed on for two years, and I’ve been here for six months. I hope you like lamb kebabs and naan because you’ve got a long wait.”

 

“Then I guess the two of us will get to spend some time together.” With that, he turned and walked away, giving Jenna a view of his backside.

 

Oh. My. God.

 

She’d never actually seen a man’s butt fill out a pair of pants like that before, his buttocks shifting with each step. It all but made her mouth water.