The Darkest Hour
The Kelly Group International (KGI): A super elite, top secret, family-run business.
Qualifications: High intelligence, rock hard body, military background.
Mission: Hostage/kidnap victim recovery. Intelligence gathering. Handling jobs the US government can’t…
It’s been one year since ex-Navy SEAL Ethan Kelly last saw his wife Rachel alive. Overwhelmed by grief and guilt over his failures as a husband, Ethan shuts himself off from everything and everyone.
His brothers have tried to bring Ethan into the KGI fold, tried to break through the barriers he’s built around himself, but Ethan refuses to respond… until he receives anonymous information claiming Rachel is alive.
To save her, Ethan will have to dodge bullets, cross a jungle, and risk falling captive to a deadly drug cartel that threatens his own demise. And even if he succeeds, he’ll have to force Rachel to recover memories she can’t and doesn’t want to relive—the minute by minute terror of her darkest hour—for their love, and their lives, may depend on it.
Rachel. Her name was Rachel. She had proof now. The strange man who'd appeared so suddenly in her hut had called her Rachel, and then her guardian angel, the one she'd feared was a figment of her imagination, had arrived to save her. Finally.
Only she didn't feel saved. She was scared mindless, and everywhere she looked, there was only jungle. She was hopelessly lost and alone.
Alone. Not in captivity.
The idea gave her fierce pleasure as the realization settled over her. She was free.
She fell to her knees, nearly crying out when her stomach revolted and lurched. Her palms planted in the damp soil, she braced herself as she dry-heaved.
In the distance she heard movement, and she immediately stilled, holding her breath. Were they coming to take her back? It was tempting just to stay there and let them find her. At least then she'd get her medicine and the horrible pain would go away.
Angry tears burned her eyelids. She wouldn't go back there. She'd die first. Ethan had been shot trying to rescue her. The thought made her stomach heave all over again.
She had to get away. The idea of going deeper into the jungle, into the unknown where any number of creatures stalked for prey, scared her to death. But staying frightened her more.
She pushed herself to her feet. She took one step. And then another. The ground felt warm and alive under her bare feet. She picked up speed until finally she ran.
Pain. Fear. She couldn't tell which was winning. They both overwhelmed her. Rachel stopped to rest, leaning against a tree for support. She weaved and bobbed as nausea welled in her stomach.
Every nerve ending felt like it was firing in random succession. An endless staccato of agony barreled through her veins. Her skin itched, and it took every ounce of her will not to claw raggedly at her flesh.
Sucking air through her nose, her nostrils flaring with the effort, she looked around at the dense jungle cover. Helpless panic ripped over her until tears gathered in her eyes. She had no idea where she was going or how she'd survive.
A vicious chill wracked her body even as she registered the oppressive humidity. She was cold on the inside though. A sound behind her startled her into motion. She spun around, unsure of which direction to go. Which way had she come from?
Fatigue made her eyes droop, but she blinked and forced herself forward. Slime and god knows what else sucked at her toes. She jerked her foot up when something slithered across her ankle.
Ready to scream in panic, frustration and fear, she dove into a dense area of plant growth. A twinge in her shoulder, and then pain erupted like fire through the protesting muscles. Had she pulled her shoulder out? She lay there panting as agony ripped through her body.
She had to get further out of sight.
The leaves were moist and brushed across her cheek, leaving a cool trail. Holding her injured arm tightly to her chest, she slapped the ground with her other hand and crawled forward until the ground cover engulfed her.
Her knees bumped over several gnarled tree roots, and she hastily scooted against the trunk, huddling for warmth and to try and still her thundering pulse.
Quiet, she had to be quiet. Her breathing sounded like a roar in her ears even amid the cacophony of the jungle around her.
Carefully she pulled her legs up, sandwiching her injured arm between her knees and her chest. She kept herself as still as possible.
Her muscles quivered and jumped. Her skin rippled, and she fought the urge to scratch and rub, to wipe at the millions of things crawling over her body. She kept her eyes open, knowing she couldn't see anything crawling there, but her body refused to believe what her mind knew.
She caught movement out of the corner of her eye, and she froze. Her eyes slowly moved to her left, scanning the area. And then she saw him.
Her breath caught in her throat. He was the one who'd been with Ethan. Sam. He was big and mean and carried a rifle. His gaze swept the area, his expression fierce and concentrating.
Oh God, oh God. What should she do? He scared the life out of her. She didn't know him. Didn't trust him. He knew her name, though. Would he take her back to the hut now that Ethan was dead? Would he help her or want to be rid of her?
Then to her right she caught another flash. At first she thought she'd imagined it, but when she looked again, she saw men moving into the area. They were barely discernible, their camouflage clothing melting into the dense cover.
No matter how frightened she was of Sam, she had more to fear from these men. She knew all of their faces well, had seen them on a daily basis for what seemed an eternity. Bile rose in her throat, and she shook so bad that her teeth chattered loudly.
She was taking a gamble. With Ethan gone, this Sam person might not care what happened to her. But he hadn't tried to harm her, and she couldn't say the same for her captors.
Desperate fear nearly paralyzed her, but she rose on shaky feet anyway. She had to warn him—had Sam seen the threat?
"Sam, behind you!"
He dropped like a stone. Gunfire erupted. She saw one of the men fall. A sense of savage satisfaction gripped her. Then more gunfire, this time from behind her.
She dove to the ground, throwing her arms over her head, her mind screaming endlessly. Desperate to protect herself in some way as the jungle erupted into a war zone, she curled into a tight ball, trying to make herself as invisible as possible.
And then she realized the stupidity of curling into a ball. She needed to get away. She'd given away her hiding spot already. It was only a matter of time before they came for her.
Terror lending her strength, she pushed herself up and started crawling as fast as she could. She flinched when a bullet hit the tree just over her head, and she threw herself down once more.
When no other bullets smacked the ground around her, she started forward again, praying with every inch she gained. The gunfire stopped, but instead of reassuring her, it inspired gut-wrenching panic. No longer distracted, they'd be after her.
She crawled faster, her breath ripping painfully from her chest. Sweat rolled down her face, or was it tears?
She ran into the body before she saw it. She was too stunned to scream or even process that the man was dead. Blood was everywhere and the rifle he'd carried was still firmly in his grip.
She knew this man. She hated him. She spared no sympathy for his death. With more strength than she thought she possessed, she ripped the rifle from his grasp and crawled beyond him.
They wouldn't take her back. She'd kill them—all of them.
When she'd crawled as far from the body as possible, she stopped to catch her breath. Her sides ached, her shoulder burned, and her vision was blurred by tears.
A sob caught in her throat and she swallowed rapidly. Afraid of betraying herself, she lowered her head, burying her face in her free hand. She just needed a moment to rest.
Several long minutes passed, or maybe it was seconds. It seemed an eternity. And then she heard her name. The softest whisper, carried on a breeze. Rachel.
She flinched but refused to look up. They never called her by name.
Too close this time.
Her head came up, and she grabbed for her rifle. She rolled over, jamming the gun in the direction of the voice. A strange man stared back at her, his expression blank. His ice blue eyes were unreadable as he surveyed her calmly. He didn't seem bothered by the fact she was pointing a gun at him.
She tried to scoot away, but she was tangled in ground cover. She thrust the gun forward, trying to at least keep her finger on the trigger.
From behind the man, another man appeared. Sam. He said nothing as he put himself between her and the other guy.
"Back off, Steele," he murmured.
Sam put one placating hand forward, his other loosely holding his own rifle, though he made no effort to point it at her. "Rachel, listen to me. I won't hurt you. I swear it. You need to put down the gun and come with me so I can take you back to Ethan."
Tears immediately swirled. A knot formed in her throat, and no amount of swallowing would make it go away.
He couldn't be trusted. He was lying to her. Ethan was dead. She'd seen the blood. Seen him fall right after he'd yelled hoarsely for her to go.
Holding back the grimace of pain, she got awkwardly to her feet. Sam relaxed and held out a hand to her, but instead of moving forward, she backed away, her gaze never leaving him or the man still standing just a few feet away.
Her hands shaking, she leveled the gun at an area between them, hoping they would just go away. Sam's brows came together for a moment and then he stepped forward.
"No," she choked out, as she stabbed the gun in his direction.
His hand moved upward and he stepped back, his expression guarded.
"Rachel," he said soothingly. "Honey, I'm here to help you. It's time for you to go back home. To the people who love you. Your family."
Her heart seized. Family? She couldn't remember a family. All she could remember was Ethan, and even those images were vague. When had she forgotten? All she could remember was endless pain and fear. The haziness brought on by injections thrust upon her and the crawling need when they waited too long to give her another dose.
For a brief moment she hesitated, drawn to the idea of family. A home. People who loved her. But then she remembered. Ethan was dead. He was all she had, all she could remember. Surely she would remember if there were others. Would she have forgotten her family?
You can barely remember who you are.
The thought drifted through the twisted pathways of her mind, taunting and reminding her of her tenuous grasp on her sanity.
She caught movement in her periphery and yanked her head to the side to see another man stalk toward Sam and Steele. He wore a ferocious scowl as his gaze homed in on her. He was bigger and meaner looking than Sam, and he should have put the fear of God in her, but there was something familiar, something oddly comforting about him.
Was she losing her mind?
He stopped at Sam's side, and she still stared as images flashed erratically in her mind.
"What the hell is going on, Sam?" he asked in a low growl. "We don't have time to be fucking around. Let's get her and go."
"Tell her that," Sam murmured as he stared at the gun she held. "I'd say she doesn't want to go."
Like flashes of lightning in a black sky, pictures shot randomly through her shattered mind. Memories? The man standing beside Sam, only he was smiling, almost tenderly. Water. A dock. He lifted her and then tossed her into the lake. He stood laughing as she came up sputtering, and she was laughing too. Happy. She'd been happy.
Another memory, haunting and sweet. A church. Her gliding down the center aisle. Ethan waiting . . . and this man in front of her . . . he'd escorted her. Her hand clutched tight over his arm. He whispered low for her not to worry, that she was the most beautiful bride in the world and that his brother was the luckiest man on earth.
Garrett. Ethan's brother?
"Garrett?" she whispered.
His face immediately softened. The scowl disappeared and something that looked like joy flashed in his eyes for just a moment.
"Yes, Rachel. It's me, Garrett."
Making an instant decision, she flew to his side, careful to put him between her and the other two men. He stiffened in surprise but put an arm around her. She tucked herself into his side and leveled a guarded look at Sam.
"Let me have the gun, sweet pea," Garrett murmured as he gently pried it from her fingers.
She flinched when it glanced off her injured shoulder, and her breathing sped up. Sam frowned and made a move toward her, but she hastily backed away, her feet tangling in the undergrowth. She went down on her backside, landing painfully.
Garrett was down beside her instantly, his hand going to her arm. Sam stood back, his brows furrowed.
"Are you okay, Rachel? Where are you hurt?" Garrett asked.
"My shoulder," she said. "I can't move my arm. Hurts too much."
"Probably dislocated," Sam said grimly. "The angle is crooked, and she's favoring it awfully bad."
She scooted back as Sam moved forward again. He cursed and halted.
"She doesn't remember you," Garrett said.
"Yeah, I noticed," Sam muttered. "I'm not surprised she remembers you, though. Thank God for that at least."
"He lied," Rachel whispered.
Garrett's eyes narrowed. "Who lied?"
Sam's head rocked back in surprise. "Me?"
Garrett's hand came out to smooth her hair from her face. "What did he lie about, sweet pea?"
Tears welled, and she bit her lip to keep the moan of despair from escaping. "He said he'd take me back to Ethan, but Ethan's dead."
Both Garrett's and Sam's eyes widened in shock. Sam blew out his breath then squatted beside her, ignoring her efforts to move away.
"Why on earth do you think Ethan's dead?"
"I saw him fall. He was shot. He told me to go and then he went down. I saw him."
Sam smiled. "He's not dead, Rachel. It would take a hell of a lot more than that to kill that ornery bastard. It was just a graze. He bled like a stuck pig, but he's fine. I swear it."
Her gaze flew to Garrett for confirmation, hope beating relentlessly against her chest. Garrett gave a short nod.
"Is he okay now?" she asked in a shaky voice. "Where is he?"
"I'll take you to him," Sam said. "But we have to hurry."
Fear leapt into her throat, and she began to shake. "Don't let them take me back. Please."
Garrett's face darkened, and she shivered at the raw violence on his face. From behind Sam, the other man stepped out. For a moment, his cool eyes bore into her and then he crouched down beside her. He didn't press into her space. He just squatted there staring intently at her.
"You don't know me, Rachel," he said in an even voice. "You have no reason to believe me. But there's one thing I can guarantee you. I won't allow those bastards to take you back. I'm going to get you and Ethan back home where you belong. Do you understand?"
There was rock-hard assurance in his voice. An unwavering confidence that, despite her fear and anxiety, calmed her.
Slowly she nodded. Steele nodded back and then rose, putting several feet of distance between them.
"This might hurt," Garrett said. He reached down and tucked one arm underneath her knees. His other arm slid along her back, and he carefully picked her up, trying not to jostle her hurt shoulder.
She snuck a cautious look at Sam, studying him from the safety of Garrett's hold. He didn't look like Ethan. Garrett did, and maybe that's why she remembered him. While Ethan and Garrett were big, black-haired men with hard bodies and hard faces, Sam was leaner but no less muscled. His hair was light brown, but his jaw was square and had a determined set that unnerved her. His eyes were a cold blue. A lot like Steele's. Impenetrable ice.
As if sensing her perusal, he glanced up. Like magic, those hard eyes softened and became warm. He offered her a tentative smile.
"I don't remember you," she said softly. "I'm sorry."
He reached out and tucked a strand of hair over her ear. "That's all right, sweetheart. You will. What's important is that we get you back to Ethan and then home, where we can all fuss over you and get you well."
Garrett started out, jostling her slightly as he navigated the tangled jungle floor. Sam moved swiftly ahead, his gun up as he scouted the area in quick, methodical sweeps. Steele brought up the rear.
"Who is 'all'?" she asked Garrett in a low voice.
"Shhh, not now," Garrett said, though his voice was even and unscolding. "I promise to tell you all about it when we're out of hot water."
She tucked her head underneath his chin and rested her cheek against his broad chest. And then as she settled, need, harsh and relentless, hit her. She began to shake. She was simultaneously hot then cold. Sweat broke out over her skin, and she shivered in continuous spasms.
Garrett's arms tightened around her until pain shot down her arm. She gasped, and he immediately loosened his grip.
"Medicine," she gasped. "Please, I have to have it. I'm going to die."
"You're not going to die," Garrett whispered against her hair. "I'm not going to let you. I know it hurts, honey, but you have to fight it. Don't let them win. Think about Ethan. You'll be back with him soon."
She closed her eyes as a thousand insects crawled over her body. Over her skin, burrowing underneath her clothing. It was all she could do not to scream and throw herself down to swipe at them, to scrub them from her flesh.
"Goddamn it, Sam, do you have a sedative in your bag?" Garrett said.
He stopped walking and shifted her in his arms. A few seconds later, she felt a sharp stick in her arm. She yanked her head up in surprise and stared wordlessly at Garrett.
"It's okay, baby girl," he said in a thick voice. "Close your eyes. It'll get better, I promise."
His face blurred in her vision. "Ethan," she whispered. "You promised."
"When you wake up, he'll be here," Sam said beside her. "Relax and don't fight it."
For a moment, she continued to fight, too immersed in the wave after wave of pain and vicious hunger to simply let go. The world faded around her and her eyes fluttered, but she hung on tenaciously.
A warm hand stroked her cheek and then her hair. With a yearning sigh, she leaned into the touch, drawn to the comfort it offered. Lethargy flooded her body, and she went limp.
The Darkest Hour is Book 1 in the KGI Series