Hard Line


A woman dragged into danger...

Dr. Samantha Park's life is shaken when her best friend and research partner dies barely two months into their eight-month stretch at the South Pole. She hasn't begun to face her loss when men from Cobra International Security arrive to recover sensitive military components from a crashed satellite—and ask her to come with them. As a scientist, she has always been suspicious of the military, and flying across Antarctica in austral winter is more like suicide than a rescue mission. But when she hears what's at stake, she agrees to help and is forced to put her trust in Thor Isaksen, the tall, broad-shouldered Dane who leads the Cobra team.

 

The only man who can keep her alive...

Thor served as an elite soldier in Afghanistan and spent two years as part of a Danish spec-ops unit patrolling sea ice in the Arctic. He's used to the cold and constant darkness. That's why he's been tapped to lead this mission. Under orders to do whatever he must to keep a dangerous weapon from falling into enemy hands, he's prepared for every scenario—except one. Samantha, with her blue eyes and brilliant mind, takes him by surprise. She's confident in her abilities as a scientist and yet so unsure of herself as a woman. Stuck at the station with his team until the weather clears, he can't ignore the growing attraction he feels for her even if she's the last thing he should be doing on the job.

 


A killer who will destroy them all...


As temperatures drop to one hundred below, the heat between Thor and Samantha flares out of control. But a killer is lurking on station, someone with an agenda that threatens not only the lives of every person there, but also global peace. It will take all of Thor's skill and strength to stop the murderous traitor—and keep himself and the woman he loves alive.



Ebook ISBN

ISBN-13:   978-1-7352939-0-5


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Excerpt



CHAPTER ONE



April 6

Thor Ravn Isaksen put the ax back in his tool shed and locked it up, enough firewood stacked near the porch to get him through the next several days. It might be April, but in Colorado's high country, spring had yet to arrive.

He picked up an armful of firewood and carried it inside, where the fire had almost gone out. He had gas heat, of course, but he preferred the warmth of the woodstove. When the fire was burning hot again, he grabbed a beer from the fridge, stepped outside onto his deck, and sat on the bench he'd built from scrap lumber.

He drew in a breath, the air clean and fresh, no sound but the wind in the pines.

He'd bought this property just before the holidays, moving from a condo in Northglenn to this three-bedroom house in the mountains. His property abutted National Forest land, which made it seem far bigger than a mere fifteen acres. It also came with an endless view of the snow-capped peaks to the west. His nearest neighbors were black bears, cougars, elk, bobcats, and mule deer.

It was Thor's idea of paradise.

It wasn't that he didn't like people. He just preferred solitude.

He'd grown up an only child in the Danish countryside, surrounded by a dense birch forest, and had learned to be content in his own company at an early age. That skill had come in handy during his two years with Sirius Dogsled Patrol, the Danish special forces unit that guarded the unpopulated expanse of Northeastern Greenland. Some of the guys had struggled with the isolation and the cold, the darkness and the vastness of the landscape creeping inside them.

But for Thor, that had been salvation.

The hard part had been returning home. After Greenland, the world had seemed too loud, too rushed, too... meaningless.

The only thing missing from his life was a partner. He had no interest in getting married. All the fuss and paperwork seemed like bullshit to him. Still, it would be nice to share his life—and his bed—with someone special. But he had yet to meet a woman who loved him enough to tolerate his profession.

As an operative with Cobra International Security, a private security company, he spent as much time out of the country as he did at home, leaving at a moment's notice. Women thought his job was sexy until the reality of broken dates, missed birthdays, and long absences sank in. Or maybe that wasn't it at all.

The last woman Thor had dated ended things one night after he'd failed to say anything about her expensive new shoes. He hadn't even noticed them. Amy had broken down on the phone, accusing him of being cold and uncaring. He hadn't known what to say. How could anyone care that much about something as frivolous as shoes?

Thor's time in Greenland had stripped him down, bared his strengths and weaknesses, testing him in ways he couldn't have imagined. It had helped him make peace with what he'd done in Afghanistan. It had showed him who he really was. He had no interest in small talk, and he didn't give a damn about shoes or possessions or fast cars or any of that stuff. They were overfladisk.

He searched for the English word.

Superficious? Superfictal? Superfiscal?

He wasn't sure.

Plus esse, quam simultatur.

Hellere at være, end at synes.

It was the motto of the Jægerkorpset—the elite Huntsman Corps&mdashbut it might as well be Thor's credo.

Rather to be than to seem.

Either he would meet a woman who meshed with his lifestyle, or he wouldn't. He'd already lived most of his adult life in the all-male world of spec-ops, serving first in the Jægerkorpset in Afghanistan before making the cut for Sirius. He had a lot of practice channeling his sexual energy into his work—and jacking off when he needed release. It wasn't as pleasurable as a night with a woman, but it was less complicated.

No emotional messiness. No one to disappoint.

He took another drink of his beer, let his mind go blank, and watched the sun dip below the horizon, its last rays turning the sky pink.

Buzz-buzz. Buzz-buzz.

His cell phone vibrated.

He drew it out of his pocket.

It was Derek Tower, his boss and one of the two owners of Cobra.

"Isaksen here."

"Get your cold-weather gear together and drive to HQ. We'll meet you there and head straight to the airport. We're flying to Christchurch, New Zealand, and from there, we catch an Air Guard flight to Antarctica."

Thor stood. "Did you say Antarctica?"

English wasn't his mother tongue. He must have misunderstood.

"We're going to Pole—Amundsen-Scott Station."

Hold dog kæft.

Shut the fuck up.

Thor had a hundred questions, but he knew Tower couldn't say much over the phone. "I understand."

The South Pole had been on Thor's wish list for years.

"It's Antarctic winter, and this operation is going to be extremely high-risk. Just getting to the job site is going to be the most dangerous thing we do this year. I'm asking only those of you who aren't attached—you, Jones, Segal. But if you want to opt out—"

"I'm in, sir."

Thor wouldn't miss this for anything.



Amundsen-Scott Station

South Pole

Samantha Park stared at Dr. Decker, his words hitting her like a fist, driving the breath from her lungs. "She's ... dead?"

Decker nodded, jaw tight, lips pressed in a tight line. "I'm sorry, Sam. We did everything we could, but it was too late."

Samantha shook her head. "No! No, no. This can't be happening."

Patty couldn't be dead. She was only thirty-two, healthy and active. She'd been fine yesterday.

Decker wrapped an arm around Samantha's shoulder and shepherded her into the infirmary. "Sit down. I don't want you fainting on me."

"I don't faint." She sat.

"I know you and Patty were close."

Samantha nodded, her throat tight, tears stinging her eyes. "We went to grad school together. We were...uh...housemates, too. This is our second year as winter-overs. She's my best friend."

Why was it so hard to think?

Shouts. Footfalls. Whispers.

Lance stuck his head inside, his brown hair disheveled as if he'd just gotten out of bed. "Sam? What's going on? Where's Patty?"

Sam looked up, shook her head, unable to say it.

Lance and Patty had been lovers for the past six weeks or so. Though most relationships on the ice were temporary and forgotten the moment people boarded the plane home, Patty had told Samantha last week that Lance might be different.

Decker gave him the awful news. "I'm sorry, Lance. Patty's dead."

"What?" Lance gaped at Decker, his face going pale. "She was fine last night."

"Sam found her in her bed this morning, unconscious and barely breathing. We intubated her, bagged her, got fluids going. She went into V-tach. We did chest compressions, defibrillated her, and pushed the meds—epinephrine, lidocaine, bicarb—but she bottomed out. Her heart stopped, and we couldn't bring her back."

"Keep trying!" Lance pushed past Decker.

Decker grabbed for him. "Lance, stop! You don't want to see this."

But Lance was quicker. He jerked aside the curtain that shielded Patty's body from their view—and froze. "Jesus."

Samantha gasped.

Patty lay there, unmoving and shirtless, her skin pallid, her eyes staring unseeing at the ceiling, a tube protruding from her mouth.

Kristi Chang, the station RN, stood beside her, tears streaming down her cheeks as she removed an IV from Patty's arm. "I'm sorry. We did everything we could."

Lance coughed as if choking back tears, took Patty's lifeless hand. "Patty."

Samantha stood, took a step toward the bed. "If I had found her earlier... If I had gone to check on her the moment she was late for breakfast..."

Lance rubbed his thumb over the back of Patty's hand. "I should've been there."

Decker put a hand on Lance's shoulder, looked over at Samantha. "Don't do this to yourselves—either of you. This isn't your fault. She must have had some hidden condition, some undiagnosed pulmonary or cardiac problem. Until there's an autopsy, we won't know for sure what killed her."

Lance stroked Patty's cheek. "You're doing an autopsy?"

"Me?" Decker shook his head. "No. That won't happen until we get her body back to the US in November."

Lance wiped tears from his face. "That's seven months from now."

There were no flights in or out of the station during austral winter. The risk of a plane's fuel freezing was too high.

Decker nodded. "We have no choice but to bag her body and keep it on ice."

"Oh, God." Samantha's heart constricted at the thought of Patty spending seven months, frozen solid, in a body bag in the subzero service arches below the station.

Steve Hardin, the winter site manager, walked in. "I heard that Patty... Oh, no! Son of a bitch! What the hell happened?"

But Samantha needed to get out of here.

She hurried past Steve and stepped into the hallway, where the others had begun to gather, worry on their faces.

Kazem Hamidi, a friend who worked with the BICEP2 telescope, was the first to speak. "Is Patty okay?"

Samantha pushed the words past the lump in her throat. "She's ... dead."

"I'm so sorry." Ryan McClain, one of the firefighters and an EMT, rested a hand on Samantha's shoulder. "How? Why?"

"I don't know."

"First, the satellite crash, and now this." Bai Zhang Wei, who studied neutrinos, raised his hands to his face in disbelief. "What is going on?"

"How can she be dead?" Charli Ortega, the coms manager, had tears in her eyes. "I didn't see this in the cards during her last Tarot reading."

Jason Huger, the breakfast cook, held up his smartphone. "How did she die?"

Shock and grief became rage.

Samantha knocked the phone out of his hand. "You're not putting this online, Jason. Patty didn't die to amuse your YouTube audience."

"Hey!" He bent down, reached for his phone.

But Ryan was faster. He picked it up, deleted the footage, and handed the phone back to Jason. "Show some respect, man, or I'll put your phone through the shredder."

"What happened?" Charli asked.

Samantha swallowed. "When Patty didn't show up this morning, I went to her room. She was unresponsive. I couldn't even tell she was breathing. Decker and Kristi tried to save her, but... I'm sorry. I can't."

Samantha turned and ran down the hallway toward her room, locking the door behind her. She sank onto her bed and sobbed.

Cobra's private jet was somewhere over the Pacific, headed toward a refueling stop in Hawaii before Tower called Thor, Malik Jones, and Lev Segal into the conference room for a briefing.

"Sorry to keep you waiting and in the dark, but we're caught in a developing situation." He motioned toward the chairs. "Take a seat."

Thor sat, exchanged glances with Jones and Segal, the three of them eager to find out what was so important that the US government would risk sending them to Antarctica in the middle of austral winter.

Tower tapped at his pad, and a map of Antarctica appeared on the large monitor on the wall. "Eighteen hours ago, a new US military satellite with a state-of-the-art missile-control system crashed about three hundred fifty miles from Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole. It wasn't a mechanical failure. The satellite was hacked."

Thor gaped at him. "Hacked? Fuck."

"Holy shit."

"Who could do something like that?"

"We'll get to that in a moment." Tower tapped his pad, and a schematic of the satellite appeared on the screen. "Are any of you familiar with Golden Horde? No? I'm not surprised. It's the nickname given to a new guidance system that enables missiles to adjust course and coordinate with one another after launch. In the past, once a missile was in the air, it simply followed its trajectory until impact, like a cannonball. With Golden Horde, a sophisticated GPS and communication between missiles enable the weapons to act as independent swarms after launch, giving them the ability to respond to and overwhelm enemy air defenses—and making it possible for an operator to change their trajectory to new targets."

Jones grinned. "I like it."

Segal's gaze was on the screen. "That's game-changing technology."

Thor saw where this was going. "Someone wants to steal it."

Tower nodded. "That's the Pentagon's theory. Our job is to get to the crash site and retrieve sensitive components. But we've got serious obstacles to overcome if we're going to succeed. Isaksen, I'm placing you in command of operations on this one. You're the only one of us with experience in this kind of environment. I'm counting on you to help us prepare."

"Understood." Thor had anticipated this.

Tower fixed his gaze on Jones and Segal. "Will either of you have problems following orders from Isaksen?"

They had been with the company longer than Thor, and both had more straight-up combat experience.

"No, sir."

"Hell, no."

Tower went over the plan. "When a weather window opens, you'll fly to Amundsen-Scott Station on a specially equipped aircraft. It will be a rough flight. If the pilot is able to land, you'll have to disembark quickly. He has to keep the plane running during refueling, or the propellers and fuel will freeze."

"That's how it was in Greenland, too." Except then, Thor hadn't just offloaded himself and his gear, but also eleven dogs, the sled, and hundreds of kilos of supplies.

"If the weather holds, you'll take a Twin Otter with a ferry tank to the crash site, retrieve the package, re-board the plane, and head back to the station. Then it's just a matter of waiting for a window for your ride back. Due to altitude and consistently cold temperatures, weather at the Pole itself is fairly stable. But the continent overall has the harshest winds and coldest temps on the planet. Getting you safely there and back entails looking at the forecast along your entire flight path, not just local conditions."

That made sense to Thor.

"I'll remain in Christchurch, working as the go-between for our operation and the government of New Zealand. We'll check in via a laptop equipped with satellite VPN."

"Why retrieve the technology? Why can't we just blow it up?" Segal asked.

"Plastic explosives are unreliable in that kind of cold," Tower explained. "Also, by treaty, nations are required to remove all waste. Someone will have to fly out to the crash site in austral summer to remove the wreckage. If we blow it up, that would make their job close to impossible, wouldn't it?"

Tower and Thor spent the next few hours breaking down each step of the operation, trouble-shooting the entire mission from beginning to end.

"What happens if we get hit by a storm while we're out there?" Jones asked.

Thor didn't mince words. "We freeze to death."

Tower's lips pressed into a frown. "You'll take survival gear—enough to hold out several days on the ice, if necessary."

Thor glanced at his smartphone. "It's minus fifty-seven Celcius there right now—minus eighty-two with the wind chill. Antarctic storms can bring katabatic winds that are equivalent to a Category Four hurricane. But, sure, let's take a tent and maybe some hot cocoa with marshmallows, too."

Segal snorted. "Smartass."

Jones looked worried. "How about a snow cave or sheltering on the plane?"

Thor shook his head. "It's not snow. It's ice. You don't dig. You drill. The plane's fuel will quickly turn to unusable slush, and then we freeze."

Segal looked at satellite photos of the crash site. "How do we know the components we need to remove are accessible? What if they're buried in the ice?"

Tower answered. "The Pentagon has a scientist at the station who will handle that part of the operation, someone who has experience with space tech. It's our job to get that person to the site and keep them safe."

"Are we expecting polar bears?" Segal asked.

"There is no life inland in Antarctica." Tower pointed toward a black dot on the map. "But Vostok Station—the year-round Russian base—is four-hundred fifty miles from the crash site. The Russians have kindly offered to help our salvage efforts, but Washington has declined."

"Intelligence believes the Russians are behind the hack?" Segal asked.

"It's all speculation at this point. It could be the Russians. It could be the Chinese. Both have bases within striking distance of the crash site, though Kunlun, the Chinese station, isn't staffed during the winter."

"If it's the Russians, the team at Vostok might have known about it ahead of time." Thor was just stating the obvious. "In the time it takes us to get to Antarctica, they could easily beat us to the crash site. Also, this area of the continent—Dome A—has the coldest temperatures ever recorded on earth."

He'd been researching Antarctica since they took off from Denver.

The four of them sat in silence, the full scope of this operation hitting home.

"You should know that the NSF—the National Science Foundation—has fought the Pentagon every step of the way on this," Tower said. "By treaty, no nation is allowed to have a military presence in Antarctica unless the military serves a scientific purpose. That's why they're sending us. You're security, nothing more. You'll go in armed with revolvers and bolt-action Enfield rifles—"

"Bolt-action rifles?" Jones stared at Tower as if he'd lost his mind.

Thor laid it out for him. "Your M4 would freeze up in the cold. We carried Enfields in Sirius. It was the only rifle we trusted against polar bears."

Jones looked unimpressed. "Huh."

Tower picked up where he'd left off. "Your weapons come out only at the crash site and only if needed. I'm told you can expect a less than cordial welcome from the staff on station."

Segal's expression went sour. "Nice."

It didn't bother Thor. Who cared what the researchers thought of them so long as they got the job done?

Tower met each man's gaze in turn. "I'm not exaggerating when I say this might be the most dangerous mission in Cobra's history. You cannot let this technology fall into hostile hands."