Taken prisoner by a ruthless group of anarchists deep in the Cambodian jungle, anthropologist Jocelyn Hewitt is isolated in a dark prison cell. Without chance of rescue. Or hope. Until the man in the next cell reaches out to let her know she's not as alone as she thinks.
CIA agent Oliver Shaw has been held prisoner for over two years. Forced to witness the brutal torture and slow murder of his entire team, his spirit is not just broken, it's crushed. He no longer believes in hope. Until he hears Jocelyn through the wall, and suddenly feels like a glimpse of light is trying to reach in....
Jocelyn's heart aches for the tortured man whose presence and voice give her the courage to risk their escape. But first she'll have to remind Oliver who he once was, what he once loved, and bring him back to life. Only then will they have a chance for freedom—and the kind of love neither ever thought possible.
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Cynthia’s love of the written word began at a very young age, when a trip to the library meant packing a lunch & heading out on her bicycle for a day of fictional adventures. Now, Cynthia writes gritty, action-packed romantic suspense and thrillers for Carina Press. Cynthia lives in Arizona with her husband and two sons. She is also a Stage IV cancer survivor, and living proof that hope and faith can work miracles.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"No one would fault you for letting someone else take the lead here, you know. It's not every day a daughter digs up her dad's remains."
"I have to do this." Jocelyn Hewitt didn't bother to hide the waver in her voice. Matt understood her, better than anyone. "I owe it to my dad."
She pressed her lips together and thought of the letters tucked safely in her backpack. She no longer needed to touch the pages to recall their soft, worn texture, nor re-read the passages to conjure up the exact shade of the faded ink bearing her father's trademark scrawl. The bold crisp lines of his detailed doodles, each one of his carefully weighed words—they were written on her heart.
Matt shoved a hand through his hair with a curse. "How could Commander Norris be so insensitive? He never should've put you on the team."
Her heart hiccupped around a rush of guilt and heat flooded her cheeks. She turned her back on Matt before he could pick up on the unease that slithered through her. Maybe she should've told him, but really, how did one go about admitting that Norris hadn't put her on the team?
Everything she did as an anthropologist was supposed to be done in the blind—without knowing the suspected identity of the remains or the details surrounding the loss. Norris wanted an objective scientist, not someone who'd spent every moment since her eighth birthday trying to make sense of her father's disappearance.
When the tip had first come into the offices of the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), she'd hoped Norris would at least appoint her to the discovery team in an unofficial capacity. But no amount of begging, pleading or reasoning changed his mind.
In her desperation, she'd resorted to downright lying while Norris was out in the field. He'd urged her to take a vacation. She'd taken him up on the offer.
No one had thought to question her when she'd shown up at the airport as a last minute addition to the team. Forensic anthropologists were frequently juggled between assignments. By the time he returned and discovered her deception, she'd be up to her knees in Cambodia's fertile jungle soil.
"This is what I do. It doesn't matter whether it's my dad or someone else." Jocelyn shifted and caught Matt's gaze. "'Until they're home.' That's always been JPAC's motto, right? Well I'm here to bring him home," her voice cracked, "where he belongs."
Matt studied her for a long moment, his eyes as brown as the muddy river they'd crossed several miles back. Finally, his mouth flattened into a grim slash. "We'll have to go on foot from here." He hopped down from the massive truck bed and lobbed a canvas rucksack in her direction. "The jungle's so dense up ahead we'll never get a vehicle through to the site."
The site. It seemed such an impersonal way to describe her father's final burial place. How could he rest in peace amongst the rusted and twisted shrapnel of his OV-10 Bronco? She swallowed the huge lump in her throat.
Objectivity, Josie. Find it.
Donald Hewitt was just another case to close over at JPAC, one more step toward their goal of achieving the fullest possible accounting of Americans missing in action as a result of past wars. This one shouldn't be any different.
Except it was, and no amount of telling herself she was a professional had prepared her for the pain.
A warm hand settled on her shoulder and she glanced up from untying a knot in her pack to meet Matt's frown. "Are you sure you're okay?"
She forced a ragged smile. "Right as rain."
He narrowed his eyes at her, far too perceptive for his own good. Damn him, she didn't want a friend—not now. She wanted a detached Team Sergeant who failed to see the conflict roiling in the pit of her stomach. And if he didn't stop looking at her that way she'd give in to the temptation to sink into his embrace and take the comfort he was offering.
Not the time or the place.
Jocelyn ducked away from Matt's gaze and climbed into the bed of the truck, heading for the stack of crates at the back. They'd have to transfer the most essential supplies into their packs and abandon the rest. The vehicle's door opened with a squeak. Claire, the team's forensic photographer, stepped out into the mucky road, securing a bright green bandana around her blond hair.
"You know, you should be wearing a hat." Jocelyn winced, already forming an apology for the admonishment, but Claire only grinned, a dimple denting her cheek.
"I thought you were going to let me play mother this time."
"When you remember to bring a hat, it'll be your turn." She reached up, plucked the wide-brimmed straw hat from her own head and tossed it to Claire.
She caught it in one hand and tossed it right back. It fluttered to the floor of the truck. "Someone's got to look out for you while you're busy taking care of everyone else."
Josie tried to suppress her smile and failed. "Ah, but you see, I've got a spare." She reached into her back pocket, yanked out her father's old, faded blue AIR FORCE cap, unrolled it and snugged it down onto her head. She retrieved the abandoned straw hat and flicked it to Claire like a Frisbee. "Put it on."
Claire wrinkled her nose and tugged the hat down on her head. "Don't you ever get tired of being right?"
"Hmm." She tucked her tongue in her cheek, trying to suppress a smile. "Unfortunately, no."
"Dr. Hewitt thrives on being right and making the rest of us look like uneducated hicks."
Her mirth dissolved at the sound of Jason's acidic voice. The medic had taken an instant dislike to her and, no matter how polite she was to him, he always seemed to take pleasure in cutting her down.
She clenched her teeth and vowed to say nothing, but her emotions were running too close to the surface. She couldn't stop her frustration from bubbling over. "Why would I try to make you look bad? You do a good enough job of it on your own."
He scowled and his cool blue eyes turned frigid. "Then since you're all-knowing, maybe you can tell me where Rithi went."
Rithisak, a local they'd met in Siem Riep, had agreed to guide them through the jungle. Jocelyn's team had learned to rely on the steadfast, quiet young man over the last several days.
She frowned. "I thought you two were scouting out a suitable path."
"One minute he was beside me and the next.. " He shrugged.
"Maybe he slipped away to take a leak," Matt suggested with a wink in her direction as he hoisted a crate filled with MREs from the truck.
Jocelyn smiled and tried to shake off her worry. For Rithi to up and disappear...it seemed highly unlike him. He probably needed a break from Jason's constant griping and would pop back up by the time they were ready to move out. She turned her attention to the division and packing of their gear.
However, two hours later, Rithi still hadn't returned. A fine mist molded her linen shirt against her hot skin and clung to her sweaty face. She batted away a mosquito, squinting into a red sun that had already started its downward slink toward the horizon.
"Do you think we should look for him?"
"No, that's not wise. The sun's getting ready to set in—what?—forty minutes or so." Matt rubbed at his brow, his frown directed at the thicket of leaves that started high in the orange streaked sky and draped their way down to the dirt floor. "It's better to camp here for the night. If Rithi doesn't show by morning, we'll set up the sat phone and try to touch base with the command center, let 'em know what's going on."
"I've got dibs on a dry patch of grass." Claire sighed and wiggled her pack from her shoulders. "If there is any dry grass to be had in this place."
Jason hoisted Claire's bag in one hand, using his other to guide the small of her back. "Come on, I'll help you find a spot."
His boot slipped in the mud and he stumbled, barely managing to right himself before he kissed the ground. He tossed a glare at Jocelyn, as if she were to blame for the soggy May conditions.
"Damn monsoon season." With that parting shot, he hunched his shoulders, and walked off with Claire.
Jocelyn caught the roll of Matt's eyes and snorted. She tried to choke it back before anyone heard, but Matt's you're-so-busted grin widened.
He cocked his head at her and lifted his brows. "Care for some help setting up your tent, Ms. Hewitt?"
"As long as it's nowhere near Jason's—"
A short burst of noise—like the crack of a thick branch—cut her off. She froze, her gaze straying to Matt's automatic rifle as he unhooked it from his pack and settled the gun firmly between his hands. What—? Another thwack disturbed the hush of the jungle, then the whoosh of a machete slicing across leaves.
A shiver ran up her spine. She located Jason and Claire some twenty yards away, their heads bowed together in conversation, then turned back to Matt.
"Rithi?" she mouthed.
Before Matt had a chance to respond, three men materialized from the dense foliage. Two held assault rifles in their grip, the third brandished a pistol and a machete, the setting sun glinting off its sharp curved blade. Rapid-fire Khmer shot from their lips in a threatening jumble of consonants and vowels.
What were they saying? Stop...something. Stop what? God, she couldn't—why didn't they speak slower? Her understanding of Khmer was limited to common tourist phrases, making Rithi all the more valuable to their small team.
Who were these men? Bandits? Military? Could they possibly be friends of Rithi's? Their guide didn't carry ammo strapped to him, nor did he wear guerilla-style paint across his cheeks. Had Rithi accidentally led them on to someone's private turf?
She honed in on the short man at the front of the pack, hoping to catch his eye and convey her apologies. Maybe if she showed them her team's papers—
Matt moved in front of her, blocking her view. "Get Claire and Jason. Run for the truck."
Matt wasn't messing around. He believed these men meant them harm, and had appointed himself team guardian, even though he was outgunned three to one. How could she abandon him to face down these—these—who the hell were these people?
"Go. Now." Matt's terse command succeeded in turning her quaking legs to steel.
She swallowed her objections and inched backward. The man at the center of the trio stared at her with flat, dark eyes, his mouth hiked in a snarl that showed off his blunt teeth and wide jaw.
Goose bumps rose on her flesh despite the humidity. Why was he studying her as if she were a target? Her heart pumped hard in an erratic rhythm against her ribs.
No longer caring whether she kept the man in her sights, she spun. Her legs carried her over ground faster than her feet could gain traction. She slammed into a hard body and lost her balance. Her palms plowed into the mud to break her fall. The brunt of her heavy backpack butted into the base of her skull.
"What's going on here?" Jason's strained voice wobbled as he stuck his hand out to help her to her feet.
Her earth-caked fingers connected with his immaculate ones and curled together. A rifle cracked. The bullet whistled through the air above her and slammed into Jason's chest with a sickening thud.
Blood splattered across her face and clothes. A scream ripped from her. She tried to shut her mouth to cut off the high-pitched keening, but her lips wouldn't cooperate. Her head swam, a series of blue-black spots sparked along her vision. Jason. Oh, God. What had they done to him? She scrambled into the damp grass—green blades awash with red—and stopped in front of his body. Her crimson-stained hands shook when she tried to reach for him.
Couldn't do it.
A blur of color zipped into her line of sight. Claire dropped to the ground beside her. Where had she come from? Without hesitation, she did what Jocelyn couldn't, pressing her palms to the gaping hole in Jason's chest.
"No, he's—we need—the truck." Jocelyn tripped over each one of the words, her thoughts a twisted mass of urgency and dread. She curled her fingers into Claire's shirt and tugged.
She'd expected the other woman to come willingly, but Claire jerked out of Jocelyn's grasp, leaving a smear of blood across the fabric of her faded yellow shirt.
"Is gone." The raw truth croaked from Jocelyn's lips.
Another shot echoed in the muggy air, this one shorter, less explosive. She whipped her head in the direction of the sound and watched Matt crumple to his knees. The wake of a thin wisp of smoke curved from the barrel of the machete-wielder's pistol.
She shot to her feet on wobbly legs. Her heart folded in on itself. Where was he hit? She couldn't tell—couldn't see. Claire's hand clapped on her arm, wrenching her toward the truck.
Jocelyn flicked one more glance over her shoulder and her gaze collided with the black eyes of the man who'd studied her so intently moments earlier. He broke away from the group and stalked toward her. The barrel of his machine gun swept back and forth between her and Claire, like a sick game of eeny, meeny, miny, moe that no one wanted to win.
His heavily accented voice leeched the breath from her body. She froze. How did he know her name? Sweat drenched her palms. Claire wasn't slowing down, and neither should she. But her legs wouldn't support one more step.
He was in front of her. Close enough to see the yellowish-whites of his eyes. She sucked in a gulp of air. Her stomach roiled against it and she clenched her muscles hard, bracing for the impact of the bullet to her chest.
But it never came.
Claire's scream pierced Josie's ears, its ragged edge growing sharper as the other two mercenaries somehow caught up with Claire and shoved her down into a patch of sodden grass.
"Claire!" Jocelyn lurched forward.
"Josie. Josie, help me!" Her muffled plea sliced Josie to ribbons.
A vicious tug on Jocelyn's rucksack sent her sprawling to the ground. The weight of a man's knee settled across her back. She bucked, unsuccessfully, against her captor and reached a hand out to Claire, who did the same, her wide-eyed gaze clouded with despair.
Jocelyn's shaky fingertips almost managed to graze Claire's. If she could just—
A flash exploded from the muzzle of one mercenary's AK-47. She squeezed her eyes shut. Droplets splashed against her skin, and she knew, without even opening her eyes, that it was Claire's blood. Her stomach rebelled, acid shot up her throat and she retched the meager contents of her stomach into the grass. Hot moisture slipped from the corners of her eyes and coursed down her cheeks, her own tears washing away the physical evidence of her friends' suffering.
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