Dare O’Rourke believed in ghosts because they visited him regularly. He woke, covered in sweat, shaking, and immediately glanced at the clock. He’d slept for fifteen minutes straight before the nightmare. A record.
The screams—both those in the dream and those that tore from his own throat whenever he allowed himself the luxury of sleep—would stay with him as long as he lived, wrapping around his soul and squeezing until he wished he’d died that terrible night.
A part of him had, but what was left wasn’t a phoenix rising from the ashes. No, Dare was broken bones and not of sound mind. Might never be again, according to the Navy docs, who said the trauma Dare had faced was too severe, that he wasn’t fit for duty. He had no doubt those doctors were right, wasn’t sure what kind of man he’d be if he had been able to go the business-as-usual route.
He’d never be the same.
The CIA felt differently. You’ll survive. You’ll recover. You’re needed.
And even though he knew the world needed rough men like him, no matter how fiercely the government would deny his existence if it came down to brass tacks, he told them all to fuck off and went to live in the woods. He was no longer a SEAL, the thing that had defined him, the job he’d loved for ten years.
Dare had prayed for many things that night in the jungle, including death, but none had been answered. And so he’d stopped praying and holed up alone and just tried to sleep through the night.
Three hundred sixty-three days and counting and not an unbroken sleep among them.
Three hundred sixty-four was a couple of hours away, the day giving way to the dusk, and the car coming up the private road couldn’t mean anything but trouble.
Three hundred sixty-three days and no visitors. He saw people only when he went into the small town monthly for supplies. Beyond that, he remained on his property. It was quiet. He could think, whether he wanted to or not.
As for healing . . . that would all be in the eye of the beholder.
He rolled out of bed, flexed the ache from his hands before pulling on jeans and a flannel shirt he left unbuttoned. Barefoot, he went out to greet his guest.
He met the car with his weapon drawn, put it away when the car got close enough for him to see the driver. Adele. A member of the original Section 8—a black ops group of seven men and one woman recruited from various military branches and the CIA. All loose cannons, none of them taking command well. All of them the best at what they did. A real life A-Team, except the reality wasn’t anything like it was portrayed on television.
Dare’s father—Darius—had been a member, was MIA and presumed KIA on a mission last year. At least that’s what Adele had told Dare.
All Dare knew was that S8 had officially disbanded when he was thirteen, and for years, its members worked black ops missions on their own steam. Until they’d gotten a call—that call—the remaining six members and one last job. Back into the jungle they’d sworn not to go back into. A mistake to go, Darius told him. We’re too old. But they were still strong, with plenty of experience. And they went anyway.
Four men never returned. Adele and Darius did, but they were never the same. Refused to talk about it and went off on more unreachable missions until they’d both disappeared more than a year ago.
Dare had wanted to assume that the secrets of the group were all dead and buried with them.
Fucking assumptions would get him every time. He knew better. His father and Adele had come back from the dead more than once.
Adele took her time getting out of the car. She was stately looking, at one time considered more handsome than pretty, with short hair and kind blue eyes, a thin frame that belied her strength. It was hard to believe she was as deadly as the men she’d worked with.
“I have a job for you,” she said when she reached the porch he refused to leave. No preamble, all business. The only thing contradicting her deadliness was the frail frame she now carried.
She was sick—he could see it in the color of her skin, the darkness shading the skin under her eyes. His heart went out to her; she’d been the closest thing to a mother he’d ever had, even though she’d been far more like a mother wolf than a nurturer.
But it had been enough. “I can’t.”
“You’re not broken, Dare.” Adele sounded so damned sure, but why he wanted her reassurance, he had no idea.
He jerked his gaze to her and saw her own quiet pain that she carried, kept so close to the vest all these years. “It was all a setup.”
Adele neither confirmed nor denied, but the truth of his own words haunted him.
It was a setup . . . and you were supposed to die.
A Ranger had received a dishonorable discharge for rescuing him against a direct order. Dare would never forget the soldier’s face, and he doubted the soldier would ever stop seeing his.
Two men, bound by pain.
He closed his eyes briefly, thought about the way he’d been found, nearly hanging from his arms, up on a platform so he could watch the entire scene being played out in front of him.
The villagers. His guides. American peacekeepers. His team. All slaughtered in front of him.
The fire came closer now . . . and he welcomed it. Had prayed for it, even as his captors laughed at his predicament, spat in his face. Cut him with knives and ripped his nails off one by one. There was nothing he could offer them, nothing they would take from him.
He’d offered himself multiple times. They refused. He must’ve passed out—from pain, hunger, it didn’t matter. He clawed at the wood, his wrists, forearms, fingers, all broken from trying so hard to escape chains not meant for humans to fight against. It hadn’t stopped him—he’d been nearly off the platform, ripping the wood out piece by piece, when the worst of the rape happened in front of him.
It would’ve been too late.
Could’ve closed your eyes. Blocked it out. Let yourself pass out.
But if they were going to be tortured, the least he could do was not look away. And he hadn’t, not even when they’d nailed his hands to the boards, not for twenty-four hours, until everyone was dead, the village was razed, the acrid smell of smoke burning his nose, his lungs. The sounds of the chopper brought him no relief, because he knew they’d save him before the fire reached him.
The group of Army Rangers had been going to another mission, stumbled on the destruction by way of the fire. They’d come in without permission, the Ranger who’d saved him taking the brunt of the blame, or so Dare had heard later.
Dare hadn’t gone to the hearing for that soldier who’d saved him. It wouldn’t have helped either of them. In the next months, Dare was sure the soldier would be found dead under mysterious circumstances, another in a long line of men who’d interfered in something S8 related.
He turned his attention back to Adele, who waited with a carefully cultivated pretense of patience. “Why come now?”
She hadn’t seen him since right before that last mission. Hadn’t come to the hospital. Hadn’t called or written. And while he’d told himself it didn’t bother him, it had.
“Your sister’s in trouble.”
Half sister. One he’d never met before out of both necessity and her mother’s insistence. He didn’t even know if Avery Welsh knew he existed. “I thought she was well hidden.”
“We did too.”
“Where is she?”
“On her way to the federal penitentiary in New York—or a cemetery—if you don’t hurry.”
“Are you fucking shitting me?”
She twisted her mouth wryly. “I assure you, I’m not.”
“What did she do?”
“She killed two men,” Adele said calmly. “The police are coming for her—she’s about forty-eight hours away from being sent to jail for life. Of course, there are other men after her too, and they make the police look like the better option.”
So the men who were after her had tipped off the police. “She’s what—twenty-two?” A goddamned baby.
Adele nodded. “You’ll have a small window of opportunity to grab her in the morning at the apartment where she’s been hiding.”
“You want me to . . .” He stopped, turned, ran his hands through his hair and laughed in disbelief. Spoke to the sky. “She wants me to help a killer.”
“Your sister,” she corrected. “Is that a problem?”
He laughed again, a sound that was rusty from severe underuse.
Avery had been secreted away with her mother before she’d been born, the relationship between her mother and Darius brief once she found out what Darius’s livelihood was. But after that last mission, everything S8 related seemed to die down. Until Darius went missing. Until Dare was almost killed.
Until Adele showed up on his doorstep, dragging the past with her like an anchor.
“She’s a known fugitive and I’m supposed to hide her?” he asked now.
“She’s family—and she needs your protection.”
He turned swiftly, fighting the urge to pin her against a column of the porch with an arm across her neck. The animal inside him was always there, lurking barely below the surface, the wildness never easily contained. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Adele hadn’t moved. “Don’t make me spell everything out for you, Dare. You know you’re still wanted. Why wouldn’t she be?”
“I can’t do this. Find—”
“Someone else?” she finished, smiled wanly. “There’s no one but me and you, and I’m about to buy the farm, as they say. Cancer. The doctors give me a month at best.”
“I’m sorry, Adele, but—”
“I know what happened to you. But we protect our own.”
“I didn’t choose to be a part of your group.”
“No, you were lucky enough to be born into it,” she said calmly.
“Yeah, that’s me. Lucky.”
“You’re alive, aren’t you?”
He wanted to mutter, Barely, but didn’t. “Where’s my father, Adele?”
She simply shrugged. “He’s gone.”
“Yeah, gone.” Darius had been doing that since Dare was six years old.
“They’re all gone—the men, their families. All gone over the course of the last six years. Do you understand?”
He had known. S8 had officially disbanded twenty years earlier, but six years ago, they’d been called together by their handler for a special mission. That mission was goatfuck, and all the remaining original S8 members lost their lives, save for Darius and Adele. Since then, Dare had kept an eye on the families left behind by S8 operatives. Even though Darius had growled at him to stay the hell out of it, he’d found a line of accidents and unexplained deaths. They were all spaced widely enough apart and made enough sense not to look suspicious to the average eye. But he wasn’t the average eye. This was a S8 clean-house order, an expunging, and Dare knew he was still on that list and there was no escaping it.
For Avery, he would have to come out of hiding.
“Hiding won’t stop your connection with Section 8,” Adele said, as if reading his mind.
“I’m not hiding,” he ground out.
“Then go to Avery—show her this from Darius.” She handed him a CD—the cover was a photograph of Avery.
He glanced at the picture of the woman, and yeah, she resembled her father—the same arctic frost blue eyes—but her hair was light, not dark. She was really pretty. Too innocent looking to have committed murder, but he’d learned over the years that looks could never be trusted. “And then what? I’m no good for this.”
“You’re better than you think.”
“Bullshit—I’m just the only one you’ve got.”
She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes.
He looked at the picture stuck into the clear CD case again, and something deep inside him ached for his lost childhood. He hoped Avery had had one. “I’ll think about it.”
With that, she walked away, turned to him when she was halfway to her car and stood stock still-in the driveway. The back of his neck prickled. “Best think fast, Dare.”
It was part instinct, part the way Adele paused as if posing. She gave a small smile, a nod, her shoulders squared.
He sprang into action, yelled, “No!” as he leaped toward her, Sig drawn, but it was too late.
The gunshot rang out and he jumped back to the safety of the house, cutting his losses. Adele collapsed to the ground, motionless. A clean kill. Sniper.
She’d made the ultimate sacrifice—going out like a warrior to force him to get off his ass and into action—ending a life that was almost over anyway.
His father would’ve done the same.
Now there was nothing to be done here but get away and live. A hot extract involving just himself.
He shot off several warning rounds of his own to buy himself time. He took a quick picture of Adele with his cell phone camera and then went inside, grabbed his go bag and the guitar, then ignited the explosives he’d set up for a just-in-case scenario because, as a kid of a Section 8er, he was always a target.
That entire process took less than a minute, and then he took off in the old truck down the back road, the CD still in his hand.
Adele was too good not to know she’d been followed. She’d trapped him by bringing the trouble literally to his front door.
He cursed her, his father and everyone in that damned group as he motored down the highway, even as another part of his brain, hardwired for danger, made lists of what he’d need.
New wheels. Guns. New safe house with a wanted woman. He threw the CD on the seat next to him and fingered the silver guitar pick he wore on a chain around his neck.
Goddammit, there was no escaping the past.