Authors: Jennifer Lowery
By Jennifer Lowery
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By Jennifer Lowery
Copyright ©2014 by Jennifer Lowery
All rights reserved. Without
limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication
may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or
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the copyright owner of this book.
This is a work of fiction. Names,
characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of
the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual
persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
This e-book is licensed for
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other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please
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Hard Core: Previously published by
Lyrical Press, 2012
Cover design by The Killion Group,
Editing by Piper Denna
Author photograph by Trent Anderson
of GreatScotMan Photography
Table of Contents
I dedicate this book to my husband, Mike, and two children,
Hunter and Jenna. I couldn’t have done it without you. Love you guys!
During a writer’s journey there are many people who lend a
hand and help bring a book to completion. For me, I never would have reached my
dream without the loving support of my family. My sisters, Abby and Melissa,
for their support and humor and fun times when we got together for coffee and great
conversation. My mom for always being my biggest fan. My dad for being my
biggest supporter. I still have the cards and kind notes, Dad! Thanks, guys,
for being there for me.
I don’t think Hard Core would have ever seen the light of
day if it weren’t for the encouragement of Margo Hoornstra. If not for her
encouragement and fantastic blue pen I never would have put effort into
finishing this story. Thank you, Margo, for your 10-page critique at our MMRWA
meeting. I am forever grateful that my paper bled blue that day.
To the fabulous Rom-Critters out there, you guys ROCK! Your
critiques were awesome and I thank you for all the time and patience you put
into my chapters. I have learned so much from you guys and value your
friendships beyond words. Humbly, I thank you. And for those late night FB
celebrations-cheers, gals! You know who I’m talking about, lol.
A special thank you goes out to my critique partner and dear
friend, D’Ann Lindun. She served as beta reader, CP, sounding board,
brainstorming partner and so much more. Whenever I needed her she was there
with a good word, ear to listen and solid advice. Without her I don’t think I
would have made it through the revision process! You rock, lady!
To my awesome military research guy, RJ, you’re the best! I
couldn’t have written the FFL and everything military without your help! Thank
you so much for responding to my many emails so quickly-even when you’re a
And thank you, Ella Quinn, author extraordinaire, for
introducing me to RJ! And for your research help!
To the most fabulous editor in the world, Piper Denna, who
makes me a better writer! Thank you, Piper, for your humor and encouragement,
and guidance. My books wouldn’t be complete without you!
And, to anyone I may have accidentally overlooked please
know you are not forgotten. I appreciate each and every one of you who helped
me get through the writing of this book.
Last, but not least, I just want to send out a big THANK YOU
to all my readers out there! Without you I wouldn’t be here. My wish is to one
day meet each and every one of you so I can personally thank you for your
generosity and support.
All my best,
Remote Island off the coast of Nicaragua
Slade belly-crawled across the jungle floor. Patience and stealth:
both were essential if he wanted to survive. He checked the Gerber knife
strapped to his thigh, felt the weight of the rifle slung across his back. His
gaze locked on the man casually smoking a cigar in the distance. Cuban, by the
scent of it.
Perspiration trickled between his shoulder blades. God, he
hated the dark, dank jungle. His lungs ached when he breathed in the thick, wet
air. He preferred his beach house on the west coast or penthouse in Chicago. At
this point he’d be grateful for the rustic cabin he kept in the Rockies.
He continued to drag his body through the dense underbrush.
The sting of an insect bit into the exposed area of skin on his neck. His
shoulders tensed with effort to resist slapping it. To slap at it and take his
focus off the objective could be fatal. He let the insect take its fill and
Fifteen feet now. Close enough to see the color of the
mark’s eyes. Slade settled into a prone position, body slack. He positioned the
FRF-2 on solid ground and sighted down the scope, his finger wrapped
feather-light around the trigger.
The cacophony of monkeys screeching in the trees faded to
the slow, steady rise and fall of his own chest. The soft thrum of his
heartbeat. A bead of sweat trickled down his cheek. Bugs swarmed his head. Some
went in for a bite or sting, but he didn’t waver from the target.
The man in his sights crossed one leg over the other,
inhaled deeply on his cigar and blew out a lazy stream of smoke, unaware he was
in the enemy’s crosshairs. Slade’s finger tightened on the trigger.
A noise which didn’t belong registered before he could pull
the trigger. Cold steel of a gun barrel pressed against his temple.
“Let go of the weapon.” A hard, accented voice gave the
Slade let his hands slide off his rifle and drop to the
“On your back. Slowly.”
Slade rolled and drove a booted foot it into the guy’s knee,
bringing him to the ground with a grunt of pain. Within seconds Slade pinned
the guy beneath him, a knife to his throat and an arm locked behind his back,
dangerously close to breaking it.
“You’re making a big mistake,” the guy choked out. Little
drops of blood pebbled where the razor sharp edge of Slade’s knife pressed
against his flesh.
The distinct click of numerous guns cocking, one after the
other, echoed through the jungle. Slade mentally counted ten of them, locked
and loaded, and aimed at him.
He dropped the knife, let go of the man’s arm and raised his
hands in surrender.
“You should not have done that.” Pain exploded in the back
of his head. The ground slammed into him before everything went black.
* * * *
A punch to the ribs knocked Slade and the chair to the
floor. He landed hard on his shoulder with a grunt, kicking up a cloud of dust.
Recon when he’d come to had revealed cement walls without
windows and a steel door with a heavy lock. Not a room a prisoner escaped.
Built for interrogation--not the first he’d been in--definitely soundproofed.
He breathed shallowly through aching ribs and braced for the
next round of interrogation. One man demanded answers as to why he’d had the
in his sights and two others did his dirty work. None of which he would answer.
He would die before he betrayed the group he worked for.
A pair of hands dragged him off the floor and forced him
back in the chair. The scent of Cuban cigars penetrated his nose.
“You haven’t uttered one word since you were brought here.”
The mark, Gavin Ross--an American--spoke, narrowed green eyes curious as he
studied Slade. He clasped his hands behind his back. “Your will is commendable,
if not foolish. We both know you cannot hold out forever.”
Slade remained silent.
“What I can’t figure out is which agency hired you to kill
me. FBI? DEA? No, the CIA. This stinks of their work. You’re very good, I’ll
give you that. You got closer to me than anyone ever has. Military background?
Marine, maybe? I doubt it was the Navy. You don’t have the devotion with this
career choice. I’ll go with Marine. Sniper. Am I close?”
Slade said nothing. He wouldn’t disillusion the man by
telling him he was partially right. He’d been military, but not anymore.
“You choose silence? I suppose that leaves us at a
stalemate, doesn’t it?” Ross circled the chair. “I find myself left with a
dilemma. What to do with you? I could kill you and eliminate the risk of you
fulfilling your contract. Or I could hire you.”
Slade stared at the wall.
“Hire you for what, you might ask. By the way, I know a very
good doctor, if you accept my proposition.” A smile ghosted past his lips and
Slade swallowed, tasting blood. No way in hell would he sign
on with this man or any other like him. Criminals were criminals. He didn’t
ask, didn’t care. He would do the job he’d been hired to do. The leader of Onyx
Group, Patrick Gallagher, handled the paperwork. Slade was the hired gun who
took care of business, ridding the world of bad guys. What he knew of Gavin
Ross could fit into the palm of his hand. What the man had done to bring him
here didn’t matter.
“Come work for me and head up my security team. You keep
mercenaries like yourself from getting to me and I’ll pay you triple what the
government is paying you to eradicate me.” He nodded, brows drawn in thought,
circling the chair. “You have proven you have the skills to do the job and I
could use someone with your capability. I promise you won’t regret it. I can
give you things you’ve only dreamed of.”
If the fool knew what Slade dreamed of, he’d withdraw the
offer. He spit a stream of blood on the floor, narrowly missing an expensive
“I find the adage about keeping your enemies close to be
true. How about a little incentive?” With a snap of his fingers, two men moved
to Slade’s side and picked him up by his armpits. They carried him out of the
room, feet dragging, and into a narrow hallway. Things were a blur after that
as his head started to swim. Stars danced in front of his eyes when the pain in
his ribs intensified and overtook him. Everything went black.
* * * *
Slade opened his eyes. He lay on a large bed in a luxurious
bedroom. The faint scent of woman’s perfume drifted past his nose. A fan
whirled slowly overhead, blowing cool air over his heated skin. In three
corners of the room cameras were mounted to the ceiling, red lights blinking to
show they were active. No doubt there were bugs hidden in the room, too. He was
naked and still covered in blood.
, you are awake. Come, I have prepared your
Slade rose to a sitting position and sucked in a sharp
breath. Hurt like a bitch to breathe. Sweat beaded on his forehead. The
curvaceous dark-haired woman stood a few feet away, towels in hand, wearing a
robe with nothing underneath. This was incentive? Beautiful women at his
disposal? He didn’t need Gavin Ross for that.
Grunting with effort, he rose to his feet and pressed a hand
to his ribcage while he scanned the room in case they weren’t alone. With a
criminal like Ross, he could never be too sure. Whatever his plan, Slade needed
to be one step ahead.
He followed the woman into a bathroom the same size as the
bedroom and just as lavish, with gold plated faucets and black lacquered
counter tops glossed to a shine. Even the glass doors on the shower were
trimmed in gold. Unimpressed, Slade leaned against the sink for a moment to
breathe through the fire in his side. Dots danced in front of his eyes, but
didn’t drop him.
As soon as they were out of sight from the cameras, he snuck
an arm around the beauty’s throat and whispered, “Scream and I’ll snap your
* * * *
Slade lowered the body of the guard he had lured into the
bedroom to the floor. The dark haired beauty was tied to the bed, unconscious,
from precisely placed pressure to her carotid artery. Painless, effective.
He glanced both ways down the hallway before closing the
door. Quickly, he stripped the guard of his clothes and put them on. They were
a size too small, but they’d work.
He grabbed the AK-47 out of the guy’s dead fingers and went
in search of an escape. Steel bars barricaded the window behind the curtains.
The house eerily quiet, he crept through a library to find
the windows barred there too.
Paranoid bastard. Ross owned the private, deserted island.
Who the hell was he trying to keep out? Or in?
Slade gripped his side where fire burned and moved toward
the door. His hand was on the brass knob when he heard voices on the other
side. He slipped between two floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and waited, weapon
raised and ready. Blood pounded in his ears as he breathed through the pain
wracking his body in waves.
Sweat beaded his forehead as footsteps pounded past the
door. Good chance they already knew he had escaped.
He wasted no time and left the library in search of a way
out. Following hallways, avoiding detection, he ended up in the kitchen. A
middle-aged woman in a black dress and white apron walked through the back door,
leaving it open as she held a lemon to her nose. She looked up, startled, at
the same time Slade came in.
Her eyes widened, dropped to his clothes and the gun in his
hand, then came back up to meet his. Recognition didn’t register and he knew
before she opened her mouth he was screwed. He sprinted for the open door and
burst through just as the woman started screaming.
Outside, he stumbled over a potted plant and fell to his
knees, one hand braced on the ground as his vision narrowed. Footsteps pounded
through the kitchen, a pan clanged to the ground. He pushed to his feet and ran
through the gardens toward the jungle bordering the house.
A bullet zipped past his head and he ducked. His head swam.
Focused on getting his bearings in the darkness, he dropped to a crouch and
winced as the stolen clothes bit into his crotch.
Jungles were deceptive, the darkness unlike anywhere else in
the world. Danger could lurk a foot away and you would never see it through the
true black. No light from the stars or moon made it past the trees’ heavy
His camp lay hidden seven clicks northwest of Ross’s estate.
Slade headed on a diagonal to his left and kept low as he waited for his night
vision to adjust. Ross’s thugs were hot on his tail. The guy had no shortage of
soldiers. Sounded like an army crashing through the jungle behind him. Their
flashlights made it difficult for him to move without being seen. Having no
night vision goggles put him at a disadvantage.
A bullet ripped through his side. White-hot pain brought him
to his knees. He cursed the lucky bastard as blood seeped from the wound. Left
with no choice but to stay on the move, he clamped a hand over his side and
pushed to his feet.
They were gaining on him.
He stumbled to his knees again. Warmth leaked through his
fingers. His ears began to ring. With a shake of his head he tried to clear the
ringing, but it only got worse.
Gunfire erupted around him.
With a curse he tried to stand, only to have his legs give
out. Weak, he dropped down and crawled through the underbrush on all fours. He
might not be in any shape to fight, but he had the skills to hide. They
wouldn’t be able to follow his blood trail until dawn. By then he would be on
his way back to the States with Ross dead and a contract fulfilled. No lucky
goddamn bullet would keep him from finishing the job.
A creature moved beneath his hand, hissed and shot through
the bush. Slade froze, listened, then kept moving.
God, he hated the jungle.
* * * *
Alana O’Grady staggered out of the old church and dropped
down on a crumbled stone step. Weary, she drew in a deep breath and let the
rich, humid air saturate her lungs. She stared down at her hands, scrubbed
well?” A woman asked softly in the
The light coming through the doorway shone on the tribal
elder’s dark, leathery face and Alana nodded. “Yes, the
is fine.” A
smile touched her lips as she remembered how many hours she’d spent bringing
the breech baby into the world. The mother had insisted she carried a boy
because of how active he was. “A girl.”
A knowing grin stretched across Maia’s face. “She is
“A bit small but healthy. She’s a fighter, she’ll do fine.”
Maia’s smile turned wise. “
get some sleep. You’ve earned it.”
“I think I’ll bathe first. Good night, Maia.”
As the old woman shuffled away Alana rose from the steps and
crossed the clearing to the thatched-roof hut behind the church. She didn’t
need a torch to see through the inky darkness. She knew the way by heart. The
jungle had been her home for a long time.
With a soft knock she entered the small home and smiled at
the thin man sitting hunched over a journal, a lantern burning low at his side.
He turned when she walked in, and put down his pen.
“Alana.” Her father’s voice came out weak and raspy. Not
like the strong man who had taught her everything he knew. “The delivery went
Alana rested a hand on his shoulder. “Just fine. A girl.”
Her father’s graying brows rose. “A girl? That is a
surprise. Strong will, that one. How are you doing?”
She tucked her other hand into the pocket of her cargo
pants. “I’m fine. Tired, but fine.”
Her father’s hand covered hers where it rested on his
shoulder. “I’m proud of you, Alana. You’ve done your mother and me proud.”
Tears filled her eyes and she quickly blinked them away. If
he knew her secrets, he wouldn’t be proud. The burden weighed heavy on her
shoulders, as it had since the day they’d left Boston. She hated the lie, but
truth would only cause her father more grief. She wouldn’t do that to him.