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ONE

Venezuela
Tuesday
5:33 A.M.


Three things happened simultaneously: the soft, warm curve of a woman’s bare ass tucked enticingly against Zakary Stark’s good-morning-happy-to-feel-you erection, the familiar gut-wrenching realization that she was the wrong woman, and the cold hard metal of a gun barrel pressed to his temple.

The tantalizing fragrance of fresh, jasmine-scented female, coupled with the erotic base note of last night’s sex, was obliterated by the sour stench of stale male sweat.

Fuckit. Hell of a way to start the day.

Zak’s heartbeat ratcheted up a notch, and his entire body stiffened in reaction to the threat.

“¡No te muevas!” Pure menace infused the instruction to remain still; the words, spoken in the local dialect and punctuated by another motivational jab a millimeter from his eye, got Zak’s head back in the game.

Zak spoke fluent Spanish, but he wasn’t going to show his hand until he knew what the guy wanted. His gut urged him to get the hell off the swaybacked mattress. Fast. But he wasn’t going to be speedy enough to beat the man’s finger on that trigger.

He processed the situation. While he was all for taking crazy risks in an attempt at kick-starting a spark of giving a shit about life in general, he wasn’t alone. He might not give a flying fuck if he died one way or the other, but Zak suspected the woman probably didn’t hold the same disregard for her life as he did for his.

He was no goddamn hero. Pissed him off to be put in a position where he had to accept that he was going to be responsible either for another woman’s death or, worse, for ensuring that she stayed alive.

Hero or coward. It was a toss-up which would kill him quicker.

The bed was shoved against the wall, and she lay between him and the man with the gun. God damn it. He hated guns. Kathy? Christy? … the American he’d met in the bar the night before went from limp to tense between one heartbeat and the next as she realized they weren’t alone.

Zak cracked open the eye not pressed into the fragrant curve of her neck and looked through a mass of corn silk blond hair. Fuckit. Not just one intruder. In the murky light of dawn he made out three silhouettes, and heard the shuffle of several more pairs of boots out of his line of sight.

Fatigues. Boots. Weapons. More than an audience. A whole fucking predawn party.

Military? Locals? Guerrillas?

Three crappy choices.

Lips against the woman’s ear, Zak whispered, “Stay still,” and felt the uneven thud of her accelerated heartbeat beneath the hand cupped around her breast. She let out a small shuddering breath and froze as he spoke more loudly to the guy with the gun. “I’m unarmed.”

She unfroze. “¡Él no tener una arma!” she translated urgently in bad Spanish.

Jesus. “He got it the first time,” Zak snarled. “Don’t move, don’t talk.” Don’t be so fucking conspicuous. Impossible. Her lush body was displayed like a delectable smorgasbord, ripe for the taking and within easy reach, on the sex-tangled sheet. Christ, there was nothing more than a sheen of sweat gluing their entwined limbs together.

Hardly bulletproof.

As if determined to be the independent woman he damned well didn’t need her to be right now, she turned her head so their lips were mere inches apart and said in a furious undertone, “I don’t want to get shot because he doesn’t unders—”

The barrel of the gun gouged a deeper dent in Zak’s temple. “Lady,” he managed between gritted teeth, “shut the fuck up.” He squeezed her breast in warning.

Her entire body bristled. “How dare y—”

“Six of them. Six weapons. Us? Naked. Worth it to you to make a point?”

Zak could practically hear her brain turning over in the brief pause before she whispered tightly, “Fine,” and faced forward again, body rigid.

Callate.” The guy standing beside the bed was wearing some sort of pseudomilitary uniform, camo pants tucked into heavy boots. A man of few words, clearly, willing to let his gun do the talking. Zak recognized a Russian-made Uzi when he saw one. In full-auto mode, the weapon was designed to put a lot of lead into a small area very quickly. It also had a strip of electrical tape over the grip safety to prevent a sweaty hand from sliding off the rear of the grip assembly and leaving the shooter with a locked piece. The language the weapon spoke was universal: Obey or die.

Despite the erratic thwap-thwap … thwap of the ancient ceiling fan, the room was hothouse stuffy from the jungle heat of the previous day, and ominously quiet. Everyone staying at the small, seedy hostel-type hotel was probably asleep at this hour. Frankly, he doubted anyone other than his brother would respond to gunfire or yelling. Small-town people in this neck of Venezuela’s woods tended to mind their own business for good reason. No one would come running to aid a couple of gringos and risk getting killed. Chances were they were waiting for their own payout from the takedown.

He carefully uncurled his fingers from the smooth, warm globe cupped in his palm, then slowly raised his hand to show that he was unarmed and compliant. He whispered close to her ear, “Stay quiet, and wait for me to tell you what to do. Then fucking do it. Got it?”

Fine tremors shook her body, but she gave a small nod, which dragged a filament of jasmine-scented silk across his cheek.

Zak suspected he was the one who’d endangered them both, but his task would be a hell of a lot easier and less complicated if she weren’t sex appeal personified—weren’t there in the goddamned hotel room with him.

As far as he knew, there were only three Americans staying in this fleabag hotel just inside Canaima National Park. Himself; his brother, Gideon; and the blonde.

Her bad luck.

Wrong place. Wrong time. Wrong man.

The men had been in the room for approximately two minutes. Long enough to kill them, take them, or rob them. None of which had happened. Yet.

This was too organized to be random. There were more extremely-well-armed men than they’d need if their objective were merely to rob him. No, not a robbery. And he and the woman weren’t dead yet, so, not a homicide either. They weren’t here for the blonde, no matter how good she was at stripping or whatever her dance of choice was. They were here for the Stark brothers. He wondered if Gideon was in the same predicament right now. Zak considered another option.

Kidnapping.

Big business in Venezuela.

The fact that they wanted him lying down indicated they felt safer with him flat on his back. Naked was a bonus, meant he was even more vulnerable.

The fact that he was still alive told him that they didn’t want to kill him, at least not now; always reassuring.

The fact that they weren’t doing much of anything meant they were waiting for someone else to arrive. He had to act fast. He knew the odds now. Any second those odds would change. And he’d bet his Rolex they wouldn’t improve any.

Hell, might as well kiss his Rolex good-bye.

He heard the shuffle of booted feet changing position out of his line of sight. The ultimate goal was to get himself and the woman away from those weapons alive. He was at a distinct disadvantage, though, lying there with an armful of fragrant, interfering, naked female blocking his exit from the bed. First things first.

The plan of action was to be on his feet for whatever was coming down the pike. “Look,” he said in a reasonable tone, addressing the man’s groin, since it filled his field of vision. “Whatever you want, we can work it out. Let the woman go. She’s got nothing to do with this.” The gun barrel drilled harder into his temple.

Que te calles, coño,” the man growled. Loosely translated, “Shut the fuck up.”

Think faster.

What the hell could he do with her that wouldn’t get them both killed in the next minute? Zak was used to thinking on his feet. He was a risk taker, a daredevil, a master thrill-seeker. But that was him. Now he had another life to consider. Been there, failed at that.

What else you got, Stark?

“You want money?” He eased his leg from between hers very slowly, and inexplicably felt his dick respond to the silky glide of her firm, smooth thighs clasped around his. Jesus fucking hell, not now. “I’ll give it to you. Just back off. Let me grab my clothe-”

“¡Date prisa, cabrón!” the guerrilla shouted, no longer bothering to keep his voice down. Not a good sign in the quiet of the small hotel. The Uzi never wavered in his grip as he stepped far enough away from the bed for Zak to see greasy perspiration glistening on his upper lip and in the creases of his thick neck. Big barrel of a guy. Buzzed black hair. Camo gear. Handgun in holster on utility belt. KA-BAR knife strapped to his thigh. Not military.

Not officially, anyway.

Guerrillas. Well-funded.

Christ, what a clusterfuck. The Uzi was pointed at Zak, but it was the woman who had the man’s avid attention. “Hey, buddy”—he got the guy’s eyes back on him—“plenty of dollars and bolos in my wallet. Over there, in my pants.” Which he’d practically ripped off before tumbling the blonde onto the bed the night before.

“¡Me hables una vez más y te corto la verga!” the man shouted, face mottled. He leaned forward, reached out with one meaty hand, grabbed the woman by the wrist, and yanked her unceremoniously off the bed. She screamed like a fucking banshee as she staggered to regain her balance. The guy backhanded her and the scream was cut off mid-decibel.

“Don’t let them—please!” she begged Zak through lips gone white and stiff with terror. The wild tangle of her long blond hair tumbled around her shoulders as she stood there, not sure which way to go. What to do next. Her skin looked pearlescent in the half-light as she gave him a pleading look from tear-drenched eyes. Without breaking eye contact, she whispered, “Do something.”

Still lying on the goddamn bed with a gun aimed at his head, he shot her a hot stare in return. Sympathy wasn’t going to help. Buck up, Barbie. It’s gonna get a helluva lot worse. “Any suggestions, considering the odds?”

“Y-yes, I—” She dragged in a jerky breath and held it. “I can give th—”

“¡Cállate la jeta, traga leche!” The annoyed guerrilla swung her away from him. Zak winced as she crashed into a nearby chair, fell against the wall, then slid to the floor. It happened so fast, he could see by her bewildered blink when she lifted her head that she hadn’t processed what was happening yet. Two men raced to her side, grabbed her upper arms, and hauled her roughly to her feet, groping her everywhere they could in the process.

Everything in him wanted to haul ass across the room and beat the shit out of both of them. But there were four weapons trained on him, two on her, all at close range—he’d be no damn good to either of them dead.

“Easy,” he said calmly, sitting up and raising his arms, palms out. When he wasn’t immediately drilled full of holes, he swung his feet to the gritty floor. “No need to hurt her. She has nothing of value. Just let her leave, she won’t be any trouble.”

“Right. I won’t be any trouble at all,” she assured them fervently, her eyes darting from man to man, then back to him. She dragged in a shaky breath. “Look. I don’t want … Just take … Damn it. All I wanted was one night of—” She blushed. She goddamn blushed. “Which was great—but I don’t think I deserve to get the hell beat out of me because I made a bad choice. Not that you were bad,” she hastened to add, “but, well, this situation is …”

She shot him an annoyed glance. “They don’t appear to speak much English, and you don’t speak Spanish, so …” She turned to one of the men and said in halting, Rosetta Stone Spanish, “Si vas a disparar, me gustar morir con mi dignidad. Y con la ropa encima.” If you’re going to shoot me, then I’d really like to die with my dignity. And fully clothed. She motioned with her chin to her clothes scattered on the floor.

He’d ripped the scrap of dress off her in his haste to get her naked the second the door closed behind them the night before, and it wasn’t going to do much to cover her even if they let her have it. “Es aquí mis cosas. ¿Yo poder …?”

“Lady? Last time. Shut the fuck up,” Zak repeated, coldly, ear cocked for his brother. Where was Gideon? His brother was a light sleeper. He must’ve heard the scream if nothing else. Fuckit. Had the men dealt with Gid before coming here?

“I talk when I’m nervous. Which you might agree I’m justified in being,” she snapped. Apparently, realizing she wasn’t going to be able to do anything about her nudity, she behaved like the emperor with his new clothes. Just stood there haughty as hell and as if she were fully dressed. Her chin rose as she gave him a hot look. “The circumstances notwithstanding, stop telling me to shut up. This is my room, and I can say whatever I damn well like in it. You don’t like me chatting? Take a hike.”

Unbelievable. Bare-ass naked and surrounded by military grade hardware, and she still had a mouth on her. He’d liked it last night, but then again, they hadn’t exactly been talking. Standing there sleek and naked, blond hair wild and just-been-fucked sexy, she was escalating an already volatile situation just by looking the way she looked.

“For fuck’s sake. They hold all the cards.” And it would be worse for her if they decided to shoot him and take her. Any way, anywhere, they wanted.

She gave him a fulminating look and snapped her mouth closed. Zak could almost read her thoughts in a word bubble over her head. Fear radiated off her in waves. One of the men holding on to her shifted to hook his arm across her throat. Her pearly skin gleamed in the semidarkness as she struggled to remain on her feet while the two men tugged her this way and that, which they found vastly entertaining as she fought uselessly to get free.

Two dogs with one bone might work after all … at the least, she’d keep them distracted.

He kept his arms up: Patience. His mother used to say, “You wait until your father gets home. He’ll deal with you.” This was like waiting for the shoe to drop, and for his father to mete out the usual punishment when he eventually got home—be it at seven that night or a week later. The only difference was the amount of blood this shoe was going to take with it.

“Well?” He kept his tone fairly civil. All things considered. “Take what you want, and go. We won’t call the authorities.”

The man closest to him laughed. Besides eye-watering BO, he stank of a several-pack-a-day cigarette habit. “We don’t need your permission, pendejo,” the guerrilla in charge said in slow, deliberate English. “We take what we want.” He jerked his chin to indicate the two men searching the room. One pocketed Zak’s wallet from the bedside table, another helped himself to his watch. The Rolex had sentimental value, but Zak wasn’t prepared to die for it.

The woman cried out indignantly as one of her captors grabbed her breast. Zak decided he’d kill that son of a bitch first. He was stunned that she wasn’t already in full-blown hysterics, but knew it was just a matter of time. “Take it easy. Let the lady go.” He rubbed his fingers together in a universal gesture for money. “I have more money in the safe downst—”

The man shoved her in Zak’s direction, with an obscene suggestion he didn’t dare acknowledge. “No hay bolos suficientes aquí, marica.”

Zak jumped to his feet just in time to catch her up in one arm. Her entire body quaked with terror. Nothing he could do about it. He kept his voice impersonal. “Pull yourself together. They’re feeding off your fear.”

“I can’t …” She wilted against him.

“Jesus. Are you going to faint? Don’t faint, for Christ’s sake!”

“¡Ya basta con la puta charla!” the guy in charge snarled, not enjoying the chitchat. He raised the barrel of the Uzi to cover them both.

Zak let her go, but she remained glued to his side. “Get it together and do it fast.” As women usually did, she was exacerbating the situation without even trying.

The guerrilla motioned with his weapon for them to separate. Her nails dug into Zak’s waist as she clung to him like a baby monkey. The man motioned to the two guys. Blue Bandana and Gold Tooth looked like equally butt-ugly identical twins. They peeled her off him.

Cursing him, she fought them with everything she had, blond hair flying, spitting disjointed words in a mixture of bad Spanish and English. They shoved her into a corner and held her there at gunpoint.

ACADIA GRAY PRESSED HER naked back against the cold cement wall as she accidentally made eye contact with one of the men who’d cornered her. Leering, he licked his lips and rubbed his crotch suggestively. Bile rose in the back of her throat as she saw every sick fantasy he was entertaining play out in his eyes.

She looked around wildly, struggling not to hyperventilate as she tried to decide whom to offer her freaking lottery winnings to. Because dollars to doughnuts, that was why they were in her room. Somehow they’d read or heard about her lottery windfall, and they’d come to collect. Although how they’d known to come here, so far from Kansas, was a mystery she didn’t have time to figure out.

Her fellow captive was trying—unsuccessfully!—to negotiate their release. In English, for God’s sake! One would think he’d at least make an effort to learn the language of the country he was visiting. The men clearly understood but a few of the words he was saying. But he was pigheaded enough not to let her try to talk to the soldiers in their own language, which she’d been practicing for weeks.

His ego was going to get them both killed. Or worse. Acadia stopped hoping he’d save the day and get them both out of this alive. He wasn’t doing … anything useful, just standing there naked with his hands in the air.

Trying to think when she was scared out of her mind was no easy task. Heartbeat manic, she stiffened her muscles, willing her body to stop shaking.

It didn’t work.

Uncharacteristically, she’d made a series of extremely bad choices in the past twenty-four hours, and they were all culminating right here in this tiny room. Damn it, she was going to die before her long-awaited big adventure really began.

Her muscles, especially in her legs, felt as weak and unsubstantial as tapioca pudding, and the erratic pounding of her heart throbbed loudly in her ears. Locking her knees, she told herself to think hard and smart.

She was good at thinking. At preparing. She just had to get the fear untangled from the process. Breathing deeply, and several stages beyond abject terror, she considered the facts. Waking to find herself in a living nightmare was bad enough. Waking up naked in front of all these men was beyond unacceptable and took humiliation to a whole new level. Though the travel agent had said to expect unusual customs in Venezuela, Acadia doubted he’d been talking about this.

Oh, she’d been warned that there were military types, but she certainly hadn’t expected them to be crotch-to-face with her in her own damn hotel room first thing in the morning, waving guns about, forcing her to stand there naked in front of them.

Leering at her. Touching her.

She struggled uselessly to break the soldier’s grip on her arm while her one-night stand—stood there doing absolutely nothing. Zakary Stark was hot in bed, but he was piss-poor at hero stuff. He looked shockingly bored and disinterested—he might as well be sunbathing on a nude beach on the French Riviera, for all he was doing.

Without warning, the man let go of her arm to jam a hand between her legs. She let out a wild, choked-off scream, grabbing his wrist and digging her nails into the sinew and bone with all her strength. For all the effect it had. He jammed his hand against her harder.

“Whoa, whoa,” Zak protested. Too little too late.

It was the man in charge whose sharp warning made the soldier slowly withdraw his questing fingers from between her legs. He grinned lasciviously, his eyes promising worse to come.

Panting, light-headed with dread, and holding back hysteria by sheer determination, Acadia fell back against the wall. Her skin crawled, and bile refluxed in the back of her throat.

“¡Ponte de pie nojoda!” The barrel pressed hard against Zak’s throat. Raising his hands higher, he appeared completely relaxed as he kept his attention on the guy in front of him. God. How could he be so calm? Acadia was trying not to blubber like a baby; her breathing was so erratic she felt dizzy enough to pass out.

Pull yourself together? she thought furiously, incensed by his dictatorial attitude that so far had done absolutely nothing to help either of them. Clearly unconcerned by his nudity—well, sure, because none of the men seemed interested in his spectacular physique—he just stood there, big and bold and naked. Even the fully armed soldiers didn’t seem to give him pause. Acadia envied him his sangfroid.

She’d never felt so exposed, or so vulnerable, in her life.

And this on the advent of one of the biggest life-changing things she’d ever done. Only she could be so unlucky as to wake up to a roomful of armed men days before embarking on what she’d thought, until now, was the ballsiest thing she’d ever done in her life.

Somehow, enrolling in architectural school at her age didn’t seem so daunting anymore. She’d spent most of her life with constraints that hadn’t allowed her to move forward. This trip was supposed to jump-start her “new normal.” But the men holding her weren’t going to let them go. They weren’t going to stop leering. No point drawing any more attention, or hands, to herself than necessary. She had to calm down, had to start thinking rationally and methodically. There was a way out of the situation; there was always a way out. Letting her brain run around like a rat in a maze was counterproductive. Acadia drew in a calming breath and let it out slowly. Keeping her attention on Zak, she blocked out everyone else.

She knew his features by feel and taste better than by sight. He wasn’t that good-looking, she thought, eyeing him critically. His hair was dark, a little long, and shaggy. His face was a little too rugged, his mouth bracketed by lines that could have come from a grim life, or long-hidden dimples—though he didn’t give the impression he was a man who smiled much. He had plenty of scars. One dark brow was bisected by a thin line, while another, a good two inches long, slashed his left temple near the corner of his eye. He had a puckered scar high on his right shoulder, and another on his left hip. She’d kissed all of them last night.

Acadia couldn’t see the color of his eyes in the meager light, but she remembered staring into them across a candlelit table in the cantina the night before: dark and heavy-lashed. Sexy. Hypnotic. Zakary Stark was unlike the men she usually dated. Different enough that he was exactly what she’d needed last night to kick off her grand adventure.

Clearly a lover, not a fighter. Unfortunately, she needed a different kind of man right now. Preferably one who was well armed and willing to kick some butt.

“I get that we’re waiting.” Zak’s voice cut the unnerving quiet in the people-filled room as he spoke with mind-blowing, annoying calm to the leader. Waiting was news to Acadia. Had she missed something? “While we’re just hanging around, why don’t I go ahead and get dressed? Save you all some time?”

“Waiting for what, exactly?” Acadia couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of her voice.

Zak ignored her.

His broad chest was lightly covered with crisp dark hair arrowing down his belly to … Oh, Lord. He wasn’t aroused, but his penis lay against his well-muscled thigh, and it was—Wow. Acadia swallowed. It took some concentrated efforts to disengage her attention and draw her gaze back up his body.

Just looking at the ripple of muscle and satin-bronzed skin on the way up made her brain conjure the feel of his mouth between her legs, and the rasp of his callused hands as he—

She blushed from her head to her toes. Every man in the room was suddenly staring at her as if he too were imagining what had happened right on that very bed hours before.

A whole new wave of fear-fueled adrenaline zoomed through her system with nowhere to go and layered with the sudden surge of lust, making her so woozy that she swayed. She was standing there with two thugs gripping her upper arms, their dirty fingers leaving streaks on her bare skin, and she couldn’t stop staring at Zak’s package? What the hell was wrong with her?

On the other hand, it was a diversion from relentless terror.

Zak turned his head slightly, as if he could feel her focus fixed on him like a tractor beam. Intense dark eyes clashed with hers across the twelve feet separating them in a brief and all-encompassing look. Acadia’s gaze skittered away like spit on a griddle.

She had absolutely no idea how to interpret the look he’d just given her. Run? Stay where you are? Dive for the floor? Drop dead? In books and movies, the helpless heroine always knew exactly what her hero’s silent stares meant. Hell, those heroines could read a whole chapter into a single glance. In real life—not so much.

Long strands of her hair stuck to the sweat on her face and throat as she gave the man on her left a cool look. ”I’m getting dressed now.” She made a move toward the scattered clothes she’d put out the night before, which were now on the floor. The man on her left blocked her with the barrel of his gun, warning her to stay put. To hell with that.

The room was like an oven. They were all sweating, and God—they smelled so rank her eyes stung. She made another useless move to break free, but the men beside her restrained her. Acadia screamed her fury and tried to kick them as she fought to break their hold.

The guy in charge turned to see what the commotion was and shouted, “¡Compañeros, ya basta de rumba! Pueden jugar con ella más tarde.”

She understood Spanish much better than she spoke it, and knowing there’d be a later was good news. Good news she had to get across to her seemingly disinterested lover before—

Without warning, Zak exploded, taking advantage of the soldier’s inattention. He grabbed the barrel of the Uzi, ramming the stock hard against the man’s chest and driving him against the wall beside the bed. The mattress went one way, the metal frame the other, as the man was slammed against the cement wall with a bone-jarring thud.

“Get down! Get down!”

Acadia didn’t need to be told twice. Her two captors let go of her to reposition their weapons, and she dropped to the floor and rolled against the wall, trying to make herself as small as possible.

Still grasping the barrel in his bare hand—was the man insane?—Zak ripped it out of the guerrilla’s hand. The following explosion was deafening, and the bad guy’s shirt erupted in a surreal blossom of red.

The retort of the discharged bullet must’ve been loud enough to wake people in far-off Caracas. Half the plaster crashed from the ceiling to the filthy floor in a shower of masonry and choking dust. More shots echoed in the chaos as the men swung their weapons around looking for something, someone, to shoot.

Acadia stared uncomprehendingly at the gaping, bloody hole in the middle of the soldier’s chest and curled her arms over her head. Like that would stop a bullet. There was nowhere to hide, nowhere to take cover, and the door leading out into the hallway was still blocked by two men who looked as though they were rooted in position, guns pointing into the center of the room.

Not waiting for the debris to settle, her newly minted hero swung the gun around and pulled the trigger as another man lunged. The Uzi clicked uselessly, and Zak dropped it in one smooth motion as he went in fast and low from the cloud of plaster dust while the soldiers tried to regroup. Using his shoulder, he rammed the closest man in the belly, driving him across the room. They crashed into the wall, so close to her that Acadia heard the soldier’s breath escape in a strangled whoosh as his spine made contact with the unyielding wall. She winced. Zak didn’t let up for a second, lashing out with a swift undercut to the man’s unshaven jaw. Unconscious, the soldier slid to the floor beside her.

“Two down, four to go,” she said, unaware that she was speaking out loud. Where the hell were her clothes? They’d been on the chair … She found one boot and clutched it to her chest as she looked for something a little more concealing.

She glanced at the men blocking the only exit. If they’d go and help their pals … but no. They were still there, weapons fixed on the moving target of the naked guy without shooting. Considering the size of the small room, maybe they realized that a stray bullet could hit any one of them.

With a metallic jangle and the scream of metal grating on the wall, the bedsprings flipped end over end, coming to rest against the wall. Zak, bare-assed and suddenly proactive, grabbing anything he could get his hands on, now wielded it as a weapon. One of the soldiers came up behind him, locking his arm across Zak’s throat in a wicked choke hold. Acadia lurched to her feet.

Without consciously making the decision, she drew back her arm and let her boot fly. It missed her intended target, but hit another man smack in the nose. Blood spurted; he made a garbled shriek-y kind of yell, then dropped like a rock and lay still.

“Three left,” she yelled, looking for another weapon. The man she’d beaned still had his Uzi in his slack hand. She crouched down and started across the room.

The soldier she’d aimed at and missed tightened the bend of his elbow against Zak’s throat as he fought to get free. With superhuman strength, he half twisted his body, enough to bring a bent arm up in a lightning-fast move, and put his full weight behind it. Fingers spread, Zak jammed the heel of his hand up under the guy’s chin and dug his fingers into his opponent’s eye sockets. The bruising blow to the chin made the soldier’s hold loosen, while blood spurted from his bitten tongue. Zak grabbed him by the hair and gave him a swift knee to the balls. With a shriek, the man dropped to writhe on the floor. Whimpering, he clutched his hands between his legs.

“Two to go.” Picking up the Uzi, Acadia realized it was heavier than the shotguns and rifles she’d handled at the sporting goods store where she worked. She knew the basics, though she’d never fired an automatic weapon, but it didn’t take an action hero to know which end to point in which direction.

“Great. A naked blonde with an automatic,” Zak drawled. “You’re giving these guys their fondest wet dream.”

“Help or shut the hell up,” she snapped. She didn’t make eye contact—with any of them—as she swung the business end of the Uzi from man to man. At this range she couldn’t miss, and they knew it.

Suddenly someone grabbed both bare breasts from behind. Hauled off her feet, she was slammed against the wall face-first. The Uzi went flying, clattering to the floor across the room as the man pressed his entire body weight against her and pinned her to the wall.

Sound was obliterated by the hard drumbeat of her own terrified blood racing through her veins and the ringing in her ears. Face smashed against the wall, Acadia’s vision darkened around the edges. Don’t faint don’t faint don’t faint.

Choking on her tears and the black rage pouring through her, Acadia reached behind her, digging her short nails into the man’s hand, which was wedged between them.

Nothing was going to stop what was about to happen. She knew that. And yet she kept fighting, finding more hidden strength when she was sure she couldn’t find one more drop.

Somewhere, over the din of her own fear, she heard shouts, but they were meaningless. Her survival instinct filled every atom of consciousness.

The loud crack of a gunshot, from very close range, made her world stand still.

The hot, sweaty weight of the man slid in grotesque slow motion down her bare back; then he crumpled to the floor behind her with a heavy thud. Acadia couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t think. But her internal organs shrank as something warm, wet, and too horrific for her brain to identify dripped slowly down her naked back.

Afraid to turn around and see what had just happened, Acadia was relieved by what had not happened.

“Porqué está desnuda esa puta?” (Why is the whore naked?) an authoritative gravelly voice ground out in rapid-fire Spanish.

© 2011 Cherry Adair

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