Formula for Danger
Phoenix Agency, Book 6
The Phoenix Agency
They served their country in every branch of the military—Army Delta Force, SEALs, air force, marines. They are pilots, snipers, medics—whatever the job calls for. And now as private citizens they serve in other capacities as private consultants training security for defense contractors, as black ops combatants eradicating drug dealers, as trained operatives ferreting out traitors. Along with the women in their lives, each of whom have a unique psychic ability, they are a force to be reckoned with. Risen from the ashes of war, they continue to fight the battle on all fronts. They are Phoenix.
Formula For Danger
Running back to Texas after an emotional disaster in San Francisco, J. L. Mitchell, microbiologist, is throwing herself into the development of a new, drought-resistant grain. Little did she expect to reconnect with Cole Martin, who rings all her bells, or to discover that her formula was at risk of being hijacked. As her work progresses, so does her relationship with Cole. When she is kidnapped, he brings all the recourse of The Phoenix Agency, where he has just become a partner, into play, hoping they will be in time.
Read an Excerpt (Click to show / hide)
In the quiet of the morning, Cole Martin sat astride his big Appaloosa, shielded by a heavy copse of trees. With him were a couple of men from The Phoenix Agency, two of his own men, and Phoenix Agency partner Rick Latrobe. They all sat on their horses as quietly as Cole did. All the men were experienced horsemen, who knew how to move with stealth and take down tangos. Additionally, in the military they specialized in hostage-and-kidnap rescue, which was why cole had chosen them.
All eyes were fixed on the cabin deep in the woods where someone was holding J. L. Mitchell captive. Cole had to reach for sniper mode, forcing himself to breathe evenly and blanking everything from his mind except the task at hand. He wouldn’t do JL any good if he couldn’t keep his shit together. He’d done it for people he barely knew; now he needed to do it for the most important person in his life. He had promised her, this woman who owned his heart, that he would keep her safe from those seeking to harm her. That he would take care of her. That he would protect her from the danger circling around her.
And he’d failed. The taste of it was bitter in his mouth. In all his years as a sniper in the marines, he had never blown a mission. When he’d joined Phoenix, he’d welcomed the resources available to continue to protect and serve.
Some protector you are, asshole.
But self-recrimination wouldn’t do him any good now. He needed to focus on the reason he and his men were here—to get JL safely out of that cabin. And then to hunt down whoever had taken her.
Ever since all the trouble had begun, JL had been working long hours to try and finish the experiment. Cole had been hanging out with her at the lab every evening, bringing her something to eat, making sure she didn’t kill herself with work. Then he’d call Van and Blake, the two Phoenix agents guarding her. One of them could drive her and the other could follow in another car. JL kept accusing him of overkill, but he always said, “Better safe than sorry.”
Last night he’d gotten a call from an old friend who had stepped into a world of trouble and wanted to see whether Phoenix could help him. Cole had been ready to pass it off to Dan or one of the other partners, but JL had insisted he meet with his friend himself.
“I’ll be fine,” she told him. “We haven’t had any incidents since the break-in attempt. I have plenty to do here. I’ll work until the day guard finishes his shift; then he can drive me to my dad’s when his relief arrives. That way I won’t be alone. We’ll call Kevin and Noel and have them tail us.” She touched his cheek, a gentle, caring caress. “You need to go, Cole. You’ve got the best of the best protecting me. I’ll be fine. This is important, and you know it.”
The meeting had taken longer than he’d expected, but he was glad he’d gone himself. Before he’d made the hour-long drive back to Clayton, he’d pulled up the Bluetooth display to call JL and check on her. But he hadn’t even tapped one button before his phone had rung, and the call from Jed Mitchell, JL’s father, had thrown Cole back into full alert. He’d pressed the button on the steering wheel to answer.
“It’s JL.” The man’s voice was hoarse with fear and anguish. “Someone’s taken her.”
Cole raked his fingers through his hair, furious with himself. He’d felt in his bones—correctly, as it had turned out. Had the whole thing been a setup? Had his “old friend” somehow been blackmailed into distracting him and taking him away from JL? The possibility that the whole thing had been a setup while JL was snatched right from under his nose enraged him.
Okay, think. You jerk. Hotshot covert-ops agent. Do something. The woman you love needs you, so you’d better get your shit together.
“Good thing she was coming to see me,” Jed went on. “She said you wouldn’t want her alone while you went to your meeting, and I agreed. Good excuse for us to get together.”
“Spit it out, for God’s sake.”
“Okay, okay. Anyway, she called me when she and the guards left her lab like you told her to. When it was way past time for her to arrive, I got nervous. Antsy. I tried her cell, but it went to voice mail. I had a funny feeling about this, so I called Sheriff Davis. He has a patrol car on that highway all the time. I asked him to check and see if she needed help.”
“She had a Phoenix agent with her,” Cole pointed out, “and another in a follow car. We were sure we had her covered.”
“I-I didn’t think about that. Sorry.”
“And?” Cole ground his teeth.
“The sheriff just called me. Not good, Cole. Both SUVs were a mess and the guards with her had been knocked out cold with tranq darts. They were starting to wake up when the patrol car got there. The deputy called the sheriff, who called me.”
“What did the guards say?”
“One of them, Kevin something, said a big garbage truck came out of a side drive and hit the vehicle JL rode in broadside, skidding it around so they got the second vehicle, too. JL’s driver told her to get down and was just reaching for his gun when two guys in ski masks smashed out their windows and hit them with the darts. They’re all still at the place where it happened.”
The goddamn windows, Cole thought. The reinforced SUVs with bulletproof glass still sat at Texas Armoring, nearly ready to be picked up. They’d been promised for the middle of the week.
“Jesus, Cole.” Fear was evident in Jed’s voice. “Whoever’s been after her has really gotten serious.”
Cole couldn’t disagree with the assessment. In seconds he was flooring the gas pedal and racing down the road, heading toward the highway location Jed gave him, leaving the connection open. Only years of training allowed him to fight back the fear and concentrate on the situation at hand.
“It’s that damn grain she’s working on,” Jed growled through the speakers. “If she’s successful, it will be a huge help to all of us here in Texas. And anyplace else the association decides to share it. But I told her the people after it only want to hold it hostage and sell it for as many millions as they can get.”
Developing this formula would be a real boon to the cattle industry, but too many people could see the advantages of having control over its production and sale. Now was not the time to debate that situation, however.
“Okay, we’ll figure out where she’s been taken and go from there,” Cole said.
“Can you do that? I mean, she could be anywhere. Even out of the country.”
“I’m on my way to where they found the car. I want to talk to our agents and the sheriff. And I’m calling Dan Romeo.”
“Can you find her?” Jed begged. “She may be an adult, but she’s still my baby.”
And now someone very special in my life.
“Phoenix has resources,” Cole assured him. “We’ll get her back.” He hoped like hell he could follow through on what he promised.
Dan Romeo’s words of a few months ago came back to him. “You never know when your skills might be needed,” the senior partner of the Phoenix Agency had insisted when he made his offer to Cole. “Give it some thought. We can really use you.”
“I’m on it. You can be damn sure I’ll find her and bring her home,” Cole told Jed. For me as much as for you.
Shit. He’d better do this right.
“Whoever this is might kill her if she doesn’t do what he wants,” her desperate father had said.
Cole didn’t even want to consider the possibility. But he knew all too well that three determined groups of people were pulling out all the stops to get hold of JL and control of the grain formula she was developing. It annoyed her that they wouldn’t leave her alone. She’d met with each of them, then sent them an email telling them t she just wasn’t interested. He’d seen for himself how angry it had made them. He’d set things up so at work she was safer than the president, but at other times outside the lab, she’d faced increased risk.
“Let me hang up,” he told the older man, “so I can make some calls.”
The thought of JL in danger sent fear surging through him again, an emotion he deliberately tamped down. No time for that now.
Three years apart in high school, he and JL hadn’t exactly traveled in the same circles. But in a small town like Clayton it was impossible not to know nearly everyone, at least by name. He hadn’t seen her for a long time. Word had it she was working for a lab in Seattle. But the last couple of times he’d been home on leave, he’d run into her casually here and there. No longer a kid, J. L. Mitchell had grown into a woman who had made his body sit up and take notice. No doubt about it.
Before he’d resigned his commission, his life had been formed around his commitment to the military. Totally focused. His career hadn’t left him much room to explore the kind of relationships he wanted. Even casual dates might have turned sour when he traveled overseas for months at a time. Although a lot of people made it work, Cole had known that wasn’t for him.
Once he’d arrived home for good and they’d connected again, the attraction he’d made himself ignore all that time zipped to the surface. Who knew an accidental meeting at the post office and a cup of coffee at Red’s Diner would turn into a relationship that made his body tingle and his mind think of the future?
They’d been together for five months now, more than enough time for him to know what he wanted. Now the woman he hoped to spend the rest of his life with was missing. If nothing else, this gave him a reason to be happy he’d joined Phoenix.
Mia Romeo, Dan’s wife, had concentrated on receiving images. Kat Culhane D’Antoni, a remote viewer, was working with pictures of JL, as well as ones of the general area, to locate where the kidnappers were holding her. Andy Moreil, their vaunted computer geek, had gathered aerial and topographical maps of the area so Kat could superimpose her mental pictures on them.
“I don’t get a sense she’s been taken out of the area,” Mia had passed along.
With her extrasensory skills, she often received clues to something either happening or about to happen. Cole thanked every god that this time her mind had been wide open, and that Andy, as he often did, could interpret her visions and convert them into real information.
Cole prayed they weren’t off on a wild-goose chase, but he had to have faith. And Andy and Kat had more than come through for him, actually determining where JL had been taken. Andy was still trying to identify the actual owner of the property, but there wasn’t time at the moment to wait. A cabin in the woods was what Kat had come up with.
“A lab,” she’d added. “In an isolated area. State of the art. And she’s not the only one there.”
“What the fuck?” Had whoever kidnapped her thought they could force her at gunpoint to create her formula for them? JL might tell them to go to hell. The possible consequences of her doing that scared the shit out of him.
More than one player had approached her and waved money under her nose. And had turned them all down. Apparently one of them had decided they didn’t want this formula used for the common good, only for their own pocketbooks.
Even with the Dragon, Andy was still trying to uncover the name of the owner through all the layers of holding companies and corporations. He was sorting through them as fast as he could, but Cole couldn’t wait. One of those scientists was there against her will and on a very short leash.
Once Andy and Kat had put all the specifics together, they’d sent everything directly to Cole’s cell phone. He’d stared at the information.
What the fuck?
Who the hell had set up something like that?
He and his men had moved forward with every piece of equipment they needed to help them. They’d trailered their horses as close to the target location as they could without giving away their presence. Then, after unloading their animals quietly and mounting up, they’d managed the rest of the way on horseback, very slowly and stealthily. Cole, a former marine sniper, had his LaRue Predator rifle, the same type he’d used when deployed and his first big purchase on his return home.
Not that he’d ever anticipated being called upon to use those skills again, but once he’d joined Phoenix all that had changed. And he wouldn’t hesitate to take out anyone he needed to in order to save JL.
Suddenly, there it stood: the private cabin, exactly as Andy and Kat had described. The log exterior gave it a rustic look, but what Kat had told him was inside was far from a normal cabin interior.
Slowly, they scoped out the situation so they didn’t go in blind.
Cole sat in the shelter of the trees on his horse, powerful binoculars at his eyes.
“I see two men on the porch,” he whispered into his lip mic. “They’ve got rifles but not at the ready.”
“Probably not expecting anyone to come riding up on them,” Jace Whitney, his close friend who’d insisted on answered.
“I’m sure not.” Cole reached into his saddlebags for the infrared unit, part of the equipment Dan had shipped to him when he’d accepted the partnership with Phoenix. Just in case. Damn good thing, too. It easily identified heat signatures in the cabin. “I count four people inside. JL’s in the room, standing to the right of the front door. The only female. Check your interior maps.”
Somehow—he wasn’t even sure he wanted to know how—Andy had been able to send them a sketch of the basic layout of the building. Cole wondered which database Andy had hacked.
He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and called up the picture of JL he used as his screen shot. The camera had caught her sitting on the top rail of a corral at her father’s ranch, her head thrown back, laughing at something out of camera range. The streaks in her shoulder-length blonde hair glinted in the sunlight, framing her face with its high cheekbones and emerald-green eyes. A plaid shirt and jeans lovingly caressed luscious curves.
If that bastard, whoever he—or she—is, has harmed one hair on her head, I’ll tear every limb from his body.
As soon as everyone dismounted, he waved them over to him.
“Okay,” he whispered. “Here’s the way I see it. Isolated out here, they aren’t expecting company. I guarantee you, whoever owns this place doesn’t think anyone can find out about it. The security is probably more to keep the people inside from leaving than to be on the lookout for strangers. I wish we had the cover of darkness, but it can’t be helped. We can’t wait.”
He went over everything with them one more time before they all moved into position. The heavy forestation giving the cabin its privacy also allowed them to get very close to it and leave their horses concealed by the trees. At a signal from Cole, one of the other men joined him, and they crept to the open porch, approaching one from each side. Moving swiftly, they neutralized the guards before the men had time to react.
“Get set,” Cole whispered into his lip mic.
Then he gave a soft whistle. A well-trained animal, his big Appaloosa came trotting up. Swinging himself into the saddle, Cole tugged back on the reins so the animal reared on its hind legs, his hooves crashing through the wooden door. In seconds Cole was inside, his team already there, guns pointed at the people working.
“We don’t want any trouble,” one of the men said.
“Good,” Cole told him. “Stay or go, but get the hell out of my way.”
“Let’s get out of here,” one shouted. “If the guards are down, there’ll be hell to pay when they wake.”
“Our stuff,” another protested.
“Is it worth more than your life?” the first one asked.
“Grab one,” Cole yelled to his men. “We need answers.”
Swooping a relieved JL up with one arm, he plunked her down in the saddle in front of him. He wheeled his horse and galloped out of the cabin and off into the woods, barely registering the men running from the cabin, carrying laptops and whatever else they could hold on to. His men leaped onto their horses, and in seconds they were flying through the trees. They were still racing when an explosion shook the earth, startling the horses as well as the men.
“What the fuck?” Jace asked.
“My guess?” Cole said. “They set the place to blow in the event of an intrusion. I only hope those poor fuckers got out in time.”
“You can probably write off the guards.”
Cole shrugged. “I hope not, but I can’t feel too sorry for anyone holding prisoners.”
Greg Alvarado, one of Cole’s men, had a tight grip on the lab assistant he’d scooped up. “What do you want me to do with this idiot?”
“Let me go,” the man yelled.
“Shut up, or I’ll stick a gag in your mouth. Well, Cole?”
“Take him back to the hangar. We’ll give him plenty of time to talk there.”
“D-did the cabin explode?” JL wanted to know, shivering against him.
“That’s my guess, sugar.” He stroked a hand down her cheek. “Hold on. I want to get us as far away as possible. Then I’ll be happy to hold you as long as you want.”
Finally, they reached the place they’d left their trucks and horse trailers. He pulled his horse to a halt, took out his cell phone again, and dialed Jed Mitchell.
“We’ve got her, Jed, and I’m bringing her home.” He tightened the arm he had banded around JL’s body.
“I owe you big-time, Cole.” The man was nearly in tears. “Anything you ever want, you only have to ask.”
“Just getting her back is enough for me. You know that. I’ll bring her by to see you, but then I’m taking her home with me.”
“You can protect her better there,” Jed Mitchell agreed.
“I’m going to find out who the bastard is behind this. You can bet the farm on that.”
“I know you will,” the older man said. “Well, I’ve got a good shot of whiskey waiting for you. And tell your men, anything they ever need from me, they’ve got it.”
JL shifted in front of him.
“I think my heart’s about to beat out of my chest.” She drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “God, Cole. I should have listened to you more. I’m so sorry.” She pressed her head into his shoulder. “I was terrified.” One corner of her mouth tipped up. “And mad as hell.”
“Not surprised. I was afraid you’d piss them off, though, and they’d decide the whole thing wasn’t worth the effort.”
“Do you know that they broke into the lab and stole my computer? The stand-alone one?”
He was glad to hear the edge of anger creeping into her voice.
Cole ground his teeth, reaching for control. It wouldn’t do her any good for him to let his rage take over now. “Dan told me, right after I called him about you. He got the alarm five minutes after I contacted him.”
“They planned to make me unlock the hard drive and pull up everything in my files.”
“That figures. Fuck.” He spat the word out. “That means all your work is lost, right?”
She gave a breathy little laugh. “No, thank God. Last week, I also started saving everything to a mini external hard drive I carried back and forth with me. It’s still in my tote in the car the guard was driving.”
“Then Sheriff Davis has it. I’ll get it for you the minute we’re out of here.” He cupped her head to turn it up to him, gave her one a brief, hard kiss, then looked at the others. “Thanks for everything, guys. Go home, get some rest, and we’ll meet back at my place in six hours. I’m going to tap one or two of my partners to join Greg and me at the hangar and see what we can pull out of that work we took. We need to get to the root of this. Now.”
The men murmured their answers, then dismounted and trailered their horses. Greg had stuffed the lab assistant in his truck and threatened him within an inch of his life if he tried to get away.
Cole swung down from the saddle and helped JL to the ground. He saw the strain on her face and in her eyes. He wrapped his arms around her still trembling body, all too aware of how easily it all could have turned to shit and he would have lost her.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “I know that’s a stupid question, but they didn’t hurt you, did they?”
She let out a shaky breath. “No. But the men had their orders. If the person behind this didn’t get what he or she wanted from me, they’d have had no hesitation about killing me. I guess if whoever it is didn’t get the formula, no one else would have it, either.”
“Not gonna happen,” he assured her. “But whoever this is, he or she is still out there, probably waiting for another chance.”
She shuddered against his body. “I’m trying not to think about it.”
“I’m going to wring some answers out of that guy we grabbed. Then I’m gluing myself to your side until we wrap this up. And we’ll double the guards again if we have to. Someone spent a lot of money and took a big chance to get you and that formula.”
“Cole, that’s a big demand on everyone’s time,” she protested. “And it costs money.”
“It would be a lot worse if anything happened to you. I’m heading this branch of the agency, so I can call the shots.”
“My dad will want to help.”
“We’ll see. I’ll talk to Dan, and we can discuss it later.”
With his free hand, he lifted his hat, wiped his forehead with his arm, and settled the hat back on his thick head of black hair. Cupping her jaw, he tilted her face up so his mouth could claim hers again. This time, the kiss was a lot slower. As always, she tasted like seventeen kinds of heaven, sweet and spicy and all manner of sin. And all woman.
A woman he could have lost. No matter what situations came up, he wasn’t letting her out of his sight until they found whoever was behind this.
She kissed him back, her tongue tangling with his as he licked and tasted her.
They drew apart, both breathless.
“I need to get you back so your daddy can lay eyes on you himself.” He pulled her into his arms. “Then I’m taking you home to my place, and I might not let you out for a week.”
Even though strain still lined her face, she smiled at him. “I hear riding a cowboy is a good cure for a case of nerves.”
“As soon as we wrap this up, you can have the ride of your life.”
He’s still out there, though, whoever the bastard is. We’ll identify him, however we have to do it. Then I’ll destroy him.
May 8, 2019