What’s the worst thing you would do to protect the ones you love? Would you lie—steal—even kill?
It was a question from a party game, the kind you played over beers with a bunch of buddies, the answers all alcohol-fueled machismo, backed by the knowledge that you would never really have to make those kinds of choices.
Mark Renfro had had to choose. To protect his daughter, his innocent only child, he had lied too many times to count, and though he hadn’t stolen or killed—yet—he had joined with a group of men who were working to kill thousands, maybe even millions of people. They called themselves Patriots, but he knew they were terrorists. They had murdered his wife, and if Mark didn’t do what they wanted, they would kill his daughter, Mandy, as well.
He closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the cool metal of the laboratory hood. Formulas scrolled across his closed eyelids like a particularly boring and technical movie, the complex and intricate calculations of energy transfer and nuclear fusion, pages from textbooks he had read long ago and committed to memory, fragments of scientific papers he had written or read, and columns of computations that lodged in his brain the way phone numbers or the memory of a wonderful meal might take up residence in the brains of others. His photographic memory for all those numbers and calculations had allowed him to breeze though his graduate and undergraduate education and excel at the research that had propelled him to fame and even a little fortune.
All of that worthless, with his wife dead and his daughter far away from him. Amanda had been four when he had last seen her. She’d be five now—a huge chunk of her life he would never get back.
The door to the cabin that had been Mark’s prison for the past year burst open, but Mark didn’t even jump. The people who held him here were fond of such scare tactics as bursting in unannounced, but he was numb to that all now. “Renfro!” The man Mark knew as Cantrell had a big, booming voice. He was always on the verge of shouting. “We brought you a surprise.”
A muffled cry, like that of a wounded animal, made Mark whip around to face Cantrell. But instead of the dog or deer or some other nonhuman victim he had expected to see, he came face-to-face with a furious woman. Her green eyes burned with rage and hatred, and the tangle of auburn hair that fell in front of her face couldn’t obscure the high cheekbones, patrician nose and delicately pointed chin. She was young—midtwenties, he guessed, with a taut, athletic frame, every muscle straining against the man who held her, a baby-faced goon named Scofield. They had taped her mouth and bound her arms behind her, but still she struggled. So far her efforts had earned her a purpling bruise on one cheek and a torn sleeve on her denim jacket.
Mark half rose from his stool, an old, almost forgotten rage burning deep in his chest. “What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.
“The boss figured you needed some help to speed things along.” Cantrell nodded and Scofield shoved the woman forward. She stumbled into Mark and he had to brace his legs and wrap his arms around her to keep them both from crashing into the lab table. “She’s your new assistant.”
Both men laughed, as if this was the best joke they had heard all year, then they retreated, the locks clicking into place behind them.
Mark still held the woman, though they were both steady on their feet now. It had been so long since he had touched another person, longer still since he had felt a woman’s soft, lithe body beneath his hands. She was almost as tall as he was, with small, firm breasts and gently curved hips, and she smelled like flowers and soap and a world very far away from this remote mountain cabin.
She wrenched away from him and stumbled back, staring at him with eyes filled with hatred. He got the feeling she had no more of an idea why she was here than he did. “Turn around and I’ll untie your hands,” he said. “But you have to promise not to strangle me when I do.”
Her eyes made no such promise, but she turned and presented her hands to him. He clipped through the plastic ties with the pair of nail scissors—all his captors would allow him in terms of sharp objects. Though his kidnappers had provided him with a laboratory full of the most up-to-date equipment, they had been very careful to exclude anything that might be used as a weapon.
Ironic, considering the purpose of the laboratory itself.
He pocketed the nail scissors and the woman brought her hands to the front and rubbed them, wincing, then picked at the corners of the tape on her mouth.
“Trust me, the best way is to just rip it off,” he said. “It still hurts, but you get it over with quickly.”
She hesitated, then did as he suggested and jerked at the silver rectangle of duct tape. “Ah!” She cried out, followed by a string of eloquent curses.
He retreated to his stool in front of the lab bench, fighting the urge to smile. She wouldn’t get the joke, wouldn’t understand how good it was to hear someone else express the sentiments that had filled his mind for months now. “I’m Mark Renfro,” he said. “Who are you?”
“I’m not your assistant,” she said, her voice low and rough. Sexy.
She went back to rubbing her wrists, the movement plumping the cleavage at the scoop neck of her T-shirt. Mark felt a stirring below the belt, his libido rising from the dead, startling him. He had thought himself past such feelings, that part of him burned away by grief and the hopelessness of his situation.
“I didn’t request an assistant,” he said. “That must have been Cantrell’s idea. Or someone higher up the chain of command. I’m sorry they dragged you into this, but I had nothing to do with it.”
“You work for them.” She moved closer, scanning the array of scientific equipment on the table. “You’re their scientist.” The disgust in her voice and on her face showed just what she thought of a man who would do such a thing.
“There’s a difference between being a slave and an employee. I didn’t have any more say about being here than you did.” He glanced at her. “Maybe less. You still haven’t told me your name.”
“Erin. Erin Daniels.”
It didn’t ring a bell.
“You don’t have any idea who I am, do you?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Should I?”
“I don’t know. But I would hate for anyone to associate me with this scum.” She began to move about the one-room cabin, taking in the double bedstead in the corner where Mark slept, the open door beside it that led to the single, windowless bathroom, the three-burner gas range and round-topped refrigerator and chipped porcelain sink on the other side of the room, and the table and two chairs that provided the only other seating, aside from the laboratory stool he currently occupied. Her intelligent eyes scanned, assessed and moved on. She tried the sash on the largest of the cabin’s two windows.
“They’re screwed shut from the outside,” he said. “And there’s reinforced wire over the glass. If you broke a pane, all you would accomplish would be to let in the cold.” He had endured a freezing month right after they took him, when he had tried to cut out one of the panes of glass, in hopes of fashioning a weapon. The glass had shattered and Mark had shivered for weeks before he had persuaded Cantrell that the low temperatures were detrimental to his lab work, and his captors had repaired the pane.
“There must be some way out of here,” Erin said, moving to the back door.
“The doors are locked and dead-bolted from the outside, plus there’s an armed guard out there at all times. The floor is a concrete slab. The gas is shut off, so the stove doesn’t work. They bring in food, unless I’m being punished for something, then I don’t eat.” They had kept him on short rations for a week after the glass-breaking incident.
“If there’s no gas, how do you heat this place?” she asked. “It’s in the forties out there today, but it feels fine in here.”
“There’s electric heat,” he said, pointing to the baseboard heating unit along the side wall. “A solar panel charges a battery for that. If the sun doesn’t shine for a few days then too bad. I had better learn to like working in the cold.” He had spent whole days in bed under the covers in the middle of last winter—he didn’t want to think about going through that again.
“How long have you been here?” Her expression was guarded.
“What month is this?” He had tried to keep track at first, then gave up. What did it matter? His captors weren’t going to let him leave here alive.
“January,” she said. “Today is the ninth.”
“Then I’ve been here over a year,” he said. The weight of all those months rested on his chest like a concrete block. Crushing.
Erin sank into a chair at the table. “Why?” she asked. “What are you doing here?”
He wanted to say “as little as possible” but he could never be sure the guards weren’t listening. He suspected Cantrell or his bosses had the place bugged. She might even be a plant, sent to learn his intentions, though her anger felt very real. Maybe his captors’ paranoia was rubbing off on him. “First, tell me your story,” he said. “How did you end up here? Are you a scientist?”
“No. I’m a teacher.” She straightened a little, as if one of her students might be watching. “I teach math to seventh and eighth graders in Idaho Falls, Idaho.”
“Then what are you doing in the middle of nowhere in western Colorado? Do you know anything about the men who brought you here?” What had she done to end up on the wrong side of a group of terrorists like the Patriots?
“Oh, I know about them all right.” Her expression grew even more grim. “Their leader is my stepfather.”
Experience had taught Andrea McNeil to trust her first impressions of a man. She had learned to read temperament and tendencies in the set of his shoulders and the shadows in his eyes. Whether they were heroes or the perpetrators of heinous crimes, they all revealed themselves to her as much by their silences as by what they said.
The man who stood before her now radiated both strength and anxiety in the stubborn set of his broad shoulders and the tight line of his square jaw. He wore his blond hair short and neat, his face clean shaven, his posture military straight, though he was dressed in jeans, hiking boots and a button-down shirt and not a uniform. He moved with the raw sensuality of a hunter, muscular shoulders sliding beneath the soft cotton of his shirt, and when his hazel eyes met hers, she saw pride and courage and deep grief.
“All I want you to do is help me remember the face of the man who killed my friend,” he said, before she had even invited him to sit on the sofa across from her chair in her small office just off the main street of Durango, Colorado.
She didn’t allow her face to betray alarm at his statement. This certainly wasn’t the worst thing she had heard from the people who came to her for help. “Please sit down, Agent Prescott, and I’ll tell you a little more about how I work.”
FBI special agent Jack Prescott lowered himself gingerly onto the sofa. He grimaced as he shifted his weight. “Is something wrong?” she asked.
She kept her gaze steady on him, letting him know she wasn’t buying this statement.
He shifted again. “I took a couple of bullets in a firefight a couple of months back,” he said. “The cold bothers me a little.”
The window behind him showed a gentle snowfall, the remnants from the latest winter storm. A man who had been shot—twice—and was still on medical leave probably ought to be home recuperating, but she might as well have told a man like Jack Prescott that he needed to take up knitting and mah-jongg. She didn’t have to read the information sheet he had filled out to know that much about him. Even sitting still across from her, he looked poised to leap into action. She would have bet next month’s rent that he was armed at the moment and that he had called into his office at least once a day every day of his enforced time off.
Her husband, Preston, had been the same way. All his devotion to duty and reckless courage had gotten him in the end was killed.
She focused on Agent Prescott’s paperwork to force the memories back into the locked box where they belonged. Jack Prescott was single, thirty-four years old and a graduate of Columbia with a major in electrical engineering and robotics. Twelve years with the FBI. A letter of commendation. He was in Durango on special assignment and currently on medical leave. He took no medications beyond the antibiotics prescribed for his gunshot wounds, and he had no known allergies. “Tell me about this firefight,” she said. “The one in which you were injured.”
He sat on the edge of the sofa cushion, gripping his knees. “What happened to me doesn’t matter,” he said. “But my friend Gus Mathers was killed in that fight. I saw it happen. I saw who killed him.”
“That would be traumatic for anyone,” she said.
“You don’t understand. I saw the man who killed Gus, but I can’t remember his face.”
“What you’re talking about is upsetting, but it’s not unusual,” she said. “The mind often blocks out the memory of traumatic events as a means of protection.”
He leaned forward, his gaze boring into her, his expression fierce. “You don’t understand. I don’t forget faces. It’s what I do, the way some people remember numbers or have perfect pitch.”
She set aside the clipboard with the paperwork and leaned toward him, letting him know she was focused completely on him. “I’m not sure I understand,” she said.
“I’m what they call a super-recognizer. If I look at someone for even a few seconds, I remember them. I remember supermarket clerks and bus drivers and people I pass on the street. Yet I can’t remember the man who murdered my best friend.”
“Your talent for remembering faces doesn’t exempt you from the usual responses to trauma,” she said. “Your memory of the events may come back with time, or it may never return.”
He set his jaw, the look of a man who was used to forcing the outcome he desired. “The cop who referred me to you said you could hypnotize me—that that might be a way to get the memory to return.”
“I do sometimes use hypnosis in my therapy, but in your case, I don’t believe it would work.”
Because there are some things even a will as strong as yours can’t make happen, she thought. “Hypnosis requires the subject to relax and surrender to the process,” she said. “In order for me to hypnotize you, you would have to trust me and be willing to surrender control of the situation. You aren’t a man who is used to surrendering, and you haven’t known me long enough to trust me.”
“You’re saying I’m a control freak.”
She smiled at his choice of words. “Your job—your survival and the survival of those who work with you—requires you to control as many variables as possible,” she said. “In this case, your need to control is an asset.” Most of the time.
“I want you to hypnotize me,” he said.
“Consciously wanting to be hypnotized and your conscious mind being willing to relax enough to allow that to happen are two different things,” she said. “I’m certainly willing to attempt hypnotic therapy at some point, but not on a first visit. It’s too soon. Once we have explored the issues that may be causing you to suppress this memory, we may have more success in retrieving it, through hypnosis or by some other means.”
He stood and began to pace, a caged tiger—one with a limp that, even agitated, he tried to disguise. “I don’t need to talk about my feelings,” he said, delivering the words with a sneer. “I don’t need therapy. I know the memory of the man who shot Gus is in my head. I just have to find a way to access that information again.”
“Agent Prescott, please sit down.”
“No. If you can’t help me, I won’t waste any more of your time.”
He turned toward the door. “Please, don’t go,” she called. His agitation and real grief touched her. “I’m willing to try things your way. But I don’t want you to be disappointed if it doesn’t work.”
He sat again, tension still radiating from him, but some of the darkness had gone out of his eyes. “What do I do?”
“You don’t do anything,” she said. “The whole point is to relax and not try to control the situation. Why don’t you start by taking off your shoes and lying back on the couch? Get comfortable.”
He hesitated, then removed his hiking boots and lined them up neatly at the end of the sofa. He lay back, hands at his sides. His feet hung over one end and his shoulders stretched the width of the cushion. There probably wasn’t an ounce of fat on the man, but he had plenty of hard muscle. He wasn’t the type you’d want to meet alone in a dark alley, though maybe a dark bedroom…