Love Inspired Suspense June 2015 - Box Set 2 of 2: Exit Strategy\Payback\Covert Justice

Love Inspired Suspense June 2015 - Box Set 2 of 2

Exit Strategy

Payback

Covert Justice

Shirlee McCoy

Hope White

Lynn Huggins Blackburn

Table of Contents

Exit Strategy

By Shirlee McCoy

Payback

By Hope White

Covert Justice

By Lynn Huggins Blackburn

THE WIDOW'S PROTECTOR

Lark Porter thinks she'll find answers about her husband's death when she returns to their former home, but someone doesn't like the questions she's asking. She's quickly taken captive, and all that stands between her and certain death is a mysterious stranger telling her to trust him if she wants to get out alive. Hostage Rescue and Extraction Team member Cyrus Mitchell marvels at Lark's strength and determination to survive. The closer they get to freedom, the more dangerous the situation becomes. Once free, though, it takes all the skills and training Cyrus has to outmaneuver the deadly killers on their trail.

Mission: Rescue—No job is too dangerous for these fearless heroes

“If he comes back, I'll fight for you. You'll fight for you. Between the two of us, we should be able to keep you safe.”

“Who's going to keep
you
safe?” Lark asked.

“I'm pretty good at doing that myself,” Cyrus said, taking her arm and leading her around the side of the building.

“I'm pretty good at doing it, too, Cyrus,” Lark said as she lowered herself into the passenger seat of the car. “But even people who are good at taking care of themselves, people who have always kept themselves safe, need help sometimes. I learned that while I was lying in that trailer praying that God would send someone to help me. I'm not going to forget that you were the one He sent. And, if you're ever in trouble, if you're ever at the point where you really do need someone to step in, I can guarantee you that I'll be the first to show up.”

She closed the door before he could respond.

It was for the best. Cyrus wasn't sure what he would have said.

Aside from her faith and her family, there's not much
Shirlee McCoy
enjoys more than a good book! When she's not teaching or chauffeuring her five kids, she can usually be found plotting her next Love Inspired Suspense story or wandering around the beautiful Inland Northwest in search of inspiration. Shirlee loves to hear from readers. If you have time, drop her a line at
[email protected]
.

Books by Shirlee McCoy

Love Inspired Suspense

Mission: Rescue

Protective Instincts
Her Christmas Guardian
Exit Strategy

Capitol K-9 Unit

Protection Detail

Heroes for Hire

Running for Cover
Running Scared
Running Blind
Lone Defender
Private Eye Protector
Undercover Bodyguard
Navy SEAL Rescuer
Fugitive
Defender for Hire

Visit the Author Profile page at
Harlequin.com
for more titles.

Exit Strategy

By Shirlee McCoy

Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.

—1 Corinthians
4:5

To Ronda Tumberg, who has always spelled my name correctly.

In loving memory of her sweet son Radley Eaton, who lived the entirety of his life in just a few short days, but who touched more hearts in that time than most people ever will.

ONE

C
old.

It speared through Lark Porter's long-sleeved sweater, settled deep into her bones. She shivered, clenching her teeth to keep them from chattering. The slivers of light that seeped through the cracks in the trailer during the day had disappeared hours ago. She'd waited, because she'd wanted Elijah Clayton's security team to think she had given up. She hadn't.

She wouldn't. Not now. Not in another day or two or three. Joshua deserved better than what he'd gotten. He deserved justice. She'd come to Amos Way to get it for him. She wouldn't quit before she accomplished that goal.

An image of her husband flashed through her mind. The way he'd been on their wedding day, happy and smiling, his dark suit just a little big in the shoulders. Joshua had written his own vows, promising to cherish Lark's heart for as long as they both lived.

Three years.

That was all they'd had.

Elijah's doing, and she planned to prove it.

Or die trying.

She rolled to her side, turning her back to the security camera and shimmying forward until her hands were level with the nail that stuck out of the wall. At least she'd been tied up with her hands in front of her. Every night, she tried to cut through the ropes that held her wrists. Every night, she failed.

Tonight might be different.

She held on to that thought, clung to it as she rubbed the rope against the nail. Back and forth. Up and down. Subtle movements. Slow movements. Counting. One. Two. Three. Wait ten. Start again. One. Two. Three. She missed and the nail raked against skin already raw from five nights' worth of struggling.

Five nights.

Six days.

Heading into another long night.

How many more did she have?

At some point, Elijah would be done with whatever game he was playing. When that happened, she would die. She knew that as surely as she knew that Joshua hadn't accidentally shot himself eighteen months ago, that he'd been murdered.

She dragged the rope against the nail again and again and again, thought the bonds might be loosening. Prayed that they were. As determined as she was, as much as she wanted to succeed, the odds were against her. She was tied up in a rotting trailer, sitting at the edge of a religious compound deep in the heart of a Pennsylvania forest. She could scream all she wanted, beg all she wanted, but there wasn't a person in the compound who'd help her. They all believed the lies, supported the cause. And the cause was Elijah's dogma, his doctrine.

Her stomach churned, the sickening scent of vomit and death filling her nose as she struggled to cut through the ropes. The dinner that had been left on a tray near the door only added to the awful stench. She'd made the mistake of eating meals three times. She'd lost hours after each one, drugged into a deep sleep that had left her disoriented, dehydrated and muddleheaded.

She couldn't afford to have that happen again. Now she didn't eat. She just smelled the rich aroma of stew and home baked bread. Prisoners in Amos Way were fed well.

And then, they died.

Accidental deaths.

Deaths that no one questioned, because no one in the community questioned anything. There were rules and bylaws and community mores every member of the group agreed to. Even she and Joshua had, signing the contract that bound them to Amos Way for five years. They'd made it through three, and then Joshua had died, and Lark had left. She should have stayed away. It would have been the safe thing to do, the wise thing. But she'd had to know, she'd had to find out the truth. Joshua deserved that.

She missed the rope again. This time, the nail dug in so deep, blood slid down her arm. She wiped it against her skirt and kept working. One. Two. The rope shifted, the threads separating, blood rushing into her fingers.

Not free yet, but she could feel the ropes giving. She allowed herself a moment of celebration, a second of rejoicing. Maybe she could free herself. Maybe she could find her way out of the trailer, out of the compound, back to civilization.

If John McDermott and his security team didn't catch her before then. John had trussed her up so tight, she'd lost feeling in her feet and in her hands. Aside from the gouge she'd just cut in her arm, there were other signs that she'd been held captive. If she died, those marks would have to be explained. Or maybe not.

Maybe John would carry her body into the woods, bury her deep enough that animals would never dig her up. She shuddered, tugging frantically against the rope. It gave, the sudden slack in it so surprising, she stilled.

Free?

It didn't seem possible, but she tugged again and the rope gave even more. Her pulse jumped, and she yanked one more time, the ropes giving completely. She didn't sit up, didn't reach down to free her ankles. She couldn't let the security team know she was free. If she did, they'd tie her up again, remove the nail, take away her one hope that she might actually get out of Amos Way alive.

She kept her arms in front of her, clutching the rope in her hand as she staggered to her knees, shuffled to the bathroom, her body so weak, she wasn't sure she'd make it.

There. Finally. No door to the room, but the camera was angled away, the bathroom tiny and windowless, offering no hope of escape.

She'd find another way out after she removed the rope from her ankles. It took too long, her muscles weak, her fingers still numb from too many days without good blood flow. Somewhere outside, a dog barked, the sound muted by the trailer walls. Was the security team heading her way? Had she been in the bathroom too long? Were they coming to check on her?

The thought made her heart beat faster, made her fingers even clumsier. The dog barked gain, the sound seeming to come from the other side of the wall. She gave up her fight with the ropes, shuffled out of the bathroom, her long skirt catching on broken tiles and debris, her knees bruised and aching. She settled down on the floor again, her back to the door that she knew would fly open at any moment. Someone would walk in, look around.

Check the ropes?

Please, God, don't let that happen.

She prayed because it was what Josh would have done, prayed because she had nothing else. No
one
else. Prayed because through everything, through all the sorrow and the grief and the uncertainty, faith had been her one constant, her one truth. God knew. He understood. He wanted justice as much as she did.

So, why was she lying in a putrid trailer alone?

She should have been back at work over a month ago, should have reported to her fifth grade classroom the third week of August. Had anyone noticed her absence? Had they gone looking for her? No one had come to the compound. She knew that for sure.

Her eyes burned with tears. She wouldn't let them fall. She hated crying almost as much as she hated quitting. She'd been a fighter her entire life, and she'd keep fighting, because there was nothing else to do. No other way out of the situation she'd gotten herself into.

And, she
had
gotten herself into it.

She could have refused her in-laws' invitation to return to Amos Way. She could have ignored the doubts that had nagged at her since Joshua's death.

Could have. Should have. Would have.

A hundred regrets, but she couldn't do anything about them.

Keys jingled. The lock on the door turned. The door opened, cold crisp air filling the darkness. She didn't dare turn to look at the person entering. Didn't dare move. Barely dared to breathe.

Please just let him be getting the food.

Please let him go away.

Please...

A light flashed on the floor near her head, glanced over the wall, landed on the nail still stained with her blood. He saw it. She knew that he did. Saw the trail of red that stained the dingy floor, the glossy drops that proved how she'd been spending her time.

She clutched the ropes that she'd broken through, her heart slamming against her ribs, her stomach sick with dread. She could have turned, faced the man as he approached, but she still wanted to hope and believe that he didn't know, that he hadn't seen the broken ends of the rope, the trail of blood.

The floor creaked, boots tapping against linoleum.

Fabric rustled, and she felt him. Right there. Inches away. John? He'd been one of Joshua's best friends. They'd grown up together. But friendship didn't mean much in Amos Way. All that mattered was the group cause, the combined beliefs, the value of community and the blind faith in Elijah Clayton. Elijah had named her the enemy. He'd set her up, accused her of theft, beaten her, tossed her in the trailer and left her to rot. No one in Amos Way would question that. No one would come to her aid.

She swallowed down bile, refusing to give in to panic.

Someone touched her shoulder, and she flinched.

“You've gotten yourself into a dangerous situation,” a man said. She didn't know the voice. Not surprising. Most of the men on Elijah's security team were outsiders, hired hands who got paid well to protect Amos Way.

She didn't respond. Didn't know what she was expected to say.

“So,” he continued, reaching for her hands, his fingers untangling the loose ends of the rope. “We're going to play this my way. Then maybe we can both get out of here alive. Okay?”

Surprised, she shifted, rolling onto her back, looking straight into a stranger's face. Moonlight filtered in through the open door, splashing across dark jeans and dusty boots, white dress shirt, gun holster. He looked like every other security officer she'd seen in the compound, his dark hair cropped close, his face hard.

“Who are you?” she asked, because he hadn't ignored her like every other security officer had.

“Someone who is here to help, but it's going to take me a little time to get you out of here.” He pulled something from his gun belt, and her blood ran cold, his words flying away before they could register. Handcuffs. If he got those on her, she'd never escape. It was now or not at all. Fight and run or stay and die.

She lunged up, slamming her body into his with so much force they both toppled over. Feet still tied, she had no choice but to crawl over him, scramble for the door, for that cold crisp fall night.

He grabbed her ankle, dragged her back.

He was too strong or she was too weak. Too many days without food. Too much time trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey. She fought anyway, scratching and clawing and bucking against his weight. He pinned her easily, hard body pressing hers into the ground, his hands surprisingly gentle on her forearms.

“Stop!” he commanded.

She didn't, because she could still feel the cold air, the chance of escape just a few feet away.

He pressed his forearm to her throat without even enough pressure to make her flinch.

“Stop,” he said again, his voice calm. “John is watching. You want him to come give me a hand?”

She froze, her body shaking with fear and adrenaline.

“Good. Now, how about we try this again?”

He grabbed both her wrists, snapped the handcuff onto one. She bucked up, arm flailing as she tried to avoid the other cuff. He snapped it on easily, and she knew she was done. That any hope that she'd had of getting out of the compound alive was gone.

He lifted her wrists, flashing his light on the deep cut that still seeped blood.

“You're a mess,” he murmured, letting her arms drop onto her stomach, reaching across her body and using pliers to yank the nail from the wall. “But there's not a whole lot I can do about it yet.”

The nail dropped onto the floor, and he reached over, his body covering hers for a split second, something dropping onto her knuckles, falling onto her stomach.

Surprised, she grabbed it, felt the cool metal of a key.

Her heart jumped, and she met his eyes.

He didn't give any indication that he knew what she held, just dropped the nail into his pocket and stood. “Essex sent me. He's been worried. Now, stop trying so hard, Lark. You're just making things harder on both of us.”

He walked outside, closed the door, sealing her in with the putrid air, the pulsing darkness, the cold metal key pressing against her palm and just the tiniest glimmer of hope that she wasn't as alone as she'd thought.

* * *

So much for an easy mission.

Cyrus Mitchell pulled the bloody nail from his pocket and frowned. As far as he could tell, it was the only thing in the trailer that had a sharp edge on it. Lark must have been working at the ropes for hours, sawing through the hemp until she'd finally freed herself.

She had to have noticed the security camera, had to have known that she was being watched twenty-four hours a day. Maybe she'd been desperate enough not to care. Or sick enough not to be thinking clearly. Whatever the case, she'd been determined, and she'd succeeded.

He'd taken that away from her, and it didn't feel good.

The key was his way of apologizing. Essex's name the information she needed to keep her hope alive. It wouldn't get her out of the trailer, but maybe it would keep her from giving up.

Hope, he'd learned a long time ago, was a key factor in survival. Without it, there wasn't a whole lot of reason to keep going.

He locked the trailer, tucked the key into his pocket and headed back across the compound. Security cameras lined the fence, pointing in and out of Amos Way, tracking the movements of everyone who came or went. For a peaceful, God-loving community, they didn't seem all that trusting of their fellow man.

But, then, Cyrus hadn't expected them to be. On the surface, Amos Way was exactly what it claimed to be—a religious commune designed to give its members a home away from worldly corruption and materialistic excess. Underneath, they were something else. Something a lot darker and a lot more dangerous. Cyrus hadn't needed to enter the compound to know it. He'd just had to watch the comings and goings of the armed security force. He wasn't sure what the team was transporting in and out, but he didn't think it was truckloads of Bibles.

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