Pararescueman Jose “Cuervo” James is committed to his job and not much else. He thought nothing could change that, not even sexy, smart Interpol agent Stella Carson. Their affair burns hot and fast, but family is everything to Stella, and Jose just can’t go there. His family demons are too deep, too tenacious.
The demands of their work make it easy to stay away from each other, until a fateful mission deep in the African jungle unexpectedly throws them together. With Stella’s life on the line, uncovering the truth about Jose’s fears and her tragic past might destroy the spark between them, or gain them a second chance at passion and forever…
“Catherine Mann writes an amazing combination of keen suspense, unique
characters, and heart-stopping romance. I’m a fan!”—Lori Foster, New York
Times bestselling author of Savor the Danger
“Mann spins a tense and dramatic sequel to 2011′s Hot Zone…the chemistry is strong, the prose is tight, and the
story never stops moving.” -Publishers Weekly
“Mann sweeps readers along with pulse-pounding suspense, passion and a full-out
frontal assault of the senses that will keep readers gripping their seats. As
the pages turn, the story evolves and the danger and romance keep ratcheting up
degree by degree.” -Romantic Times Book Reviews 4 1/2 stars (Fantastic/Keeper!)
“Oh my, this is Catherine Mann at her best….. A not-to-be-missed installment of the Elite Force series!” -Love Affair With A Reader Reviews
“Catherine Mann engages all the emotions and all the senses of the reader as she lures the reader into bone-chilling fearful actions, into deep, personal motivations that drive the characters, and into euphoric love scenes with soul mate lovers. The piquant details Ms. Mann weaves into Free Fall make it riveting.” -Long & Short Reviews (5 stars!)
“With a little espionage, danger, and romance all rolled into one fast read, it was
good entertainment!” -To Me Tender Reviews
“If you are a fan of Catherine and her Elite Force series I think that you will really enjoy Jose’s story. For the newbies don’t be afraid to pick up this book and read. Free Fall can easily be read as a stand-alone book!” –Books-N-Kisses Reviews
“Elite Force” book 4
By Catherine Mann
Horn Of Africa
When Interpol operative Stella Carson was eight years old, her mother rented the movie Out of Africa so Stella could envision where her mom lived when she left Tallahassee for Peace Corp trips. Those images had helped through the first night alone saying her prayers. And through a summer with her brothers as babysitters while their father drove his UPS route.
In the fall, a photo of her mother went in her backpack, helping Stella hold strong during a rocky start of third grade when she landed in the principal’s office for a playground fight. Nobody would make fun of her daddy’s efforts to send his baby girl off to school, even if her braids were lopsided with mismatched bows. Stella knew how to punch like a boy, thanks to her three older brothers.
Her siblings had failed to mention the importance of saving the infamous Carson left hook for the walk home, off school grounds.
But she’d survived the principal’s punishment, as well as her father’s disappointment, by envisioning her mom dispensing medicine and mosquito nets to needy kids. The school wouldn’t suspend her anyway because they needed Stella’s perfect scores on standardized tests. Tuning out the principal’s lecture, she’d stroked one of the mismatched ribbons between her fingers, tabulated the number of pinholes in the ceiling tiles and pretended she didn’t need her mother.
When Stella was fifteen her mom died on one of those annual aide trips. She had a tough time understanding why Melanie Carson chose to leave her family to help other families in a foreign country. It didn’t make sense to a grieving teenager, and Stella craved answers. Understanding. Order.
By college, she’d realized if she didn’t decipher what really happened that day her mother died and find peace for the restlessness inside her, there would be no building a family of her own. Something she desperately wanted. So she’d changed her major to criminal justice, landed a job in Interpol’s American office as a code breaker, and poured all her energies into wrangling an assignment in Africa.
Here. Now. In a country every bit as magnificent as in the movie Out of Africa and tumultuous as her feelings about the place that stole her mother.
Finally, she could piece together her mom’s last days. Find answers about her mother’s mysterious death. And if not answers, at least gain closure.
Although her whole quest would be moot if she didn’t squeeze more life out of the sleek boat she was steering at breakneck speed along the Arabian Sea into the Gulf of Aden.
Stella thumped the already maxed throttle, the metal so hot to the touch it damn near blistered her palm. Logic told her the engine didn’t have anything more to give. Still she calculated angles to take the choppy sea faster. She stayed well clear of the other vessels just as they stayed away from her. Everyone kept their distance in these lawless waters.
The hull’s nose popped over a wave and slammed back onto the churning surface. She bit her tongue. The metallic taste of blood filled her mouth. The motor revved and muffled, catching hold of the water and shooting forward again. Seconds counted. Timing was everything.
A team of Navy SEALs and a pair of Air Force pararescuemen were counting on her to be in place for the pick up if things went wrong with their helicopter rendezvous. Sure, those special operations dudes could swim for miles, but even the most elite of the elite warriors didn’t relish hanging out in shark infested, pirate riddled waters.
Sea spray stung her overheated face as the sun melted downward in the sky. She gripped the steering wheel tighter, her eyes on the sonar and radar screens feeding images of the SEALS and pararescuemen – also known as parajumpers or PJs. Six SEALs and two PJs were diving, about to “count coup” on a suspected pirate frigate, a stealthy tap and go.
The mother vessel was towing four faster skiffs for overtaking their targets once they reached the open sea. Except today the US forces were under water disabling the smaller crafts, something the Somali pirates wouldn’t discover until they were out in the middle of the sea ready to prey on others. Those four malfunctioning boats, clearly dismantled right under their very noses, would screw with their heads.
Never underestimate the power of psychological warfare.
As a field operative for Interpol, she’d been sent to assist with the investigation into stolen artifacts by pirates off the Horn of Africa, to decipher the codes and patterns to their movements. Local government officials in the region had requested international help. Those stolen treasures brought major bucks on the black market, money then used to fund separatist groups and local warlords that increased criminal chaos. Groups responsible for instigating ruthless uprisings. Rampant looting where women were brutalized. Young males, barely teenagers were being pressed into service. At least one of those child soldiers was on that main vessel today.
Another reason the PJs had been tapped to participate – for the safety of the kid as well as the SEALs if things went to hell. PJs received the same SEAL training needed to carry out the mission, but with additional medic skills to make a house call behind enemy lines. PJs were like Supermen with EMT bonus powers.
There hadn’t been any PJs around for her mom. Melanie Carson died here and her family had been given sketchy details along with her body to bury. Authorities had written off the injuries as results of a car accident. Stella hadn’t believed them then, any more than she believed them now. She’d worked her entire career with Interpol with one goal: To find the truth about her mother’s death. Finally, she had her chance and she wouldn’t allow anything to derail her plans.
Today’s launch of her mission was everything.
A helicopter had dropped the SEALs and PJs in the water five miles out from the pirates. Afterward they were supposed to swim five back where the chopper should be able to pick them up. But as a failsafe, she and four heavily armed CIA operatives stayed nearby in the speedboat.
She’d plotted contingencies, and more contingencies for the contingencies, because logic was her strength, her secret weapon even. It was all about back up plans–
Pop, pop, pop.
The unmistakable sound of gunfire carried across the water. Stella braced, sweat chilling under her bulletproof vest. She looked over her shoulders at her four CIA teammates aiming MP5 submachine guns.
“Is it pirates?” she shouted over her shoulder, wind tearing strands of hair loose from her braid.
“Don’t think so,” an operative known only as Mr. Smith barked back, scanning distant horizon where two fishing boats bobbed. Of course CIA agents were always Smith or Brown. Or if working in a pack like today, Jones and Johnson joined in. “They seem to be shooting in the air, partying maybe.”
His buddy Mr. Brown squinted into the scope on his gun. “The place is littered with these bastards. I’m not trusting that party spirit.”
Mr. Jones hitched his weapon higher. “We can outgun them.”
Stella eyed the horizon. A whale arched just ahead, then slapped its tale in a majestic display so at odds with the turmoil playing out on the water’s surface above them. “Or we can stay cool and keep moving closer in case the chopper needs to bail out.”
An explosion in the sky sent shockwaves across the water. The CIA dudes dropped to their knees. So much for keeping cool.
Stella steadied the boat and studied the radar. Her heart punched into her throat. Had the pirate ship blown up? Had the PJs and SEALs been injured in the raining debris and flames?
The radar offered plenty of details.
But the news?
As bad as it got.
“The chopper exploded,” she announced, forcing her voice to stay flat, calm. Professional.
Now that she knew where to look, debris rained in the distant sky, a splash spewing on the horizon. The crew she’d briefed this morning was almost certainly dead, and if not, a different contingency was in place to search for them – a second PJ pair. Just the thought delivered a sock in the gut as she thought about another child hearing the news her mom or dad wasn’t coming home.
But she had to push through the feelings threatening to
suck her under. Her role now? Crystal clear.
“We have to get our guys out now rather than waiting for them to swim closer. Those look like dolphin fins out there, but if I’m wrong… We need to move.”
Nailing the throttle again, she compartmentalized. Later, she would climb up onto the embassy roof alone and mourn the aircrew. At this moment, her focus had to be on extracting the men in the water.
How far had the special ops men swum from the vessel? How close would she have to sweep by the known pirate frigate? And the unknown bad guys in these waters? Who had launched that rocket at the chopper?
She took a read off the sonar beside the radar, homing in on the blips. Beacons sent signals from her pick up targets. Men. Swimming. Closer. She eased back on the horsepower. Searching the surface for the slightest… ripple.
“Got ‘em,” Mr. Smith announced with conviction an instant before she saw what snagged his eagle eyes.
The barest perceptible cuts through the water. The pirate vessel was a surprisingly distant shadow in the sunset. Good God, how had the men made it so far so fast? Even if the other boat was speeding away.
She cut the engine back to idle. Her four CIA field agents went into action while she kept the boat as steady as possible. They didn’t talk much – but dudes from the agency rarely spoke. One at a time they hauled sleek bodies in wet suits into the deck. Her muscles burned as she gripped the wheel straining to spin free.
Man after man rolled onto the deck. Six, seven… eight.
The final guy whipped off his facemask and pinned her with piercing brown eyes and an intense focus that kept people alive beyond the odds. The air snapped in an indefinable way that defied the logic she embraced.
Had to be.
He nodded once, giving her a thumbs-up. “Go, go, go!”
Shaking off the momentary distraction, she revved the engine to life again. Her brain cycled to contingency twenty-freaking-two, a cave cut into the mountainous shore line. Minutes passed in a blur as she drove and watched the screen, monitoring traffic. Pathetically few officials policed the area. A boat racing across at a reckless speed wouldn’t appear at all out of the ordinary around this place.
Even as the yawning entrance to the cave came into sight, she refused to relax her guard. She pulled back on the throttle. Entering slowly, she scanned while her quiet companions held their MP5s at the ready. Would an Interpol operative, four CIA agents, six SEALs and two PJs be enough to face anything that waited inside? The low hum of the motor echoed like a growling beast in the cavern, one light strobing forward into the darkness.
Illuminating a waiting U.S. fishing boat.
Her final contingency.
Her plan had to work, otherwise, she would screw up her hard earned chance of working in Africa before the mission barely got off the ground. She flung open the door to the small forward cabin of her speedboat. The clang of metal hitting metal echoed in her mind like the closing of her mother’s coffin. Melanie Carson’s daughter would not give up on day one.
Digging around in the hull, Stella pulled out small duffel bags, one after the other, tossing them to each of the men in wet suits.
“Change, gentlemen. We’re about to become American tourists on a sightseeing excursion. Mr. Jones,” who could blend in best with the locals and even spoke a regional dialect thanks to his mother, “will be our guide. We’re swapping boats, then splitting up at the dock. Blend into the crowds. Report at the embassy. You’ve got a duress code if you need to call in. Any questions?”
Only the sound of oxygen tanks and gear hitting the deck answered her.
“Good.” Her heart rate started to return to something close to normal again.
The sound of zippers sent her spinning on her heels to take care of her own transformation. She unrolled a colorful rectangular cloth, an East African kanga, complete with the standard intricate border and message woven into the red and orange pattern.
It would be hot as hell over her black pants, top and bulletproof vest. But a little dehydration was a small price to pay for an extra layer of anonymity.
She turned and there were those coffee dark eyes again. Static-like awareness snapped when she looked back at the intense gaze that had held hers earlier as he’d lifted his facemask. Except now he was more than eyes and a wet suit. He was a lean, honed man in a pair of fitted swim trunks he must have worn under the diving gear. He was glistening bronze with a body trained for survival anyplace, anytime.
The boat rocked under her feet from a rogue wave. At least she thought it was a wave.
“Uh, no, I’m good. Thanks. You should get dressed. We need to haul butt out of here.” And his current state of undress definitely didn’t qualify as “low profile.”
“I meant, do you need help with the cut on your temple?” He gestured to the left side of her face, almost touching. “You brought along two PJs for a reason, ma’am.”
Her skin hummed with a sting that her brain must have pushed aside earlier for survival’s sake. She tapped the side of her forehead gingerly.
“Ouch!” Her fingertips were stained with blood as murky red as her hair.
“A bullet must have grazed you,” he said with a flat Midwestern accent. A no-accent really, just pure masculine rumble. “Could have been much worse. This was your lucky day, ma’am.”
“Stella.” For right now she could be more than Miss Lucky Smith.
“They call me Cuervo.”
No real name from him for now. Understandable and a reality check to get her professional groove back on. “Do I need stitches?”
He tugged a small kit from his gear, a waterproof pack of some sort. “Antiseptic and butterfly bandages should hold you until we can get someplace where I’ll have time to treat you more fully.”
Her brain hitched on the word, the answer to who she would be partnering with as they escaped into the crowd. She wasn’t saying goodbye to him – to Cuervo – at the dock. Irrational relief flooded her, followed by a bolt of excitement.
“Thanks, Cuervo. Blood dripping down my face would definitely draw undue attention at an inopportune time.” She forced a smile.
Still, his face, those eyes, they held her, and while she wasn’t a mystical person, she couldn’t miss the connection. Attraction? Sure, but she understood how to compartmentalize on the job. This was something that felt elemental. Before she could stop the thought, the words soul mate flashed through her head.
And God, that was crazy and irrational when she was always, always logical. Her brothers called her a female version of Spock from Star Trek.
Still, as those fingers cleaned her wound, smoothed ointment over her temple and stretched steri strips along her skin, she couldn’t stop thinking about spending the rest of the day with him as they melded into the port city and made their way back to the embassy.
Damn it, she could not waste the time or emotional energy on romance or even a fling. Right now, she could only focus on working with the Mr. Smiths and Mr. Browns of her profession. She needed to make peace with her past, then move on with her life. Then and only then she would find Mr. Right and shift from the field to a desk job so she could settle down into that real family dream she’d missed out on.
Yet those brown eyes drew her into a molten heat and she had the inescapable sense that Mr. Right had arrived ahead of schedule.
East Africa: Six Months later
Five years, eight months and twenty-nine days sober.
Staff Sergeant Jose “Cuervo” James flipped his sobriety coin over and over between his fingers as he reviewed the satellite feed on the six screens in front of him. If he and the multi-force rescue team around him didn’t save Stella Carson in the next twenty-four hours, odds were his coin would end up in the trash.
The cavernous airplane hangar echoed with the buzz of personnel calling directives into headsets and the low hum from each image on the dozen screens. Techies gathered information for the eight man rescue team – two Air Force pararescuemen, eight Navy SEALS and five CIA operatives. The volume on the speakers increased whenever something of specific interest captured their attention about Stella and the eleven college students who’d been kidnapped with her during a foreign exchange trip.
Only one screen interested him. The one showing Stella being held hostage by separatists in some concrete hell hole south of the Horn of Africa. His eyes ate up the image of her – alive – for now.
She wore jeans and a black tank top with gym shoes, looking five years younger than her twenty nine years and just like the exchange student she was pretending to be. Her titan red hair was half in, half out of a ponytail. A long strand stuck to blood on her cheek from an oozing gash in her eyebrow that made him think of the scratch on her head from the bullet that grazed her the day they’d met. The day she’d saved his ass.
Right now, she was dusty, strained, and bruised. But still keen eyed, pacing around her cell, nothing more than concrete walls with a pallet and bucket in the corner. A table filled another corner with a scattering of artifacts and relics. Frustration knotted his fists as he held back the urge to reach through the screen and haul her out. To hell with the objectivity and the logic she worshiped.
Usually his job as a pararescueman gave his life focus and stability. But today’s assignment was more than just a mission. Stella Carson was more than an Interpol agent to pluck out of a sticky situation. She was the only woman he’d ever loved.
She was also the woman who’d dumped him four weeks ago.
He prayed to every saint he’d memorized in parochial school that the captors bought her cover story of being an over privileged student studying overseas on Mommy and Daddy’s nickel. He couldn’t even let himself think about all the atrocities committed against women in this region. He could only focus on willing her to stay alive. God help her if they figured out she was a top-notch intelligence operative with an uncanny aptitude for code breaking.
God help them both if he failed to get her out….
Copyright: Catherine Mann 2013
Book covers and excerpts are used with permission from Harlequin Enterprises, Berkley Sensation and Sourcebooks Casablanca.