Darkest Before Dawn

Book 10 in the KGI Series

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 U.S. government can’t…

The enigmatic Hancock has been both opponent and ally to the KGI teams for as long as they’ve known him. Always working a deep game, Hancock’s true allegiance has never been apparent, but one thing is for certain—he never lets anything get in the way of duty.

But now, his absolute belief in the primacy of his ultimate goal is challenged by a captive he’s been ordered to guard, no matter how much she suffers in her prison. She’s the only woman who’s ever managed to penetrate the rigid walls surrounding his icy heart, but will he allow his perplexing feelings for the beautiful victim to destroy a mission he’s spent years working to complete or will he be forced to sacrifice her for “the greater good.”

Darkest Before Dawn

Honor Cambridge applied one of the colorful Band-Aids with yellow smiley faces over the tiny prick that had been made on the arm of the four-year-old boy and offered him a reassuring smile. In flawless Arabic, she told him how brave he’d been not to show fear or distress in front of his mother and upset her further.

He gave her a toothy grin that already showed signs of male arrogance even at such a young age, as if to tell her of course he’d been brave.

Though Honor held no medical degree, her training was advanced and she’d learned a lot through trial by fire. Technically her job was as a relief worker, offering aid in its many forms to the poor and oppressed in the small villages caught between warring factions and the never-ending struggle for supremacy.

Her family supported her absolutely, but she also knew they questioned her burning need to devote her life to the service of others. They were proud of her, but they also wished she had chosen other, safer places to offer help. Not the war-torn Middle East when the threat wasn’t just from other nations but within their country as well from groups, divided by religious, political and cultural differences and unable to tolerate the differences of others. They all wanted to force others to bend to their way of life, and the lengths they went to impose their beliefs on those who didn’t share the same ideology still managed to appall and bewilder Honor despite the fact that she should be hardened by now. Nothing should shock her. And yet . . . Every day she managed to be surprised, because there was always more. When she thought she’d seen it all, something always managed to catch her off guard.

But to become jaded and cynical was the kiss of death. The day she could no longer feel compassion for the innocent and the oppressed and anger at the senseless violence and despair that was so pervasive in the region she served was the day she needed to find a staid, mindless nine-to-five job, have a safe life where the most dangerous thing she encountered was rush-hour traffic.

Honor put her hand on the boy’s arm to direct him to his waiting mother, who was already holding the large care package filled with things most people took for granted but were precious commodities in villages where running water was a luxury.

The entire building suddenly shook and the floor buckled beneath Honor’s feet as though an earthquake were occurring.

No one screamed. But looks of terror, all too common on the faces of people who’d become dear to Honor, were shared by everyone. Eerie silence ensued, and then . . .

The world exploded around them, a terrible storm, a whirling vortex of heat, fire and the acrid smell of explosives.

And blood.

Death had a smell all of its own. And Honor had seen more blood and death, had smelled it, had witnessed the horrible sight of the very essence of life slowly seep from a once-vibrant human being. An innocent child. A mother seeking only to protect her young. A father slaughtered in front of his entire family.

Chaos reigned as people ran, no clear direction in mind, and yet Honor viewed the goings-on calmly, as if she were apart from her body and viewing dispassionately the attack on the relief center. One of her coworkers—her friend—screamed at her to take cover and then went utterly still, death in her eyes as blood bloomed over her chest. She sagged like a puppet, her expression not one of pain but of great sorrow. And regret.

Tears burned the corners of Honor’s eyes as she finally forced herself into motion. There were children to shield. Women to save. The vicious extremist cell would not take them all. It was an oath, a litany that repeated over and over in her mind as she shoved children and mothers alike out of the rear exit and into the desert heat.

One of the women grasped Honor’s hand when Honor turned to go back in and pleaded with her in Arabic to come with them. To run. To save herself. The extremists would have no mercy. Especially for Westerners.

Honor gently extricated her hand from the woman’s desperate hold. “May Allah be with you,” she whispered, praying in her heart that God, any God, every God, would stop the hate and bloodshed. The senseless killing of the good and innocent.

Then she turned and ran back into the building, or what was left of it. Dimly she registered that the lightweight but cool western flip-flops she usually wore had somehow fallen off her feet in the chaos surrounding her, but the last thing on her mind was protecting her feet when her life was at stake.

She searched frantically for her fellow relief workers. The two doctors who worked tirelessly day and night, sometimes going many nights without sleep because the need for medical aid was so great. The nurses who did the work that many physicians in the United States did and with far less advanced technology or diagnostic tools.

Everywhere she turned, all she saw was blood, rivers of blood. And death. The stench made her stomach revolt and she clamped a hand over her mouth to prevent herself from being violently ill and to silence the scream that welled from the very depths of her soul.

There was no solace to be found anywhere she looked, but she could at least be grateful that she didn’t see the bodies of many children, or their mothers. Most had fled, well trained and accustomed to such attacks. Honor’s comrades, her friends, the people who had the same calling as she, hadn’t fared as well.

The very earth exploded beneath her. Around her. Stone and debris pelted her, battering her in an endless wave of pain and terror. She took a single step, wincing when something sharp cut into her tender foot. And then the already sagging roof collapsed, sending her sprawling painfully across the ravaged floor. Debris rained down on her. No, that was the ceiling caving in on her, pinning her beneath rock, rubble, a shattered beam. The cloud of dust and smoke was so thick she couldn’t suck air into her tortured lungs.

She wasn’t sure if it was the thickness of the smoke and decimated plaster that made it impossible for her to breathe or if it was the mountain of rubble she was buried under, pressing mercilessly down on her until she was sure every bone in her body would be crushed, unable to withstand the unbearable strain.

Pain was present. It was there. She knew it. But it was distant. As if it were trying to penetrate the thickest fog surrounding her. Numbness crawled insidiously over and through her body, and she wasn’t sure if it was a blessing to be unable to feel what had to be excruciating pain or if this was the curse of death.

Her death.

Her eyelids fluttered sluggishly as she struggled to remain conscious, too afraid that if she gave in to the encroaching darkness, death would win the ultimate battle.

She wasn’t a stranger to death. She saw it on a daily basis. Nor was she in denial of the enormous risk she took by working in a country not only at constant war with neighboring countries, all with different agendas, beliefs and differing levels of fanaticism, but also divided within their own borders, each region determined to overtake the entire country and force their will on those with opposing viewpoints.

And then there were those who needed no reason to murder, terrorize and victimize their fellow countrymen. Those were the worst of all. Unpredictable. They reeked of fanaticism, and their only agenda was to strike fear in the hearts of all who crossed them. They wanted glory. They wanted to be feared by their enemy and revered by other factions too afraid to engage them in battle.

They wanted the world to know of them. Who they were. They wanted people to whisper their name as if afraid of conjuring them by speaking of the monsters too loudly. They’d fast learned that the quickest way to elevate their status, gain worldwide media attention and be able to recruit the elite, the best of the best, ones not only unafraid to give their lives for their “cause” but who embraced the glory of being a martyr was to target Westerners. Americans in particular.

The U.S. media gave the glory seekers precisely what they craved. Around-the-clock coverage every time they launched another attack. And with that attention came ambition for more. They’d grown bolder, rapidly expanding their network, their power giving pause to the very nations that would ordinarily condone such hatred of the West.

Such power made leaders of oil-rich countries nervous. So much so that an unprecedented summit had been called, bringing together sworn enemies to discuss the ever-growing problem of a fanatical group with power, wealth, military might and unprecedented numbers joining with each passing day.

Men and women from all corners of the earth. What could possibly inspire such hatred? Such a thirst for pain, violence, hurt and suffering?

Honor shuddered as the numb shell surrounding her showed signs of fragmenting, and for a moment pain assaulted her, taking her breath. Black crept into her vision, the light growing dimmer and dimmer. Tears burned like acid, but she refused to give in to them. She was alive. At least for now. None of the other relief workers had been as fortunate.

The building looked as though a meteor had hurtled through the earth’s atmosphere and decimated the entire area. Half of the roof had collapsed, and judging by the creaking and groaning that echoed with the faintest whisper of wind, the rest wasn’t far behind.

She’d never get out. And for that matter, perhaps her fellow relief workers had received mercy from a higher being. A quick death was surely better than what awaited any survivors discovered by the bloodthirsty savages who’d wrought such devastation.

Why had she been left to suffer? Why was she without mercy and grace? What sin had she committed to survive only to be condemned to hell, a fate worse than death? A cold chill dug deep into her battered body and clung tenaciously to her bones, her blood. She was freezing from the deepest recesses of her soul when around her the world was on fire, the flames of hell greedily consuming its victims.

“Get a grip, Honor,” she muttered, her words slurring, evidence that she was in shock.

Here she was whining because she was alive. She’d survived the impossible and worse, her coworkers hadn’t and she’d dared to envy them? She’d been spared when no one else had. It had to mean something. Her life had purpose. There was still much for her to do. God wasn’t finished with her yet, and here she lay amid the rubble of destruction acting the ungrateful child for having lived. Never had she felt so ashamed. What would her family think? They certainly wouldn’t be upset that she was still alive. Her death would cause them endless pain. She was the baby. The youngest of six siblings and she was dearly loved by all. They might not like that she put herself at such risk, but they understood her calling and supported her. They were proud of her. If for no one else, she would survive for them.

The sound of raised voices, barked orders and debris being shoved aside froze Honor where she lay trapped. Panic welled, her heart accelerating wildly. Her breaths, already ragged and painful, grew even more so. She closed her eyes and willed herself not to make a sound.

The soldiers were picking through the ruins looking specifically for the Westerners—the people who ran the relief center and offered aid to refugees. Their triumph over the success of their attack sickened Honor. There were gleeful shouts as one after another, a worker was found dead. Tears tightened her throat when it was suggested that the bodies be dragged from the clinic and lined up so photos could be taken and shown to the world, a warning to others that their presence was offensive.

Oh God, what would happen when they found her? They were systematic in their search, almost as if they knew who the relief workers were and how many there were. If they were happy over so many dead, how much more excited would they be to have a live hostage? Someone to make an example of.

The building creaked and groaned, the remaining walls protesting the weakness of the structure. More debris rained down, pelting the entire area. Honor barely managed to hold in a sound of pain when something hit the objects covering her, causing them to crush her even more.

The invaders were suddenly cautious and wary, their talk going to whether it was safe to continue their systematic body count. When one suggested they get out immediately—before what remained of the shell of the building fell down around their ears—an argument broke out, the voices loud and harsh and entirely too close for Honor’s comfort.

They were near her and drawing closer all the time. She could all but hear their breaths, feel the urgent exhalation over her neck even though she knew that wasn’t possible. But she felt hunted. Just as prey surely must feel when a predator was closing in for the kill.

She closed her eyes and prayed to live when just moments earlier she’d lamented the fact that she hadn’t died. A fervent prayer became a litany in her mind not only to live, but to survive. To escape, unscathed, the terrible fate she’d endure were she discovered by the soldiers who thought nothing of raping, torturing and killing women. Or children, for that matter.

A shudder quaked through her body before she could call it back, and then she held her breath, hoping she hadn’t betrayed herself. She forced calm she didn’t feel to settle over her body, blocking out the pain and gut-wrenching fear. Never had she been more terrified than she was at this moment. No amount of preparing, no number of close calls with militants bent on destruction could possibly have given her a glimpse into the reality she’d spent too many months to count mentally bracing herself for.

In her heart she’d felt it inevitable that she would face ultimate fear, pain, but she’d never truly allowed herself to think she could be killed doing what she felt was her calling in life. Her parents had tried to convince her. They’d pleaded with her in the beginning, even going so far as to say they didn’t want to lose their “baby.”

Her four older brothers and older sister had all gathered to attempt to persuade her not to go, pulling out the big guns, telling her they wanted her to be a part of her nieces’ and nephews’ lives. Her sister had tearfully held Honor’s hand tightly in hers and chokingly said she wanted her sister to be at her wedding, at her side, even though her sister had no plans to marry anytime soon.

She’d almost given in to their emotional blackmail. Inwardly she winced. Blackmail was too harsh a word. All they’d done and said had been out of love. It had been her mother in the end, sensing Honor’s battle between wanting to please her family, wanting their happiness, and answering her need to serve others in embattled, terrorized nations, who had gathered the family together and quietly but firmly told them to stand down.

There had been so much love and understanding—and pride—in her gaze as she’d looked at Honor, tears glittering brightly in her eyes. Honor had felt it like a tidal wave, consuming her. Love, her mother’s love squeezed her insides and warmed her heart as nothing else ever had.

No, her mother hadn’t wanted Honor to go, but she understood. And she had told her husband and her other children that it was time to let go and allow Honor to fly. To be whom she was meant to be. It was her time to shine, when throughout her young life she’d been the quiet one, reveling in the accomplishments and happiness of her siblings as each followed their chosen paths.

Her mother’s speech had shamed her siblings and her father, though that was never what Honor wanted. Each had offered their unconditional support and her father had hugged her tightly, gruffly telling her that she would always be his baby and to promise him she would make it back home.

Her chest swelled and ached, tears burning her eyelids once more as she considered the possibility that she would break her promise to her father.

Another rumble rolled through the battered building, and more debris and parts of the ceiling still intact came tumbling down on and around Honor. She heard coughing and muttered curses and then hope sprang to life when she’d thought she had none.

The militants came to the agreement—the conclusion—that they needed to evacuate the crumbling shell before they got trapped. Or killed.

The talk became lighter, relief seeping into some of the voices that had argued for their departure. They pointed out that dead bodies went nowhere and no one could have possibly have survived the explosions and deadly snipers who’d picked victims off as they attempted to flee.

Honor stifled a sob of grief. So many senseless deaths and for what? Because they were rendering aid to people desperately in need?

The next words she heard, growing fainter as the men began their retreat, froze Honor to the bone.

They would return once it was safe and locate each victim, ensuring that none of the aid workers had eluded death. God. They knew each worker. Had studied their targets. And provided Honor could even free herself before they returned to do their macabre accounting, they would know she hadn’t died.

Which meant that they’d ruthlessly hunt her because above all else, this group was intolerant of failure. And if even one—Honor—escaped with her life, then their objective had not been achieved.

End of Excerpt

Darkest Before Dawn

is Book 10 in the KGI Series

The full series reading order is as follows: