CINDY GERARD - New York Times Bestseller


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Chapter 1

Zamboanga City, Philippines


“Ethan. Um. Hi. It’s … it’s me. Darcy.” 

Darcy Prescott had known this would be hard. She hadn’t talked to Ethan Garrett in the five years since their divorce. So yeah, dialing his number had been good and hard; saying his name had been painful. Emotions strong with it made her voice break. 

She gripped the receiver with both hands and dug deep for a steadying breath. “Umm, look. I … I think I’m might be in some trouble here.”

The admission was as difficult as the phone call. Saying the words out loud gave them credence. It did horrible things to the rhythm of her heart which had been getting a helluva workout in the past few hours. 

That would show those misinformed souls who wondered in admiration and awe over her seemingly unshakable and unflappable control. If they could only see me now.

“Maybe some bad trouble,” she confessed, still reluctant to believe it as she dragged a hand through her hair and blinked up at the ceiling of her hotel room, working hard to hold back tears. “Can you … can you call me at this number, please? As soon as you can, okay? It’s… it’s almost midnight here. I can’t … I can’t think, you know, how that equates to West Palm Beach time. Maybe one in the afternoon? Two? I’m not sure.”

She paused again when she heard a thread of hysteria creep back into her voice. 

God. This was great. Piggybacked with her current state of mind – which was a little to the left of full-blown terror – she felt like she was spiraling out of control. That soaked it. She’d never dreamed hysteria would be a part of her vocabulary in this lifetime – which may not be all that long, she reminded herself with a grim compression of her lips. 

“Okay,” she said, if not steadier, at least resolved to calm herself down. She absently repositioned the base of the phone on the nightstand sitting beside her bed. “I’m at the Garden Orchid Hotel. It’s on, um, let me think. Governor Camins Avenue, okay? Here’s the phone number.”

Darcy slowly closed her eyes, forced them open again and repeated the phone number. “I’m in room 333. If … if I don’t answer when you call, dial Sandy in London. She’ll … well, Sandy can fill you in.

“Look, Ethan. I …” she cut herself off as a hot tear trickled down her cheek. She brushed it angrily away with the back of her hand. “Just call. Okay? And hurry.”

She hung up the phone. For a long moment, she sat motionless, staring at the cradled receiver. And praying that he’d get her message. 

Before it was too late.

It probably should have bothered her that her ex was the first person she thought to call the moment she’d realized she was in trouble. And it might have if she could function on a level separate from the fear. So far that wasn’t happening.

Yesterday morning, she hadn’t been afraid. Yesterday morning, she’d had her usual busy day in the vice-consulate’s office at the U.S. Embassy in Manila. But yesterday morning, Amanda Stover had still been alive – and when Darcy had heard the news of Amanda’s death later in the day after she’d flown to down to Zamboanga, there hadn’t been a doubt in her mind that the young embassy secretary had died as the result of a sad and tragic accident.

Today, however, Darcy knew different. Today, she was certain that the hit and run driver who had killed Amanda hadn’t done so by accident. Amanda had been murdered. And because she now knew what Amanda had known, more so, because she pretty certain she was in possession of the reason Amanda may have been killed, Darcy was also certain that she had been targeted as the next person to die.

With trembling fingers, she picked up the envelope she’d sealed as tight as Fort Knox. Then she slapped on enough postage to send it to the moon. All the while she fought to gain the upper hand on the rising panic. 

Panic wasn’t going to help her get out of this alive. Clear thinking was. 

On a serrated breath she stood and walked across the room. Slowly, she opened her hotel room door then looked up and down the empty hall. Reasonably certain it was safe, she slipped outside and headed for the elevator.

“Good evening, Miss Prescott.”

Rudy Mar startled her as she stepped out of the elevator into the lobby. She paused to see the night clerk standing at his post behind the registration desk where the older man appeared to be reading the Manila Bulletin.

She forced a smile. “Good evening, Rudy Mar.” 

She always stayed at the Orchid when her duties took her from Manila to Zamboanga. She knew many of the staff on a first name basis. Had learned that the Zamboangueños people were warm and friendly. As a rule, she enjoyed a little pleasant banter. 

Tonight, the rules had changed. 

“Going out so late, Miss?” Rudy Mar’s smile was tempered with concern.

“Actually, I need to mail a letter.”

Rudy Mar laid the newspaper, open to the front page, on the counter top. Darcy caught a glimpse of the headlines and photograph: U.S. Embassy Employee Victim of Hit and Run and felt her blood run cold.


Her gaze snapped to back to Rudy Mar. His expectant look made her realize she’d completely tuned out something he’d said. “I’m sorry … what?”

“I said I’d be happy to take care of that for you. The letter,” he clarified with a nod toward the envelope.

Involuntary reflexes had her clutching the package tighter in her hand. “Oh. Thank you, but I … I want to take a walk anyway, get a little air. I’ll just drop it at the post office while I’m out.” She smiled in what she hoped was a credible impersonation of a woman who wasn’t about to jump out of her skin.

“As you wish, Miss Prescott. Enjoy your walk. But stay on the main streets, all right?”

“Thank you. I will. I’ll be back in just a few minutes.”

As she walked out the hotel door, Darcy understood both Rudy Mar’s concern and puzzlement over her actions. American embassy people were often targets of terrorists in the Philippines and she was not employing hazardous duty procedure. Normally she followed protocol to the letter – she buried her route to work in the mornings, alternated modes of transportation, and when out of Manila, as she was now, she would normally phone for a car and driver if she needed to go out.

Tonight, there wasn’t time. She had to get the package out of her possession, in the mail and get back to her room before Ethan called back. And the bigger problem: she no longer knew who she could trust. 

She cut a seemingly meandering path along the main streets, checking often to see if anyone was following her, hoping she’d spot a motorcab or a jeepney and could hitch a ride. One or the other would provide at least a little anonymity and make her a less of a target. Tonight, however they were as scarce as taxies. So she walked. Fast.

It was a typical Philippine evening. Close, hot, tropical. The sidewalks had sucked in the sun’s rays during the day and now breathed them back out like heat from a cooling oven. Darcy had dressed for the sweltering night in a white, short sleeve cotton t-shirt and kaki shorts. Still, her back was damp with perspiration. In her Espadrille sandals, the souls of her feet were damp as well.

Another night, another time, she’d have enjoyed an evening stroll as she had many times in this beautiful city that was heralded as the city of flowers. But this wasn’t just any other night. 

She caught a glimpse of herself in a storefront window and realized how tense she appeared. Determined not to draw attention to herself, she made her shoulders relax, deliberately slowed her pace in the face of a warning voice that screamed at her to hurry. 

Hurry, hurry!

Struggling to ignore it, she walked on. The streets were, for the most part, deserted but should anyone see her, they would see an American of average height and weight out for an evening stroll. No one special. Nothing remarkable. Except, maybe, for the red hair she’d cut short a year ago when she’d started her permanent change of station with the embassy in Manila. 

Tonight more than ever before, she regretted the bureaucratic snafu that had re-stationed her from Mexico City to Manila. As she’d always done when her rotation was drawing to a close, she’d filled out her dream sheet requesting a PCS in Paris. Paris, Philippines – easy to get the two mixed up, she thought sourly, then sucked in her breath on a gasp when a cat sprang out of an alley and yowling, ran in front of her.

Of course, it was a black cat.

When her heart dropped back into her chest, she made another quick, visual search around. Only after she was satisfied that no one was following her did she walk across Corcuera Street toward the post office she’d intentionally by-passed the first time she’d strolled past, playing tourist again, staring at the Mayor’s officer. 

Without breaking stride, she dropped the envelope in the outgoing mail slot. And felt her first tentative sense of relief. If anyone was watching her, they’d never have noticed what she’d done. And if anything happened to her, at least now, someone would know the reason why.

Now all she had to do was make it back to her room and wait for Ethan to call and get her out of this fix.

She was three blocks from the hotel when she noticed the van behind her. A quick glance over her shoulder told her the vehicle was long and black and beat up, the windows tinted so dark she couldn’t see inside. Even as she told herself it was nothing to worry about, her heart rate ratcheted up several beats. And when the van crept up and kept pace beside her, she almost jumped out of her skin. 

Adrenalin fueled by apprehension rushed through her system so fast it made her nauseous with fear. She prayed for the van to move on down the street. When it pulled up to the curb a few feet ahead of her and the side door slid open, the apprehension churning through her chest shifted to flat out panic. 

Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop. She repeated the command like a mantra. 

When the gruff voice belching out from the murky black interior of the van ordered her to do just that, she didn’t even consider it. She broke into a dead run.

She could see the blue neon sign - Garden Orchid Hotel – ahead. Only a couple of blocks. So near. So freaking far. Her lungs burned with the effort to propel her forward.

And then something slammed into her from behind. She dropped face first into the concrete walk. And pain overtook the panic. 

The leaden weight of a man who smelled like smoke and sweat and hatred knock the air out of her lungs when he landed on top of her. The white-hot abrasion of skin scraping against concrete seared her knees; her palms, where she connected with the paving to break her fall, burned like fire. 

She tried to scream but he clamped a filthy hand over her mouth. Something jabbed into her ribs, hard. 

“Come with me or die here, Miss Prescott. You decide.”

She went limp, prayed for a miracle – the pulis, police, an off duty Special Ops soldier. Anyone who might help her.

No one did.

Her attacker stood, made sure he stayed behind her so she couldn’t see his face and hauled her roughly to her feet. With the gun still buried her ribs, he pushed her toward the van then shoved her, hard, into the back seat. 

She hit her head on the opposite window and groaned, fighting through the pain. Her abductor climbed in behind her and slammed the door as the van shot off through the Zamboanga streets with a squeal of tires. Coarse hands blindfolded her then wrenched her hands behind her back and tied her wrists so tightly that she bit back a cry when the rope dug into her skin. 

She fought it, but there was no escaping the dirty rag that was pressed over her mouth and nose. Loss of consciousness was frightening and fast.

Her last coherent thought was of Ethan. His name broke on a sob, just before everything faded but the truth: Not even Ethan could save her now.