Hunter Holt might be the most stubborn ex-soldier ever born, but when he’s called on to help find a lost foster kid, he jumps into action. Even if it means working with the woman who broke his heart five years agothe woman who still haunts his dreams . . .
“Fans of J. D. Robb and Karen Robards will love Zanetti's series start.” –Booklist on Hidden
Faye Smith has spent five long years trying to get her life back on track. She knows she should’ve turned toward Hunter and not away from him. But they both had too many demons to destroy. Maybe now they’ll get another chanceand save someone else’s life too . . .
“Spicy romantic interplay; Highly recommended.”
Library Journal on Vampire’s Faith
But first they’ll have to stop arguing long enough to trust the Deep Ops team. Hunter was a lost boy himself once. In fact, he ran away from the exact same man, their monster of a father. Now he and Faye will have to unite to find the brother he never knewand maybe each other . . .
Read an Excerpt
To say that things hadn't ended well for them would've been the understatement of a century — heck, of the entire existence of human beings on Earth. Even a caveman breakup, with swinging mammoth bones and the throwing of fire, would've seemed like an afternoon at the beach compared to the day Faye and Hunter called it quits.
Which explained why her hands were sweaty and her tennis shoes kept tripping over the exposed tree roots of the barely-there path on the way to his cabin. Pine trees closed in from every direction, and an animal squawked in the distance. The sound probably came from a bird, but the beast sounded like it had teeth. Did some birds have teeth? She'd had to toss a decapitated bunny off her deck last year because of a sociopathic owl hunting the forest behind her house. So if not teeth, then maybe claws.
At the moment, she'd rather face that owl than Hunter Holt. He would not be happy to see her, and he'd be downright hostile to the news she was bringing. Dread and anticipation boiled inside her at the prospect of seeing him again. Her first love. Heck, her only love. Man, he'd been everything.
Maybe he'd gotten fat and bald in the past five years and had taken up smoking, which would give him wrinkles. The thought cheered her. Then hopefully she'd stop having dreams about him that resulted in her seeking a cold shower.
She turned a corner, and the side of his cabin came into view. It faced the Smoky Mountains and Dogwood Creek, which rushed by surprisingly fast for late June. A tumble of large rocks angled up from the water to a man- made stone wall designed to protect the wood and rock cabin from flooding.
He came out from the rear of the cabin, his gait easy, his gaze alert. No doubt his bizarre instincts had warned him of her approach half a mile down the trail. "Faye."
Ah, shoot. Neither fat nor bald. In fact, the bastard looked better than ever. "Hunter," she said, drawing on years of practice to keep her voice level and calm.
His intense blue eyes, the color of a male indigo bunting in the height of mating season, revealed absolutely no emotion. His dark blond hair was cut short and yet was still shaggy — thick enough for a woman to spend some serious time running her hands through it. Despite the short beard and mustache he wore, the hard angles of his face proved he'd grown even more handsome in the past five years. His chest had broadened, and cut muscles shifted beneath the worn cotton of his shirt. "What are you doing here?"
Had his voice deepened? She held her stance on the trail, the toe of her shoe angled on a rock. "Miss Angelina sent me."
Finally, emotion. His eyebrows rose, and he moved toward her as if unable to help himself. "Is she okay?" Urgency roughened the edges of his southern accent.
"She's fine," Faye murmured, something hurting inside her chest. Would he have had the same reaction if somebody had approached him about her? After all these years, the good and bad, would he have cared one bit if something happened to her? Not that it mattered. Not anymore. "She wants our help. That means ..." Faye lifted a shoulder.
He sighed and tucked his thumbs in his front pockets. "We help."
She nodded. The man might be one of the deadliest on the planet, and the crankiest, but when Miss Angelina called, you went, no matter who you were, or who you'd become.
"Why send you?" he asked.
Ouch. Seriously. Double ouch. "I'm the only one she's been able to reach so far," Faye said, her hand all but itching to grab a rock and hurl it at his stubborn head. The stone facade of his face was starting to piss her off, and he probably knew it. "Would it kill you to have a cell phone?"
His frown deepened. "I have a cell phone, and Miss Angelina has the number. Called me just last week."
Huh. What in the world did that mean? Faye tilted her head. "And she hasn't called you yesterday or today?"
Well. That was interesting, and not just a little disconcerting. Everything in Faye wanted to hand off the case to Hunter and head back to figuring out what do with her life in Louisville. But Miss A had been insistent that Faye work it to the end, and there was some logic there, considering Faye had once been a shrink. A mistake among many in her life. She drew off her beige backpack, because her shoulders were starting to ache. "Perhaps Miss A wanted me to deliver these to you."
His gaze dropped to the pack, and then he sighed. "You might as well come inside, then."
"How could a girl refuse such a gallant offer?" she snapped, holding the pack with her good arm and starting for the green-painted side door.
The quickest flash of a smile lifted his lips for a moment. When she came abreast of him, he reached for the backpack.
She jerked it away. "I've got it."
"It looks heavy." He reached for it again, his long arm easily snaking across her body to grasp the strap.
"No." She pulled again, engaging in a tug of war reminiscent of when they were kids. Finally, she twisted her torso, and he either had to let go or pull her entire body toward him.
He didn't let go.
Instead, he grabbed both straps and pulled, jerking her up against his much harder and taller form. His scent of man and wild maple hit her so fast she gasped as memories flooded in. "When are you gonna learn that life isn't fair?" He lifted, and she had no choice but to relinquish the bag or somehow grow ten inches. "You're five-four, a buck twenty, and in a physical fight, you're not gonna win."
"Five-five," she retorted, releasing the bag and instantly punching him in the gut as hard as she could. Pain ripped from her wrist up her arm. His darn ribs were steel.
He sucked in air, pained. "I'd forgotten your sucker punch."
"You're a moron." She turned away, pissed beyond belief that she'd lost the backpack.
"So you've said, on more than one occasion," he drawled, back in control again. "In fact, I believe that's the last thing you yelled at me."
"Actually," she said, looking over her shoulder directly at him, "I believe it was 'I love you, and I'm sorry.'" Then she turned and shoved open the door to his cabin.
* * *
The words hit him in the chest so hard he couldn't move. Those had been the words. And she'd been sad, not angry, accepting and not willing to fight any longer. They'd hung around him, inside him, for so long they'd become a part of him.
What the holy fuck was Faye doing at his cabin? The one place in his life she'd never touched, and now she was there. He'd have to burn the place down once this situation was over — after he had a few choice words with Miss Angelina for creating this disaster.
He sighed. He'd never have choice words with Miss A. She'd probably whack him with a wooden spoon, the way she had when he'd been a hurt, angry teenager.
Maybe that's why he and Faye never had a chance. They'd started mad and wounded, and that's how they'd gotten to know each other. Even now, more than a decade later, they'd just had a tug of war over a stupid backpack. Then she'd punched him in the stomach. It didn't matter that he'd been the one to teach her to hit without injuring her wrist or fingers. The memories all hurt.
Shaking himself out of it, he followed her into the lower level of his cabin, which held a TV room, kitchen, guest bedroom, and bath. The upstairs was a massive master bedroom and bath he'd designed and built himself on top of the existing structure.
She pulled out a chair at the round wooden table, facing the wide windows with a view of the creek. "Might as well get started."
He swallowed. There were so many words to say, he couldn't find one. Damn, she looked good. Straight blond hair cut in a sassy style, soft brown eyes, girl-next-door good looks. Her skin was still smooth and freckled, and her eyes lively, even with the tired lines showing stress.
The stress concerned him. Had she not healed in the last five years like he had? If he had? Shit, sometimes in the middle of the night, when nightmares woke him, he wasn't sure he had. "How are you these days? Faye Rockefeller?"
She rolled her eyes. "No. I've stuck with Smith so far. I'll change it once I find the right one." She'd hated her father, so she'd been trying on new last names as long as he'd known her.
"What's going on, Faye?" He dropped the pack in the center of the table.
She opened the top and drew out several brightly colored manila file folders.
He sat, his gaze on them. "Miss Angelina's folders." The woman loved folders. His youth — the good times, anyway — had been punctuated with colorful file folders. For school planning, for chores, for different seasons. Seeing them was like being yanked back to happier days. "What are those?"
Faye flipped open a purple folder to show a picture of an angry looking blond kid of about seventeen, with minor scruff as a mustache. "Meet sixteen-year-old Jackson. One of Miss A's newest kids. She only had him for one day. He's run away."
Hunter tugged the picture closer with the pad of his index finger. "Kids run away from foster homes all the time — even Miss Angelina's." He'd been one of those kids who ran away. Twice. Miss A had found him and brought him back the first time, and he'd fought his way back, tail between his legs, the second time. But she hadn't gloated. Nope. She'd taken one look at him, her pretty brown eyes somber, and told him to go wash his hands for dinner. It had been that easy. He didn't leave again until he joined the Marines.
Should've stayed home. Maybe then he and Faye would've had a chance. He kept his gaze on the photograph. "Think if we'd started that band like we planned we'd have ended up like this?" He didn't talk to anybody, but he'd never been able to keep his mouth shut around Faye. Apparently that hadn't changed.
"I don't know," she whispered. "I've thought about it. If just one of us had taken a different path, or even if we'd all faced a crisis at a different time, would we have been able to help each other? Maybe if Mark hadn't died ..."
Hunter looked up, noting the delicate bone structure beneath her pale skin. Who'd been protecting her the last five years? Oh, she had a mean temper, and he'd taught her to fight, but Faye had always had a fragility that scared the shit out of him. Of course, he'd seen her wounded and broken as a kid, her arm busted up, too many bruises across her pretty face to count. That image would never completely fade.
She rubbed her chest. "I left flowers on his grave before I drove down here."
Guilt filtered through Hunter. When was the last time he'd visited Mark's grave? The man had died a hero, fighting for his country far away from home, and Hunter couldn't even bother to visit. But sometimes he figured Mark was around, watching over them. He wasn't in that grave. Not really. Bones didn't count in this life. He cleared his throat and looked back at the picture of the kid. "What's his story?"
She swallowed. "Took off with a thirty-five-year-old teacher, thinking she's the one. She's knocked over two restaurants, as well as a gas station, and so far none of the video shows he's an accomplice."
If the kid was with her on the crime spree, he could be charged regardless. "He in love?"
"Thinks he is," Faye muttered. "The teacher's name is Louise Stockley, and she left behind a husband, another teacher. I'm doing research into her history. We think the affair started last year, when she was his math teacher."
Disgust ripped through Hunter. The woman had preyed on a lost kid in foster care — one no doubt with some anger issues if his picture was to be read correctly — and taken advantage of him. "Aren't the authorities on this?"
Faye nodded, her hands nervously tapping the other file folders. "Yes, but Miss Angelina is really worried and wants us to put our skills to use. You're the best tracker ever born, and you were trained by the military to be even better." The last was said with a perfect imitation of Miss A's accent. "And that's not all." Her voice wavered this time.
Awareness pricked its way up Hunter's spine. "What?" he asked.
Her hand shaking imperceptibly, Faye reached out and slid the picture to the side, revealing a foster care intake form. "His full name is Jackson Holt. Look at him. I mean, really look at him. He's the spitting image of you at sixteen."CHAPTER 2
Faye wanted to suck the words back in the second she said them, but Hunter had to know the truth. He showed no reaction, not even a twitch of an eyebrow or a shift of his shoulders. Instead, he just studied the picture. For minutes. Then, his hand shockingly steady, he picked up the intake form and started to read.
Faye shivered. The river rushed outside, and birds chirped merrily in the trees. Yet the silence inside the cabin, hot and suffocating, threatened to choke her.
Finally, he set the form down. "So the S.O.B. was alive as of six months ago."
"Yes," Faye said, having already read the forms, flashing back to the game they'd played as kids. When it was storming outside, the four of them — she, Hunter, Raider, and Mark — would hide beneath one of the bunkbeds at Miss Angelina's and think of the worst ways their fathers could've died. They were all bad men, and her favorite fantasy had been that they would kill each other. As far as she knew, the monsters had never crossed paths. "Are you okay?" she asked.
Hunter scrubbed both hands down his face. "Yeah. It's not surprising. I mean, Ramsay was good with the ladies. Who the hell knows how many half-siblings I have out there?" He looked back at the picture. "Sixteen years younger than me. Hell. I could be this kid's dad."
"Except I never got pregnant," she whispered. They'd been faithful to each other — she knew that in her bones.
"The kid would've at least had a chance if he was ours and not my dickhead of a father's," Hunter said, pushing the picture back onto the stack, glancing at the intake form again. "Instead, the mom dies when he's four, and he ends up with Ramsay or whoever Ramsay left him with for the last decade or so." He rubbed at a scar across his collarbone. "I wonder if the asshole still throws knives when he's angry."
Faye's damaged arm hurt, as if in response. Her father had broken it three times before the authorities sent her to live with Miss Angelina. The smell of whiskey still made her want to puke. She shoved away the bad memories. "I wanted to wait until I told you before calling Raider in." With Mark dead, it was only the three of them now.
"Raider's busy with a new assignment, and it seems like his head is on right," Hunter said.
She couldn't explain it, but the three of them needed to do this together. "Miss Angelina wants him in on this," she said.
"Well. I guess that's that, then." Hunter drew a cell phone from his back pocket and pressed speed dial, putting the phone on speaker in the center of the table.
"Hello, brother," Raider answered, a barking dog in the background.
Hunter drew back. "Did you get a dog?"
"Shit, no. He's kind of the team mascot, and he's the craziest son of a bitch you've ever met," Raider said. Something shuffled. "Shut up, Roscoe," he bellowed.
The dog barked louder.
Hunter's lips twitched. "What is he barking at?"
"A damn cat. Well, kitten," Raider said, his bootsteps heavy through the phone. He slammed a door, and quiet descended. "I'm in an interrogation room just so I can talk. There is no discipline here." The last was said as a low growl.
God, it was good to hear his voice. They talked at least once a week, but she needed to hear him right now as she faced Hunter. Faye let the sound warm her. "Hey, Raider. How are you?"
Silence. Complete, stunned, heavy silence. Then he cleared his throat. "Is Miss Angelina all right?"
Hunter rolled his eyes. "Yes, she's fine. I know it's a surprise to hear that Faye and I have stopped throwing punches long enough to call you."
Raider was quiet in that way he had. "Is one of you dying?"
Faye sat back in her chair, amusement zinging through her. "No."
"Am I dying?" Raider asked.
Hunter tapped his fingers on the table. "No. Geez, you've gotten dramatic."
"Holy shit, you two are back together. I knew it. I always said if one of you pulled your head out of your ass, it'd work out. It's nice to be right. I mean, I usually am." His low voice rose in animation and what could only be termed happiness.
Faye jerked, her stomach cramping. "No. We definitely are not back together." Regardless of the fantasies she'd had through the years.
Hunter keep his blue gaze on the phone and didn't look up at her.
Raider sighed, the sound amplified through the speaker. "So you're both still morons. Good to know." A tone of pure frustration came from him next. "All right. Nobody is dying and you two are still idiots. The anniversary of Mark's death isn't until next month, and I'm sure we're not planning a summer camping trip like we used to. What is going on?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Taken"
Copyright © 2019 Rebecca Zanetti.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.