When we first meet Aili MacIntyre, she’s doing what she’s been doing all her life: running in fear. She flees through a foreign jungle with two young girls and tries to save them from the forced prostitution ring that has been holding them in a virtual hell-on-earth. But tragedy meets them under the trees, and only one child escapes.
Three years later, Alexandra Adelaide has acquired a new identity in a radically different scene: the metropolitan jungle of Greater Los Angeles. She, though saved by Grace, has invented what she believes is the appropriate way to suffer for her own sins. Alex is raising the child who was orphaned by her insecurities. And she never, for a second, lets herself forget the pain caused by her mistakes.
Then the real tragedy strikes . . .
. . . she falls in love.
Matthew Gold is everything she needs and a lot more than she could’ve imagined. Bright, attractive, generous, and with his own vested interest in Grace, Matt works hard to earn Alex’s trust and a place in her life. He even loves and seeks to protect her daughter, who is the key to breaking open the biggest human trafficking case in recent history.
But Alex has lived in fear since she took her first breath. So how does she let Love start a new day? How does she choose courage even as very real dangers draw closer to her barred doors?
They tripped their way through the jungle as fast as they could. Aili ran half backwards, trying to shield the bundle in her arms from the branches and underbrush. It was the middle of the night, but the stagnant air suffocated them in an ever-thickening coat of sweat so oppressive Aili would rather have fled for their lives through a blinding downpour of rain. Katya staggered, and Aili’s ears pounded with panic and guilt. Why hadn’t she shielded this teenage girl? Why hadn’t she protected her in the first place? This was all Aili’s fault; she’d been the one to blow the plan.
Katya had taken a hit somewhere in the abdomen. That was all Aili knew; it was dark. She wanted to try to do something for this poor child, but she wasn’t sure they could afford to stop. The men who hunted them could be right behind them, and it would be much safer if they kept moving. That couldn’t be helped. The only helpful thing Aili could do was reach out a single hand to steady Katya when she started to fall. So they pressed on.
Then, suddenly, it didn’t matter whether or not they could afford to stop because Katya collapsed facedown in the rotten underbrush. Aili choked back a shout and carefully laid her still burden underneath a tree near the injured fifteen-year-old.
What could Aili do? She glanced from the young girl to the little, ragwrapped parcel. She couldn’t carry them both. She knelt down at Katya’s shoulder.
“Katya,” she whispered to the girl, “it’s not much farther. Really. You can make it.”
Katya didn’t even lift her head. “Go, Alice,” she said in her heavily
accented English. She still didn’t know Aili’s real name. “You must.”
Aili shook her head as two tears she couldn’t hold back mingled with
the sweat on her face. “I won’t leave you, Katya. We need you, remember?”
“Anya will be enough.”
“No, no, no,” Aili muttered. “I’ll help you, and we’ll move on together.”
Aili turned Katya onto her back. Even though the poor girl hadn’t the energy left to scream, Aili could tell by her grimace that her pain was torturous. Aili fished her penlight from one of the pockets of her designer khaki safari shorts and risked flipping the switch, hoping the brightness wouldn’t hand them to their pursuers.
Under the small beam, she could see that the belly of Katya’s shirt and the front of her shorts were soaked with blood. Aili lifted the shirt and fought the urge to scream out an overwhelming mix of guilt, anger, and sorrow.
That is a bad case of lead poisoning.
Aili knew a critical gunshot wound when she saw one. If she hadn’t believed in miracles before, she believed now. Because it was a miracle Katya had made it this far. It was a miracle she was still alive at all.
“Oh, sweetie,” Aili murmured. “Oh, poor baby.” She glanced at the bundle and thought she saw it stir, which alarmed her even more. They couldn’t have the noise giving away their location; they didn’t have much time. When she looked back at Katya, there was a small smile on the young girl’s face. She was at peace. She was dying. “I thank you, Alice.”
Aili leaned her face down to the young girl’s ear. “Katya, no,” she whispered. “Stay with me.”
Katya shook her head slightly. The smile didn’t leave her face. “Take what you need from me. I am safe now. Take care of Anya.” Her voice rode like a feather on her last breath.
“I will,” Aili promised. “I swear to you I will keep her safe, no matter what.”
The young girl was already gone.
Aili wanted to scream again but knew she couldn’t, so she put her own right hand in her mouth and bit down as hard as she could. Then she took a breath. She closed Katya’s lovely blue eyes, covered the gaping wound as best she could with the bloody shirt, and smoothed the thick, tangled, auburn curls.
She took Koli’s prized hunting knife out of her back pocket. He had thrown the knife to her just before she ran (and minutes before he died). She gritted her teeth, looked away, and used it to cut off Katya’s right thumb. She wrapped the severed digit in the designer scarf that kept back her hair.
When she finally stood, her knees were jello. She wasn’t used to losing her objectivity like this. This whole thing, this one girl, had affected her more than anything else she’d ever seen. Maybe she wasn’t even cut out for the field. Part of her wanted to sit and wait for certain death. Before he sent her and the girls out with Koli, Ivanovich had taken the expensive watch Aili had been wearing. She had only the vaguest idea how much time had passed while they stumbled through the jungle; she might have missed her last extraction point already. It was close even before he stole her watch.
She shook her head to clear it. She had to move. She had to keep her promise to Katya. Or at least try. She picked up her burden again and took off once more through the jungle.
It seemed to take forever to get to the man-made clearing, but when she broke through the trees, she heard Benedict Beck’s voice holler into the silence, “Start ’er up.”
“MacIntire! Here!” he shouted then. His footsteps rushed toward her in the dark but were almost immediately drowned out by the whoosh and chop of the heavy rotor blades. Aili was so tired. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. Spiritually. Suddenly blind and deaf, she had nothing left.
With one arm, Beck took the bundle she carried, and wrapped the other around her shoulders as they ran toward the chopper.
A man with body armor, infrared goggles, and an assault rifle gave her a hand into the vehicle, and Benedict clambered in after her. She collapsed into a seat and fumbled with the buckle while the man with the rifle started to take shots at the edge of the clearing. Muzzle flash sparked from the jungle’s edge too, but Aili could hear almost nothing over the sound of the chopper and her own heart’s pulse pounding in her ears.
Strange hands shoved clunky military headphones down on her ears while Beck bounced her parcel a few times then shoved it, without ceremony or preamble, back into her arms. She traded it for her scarf with Katya’s severed thumb and told him through the headset that he needed to get it on ice ASAP.
Ivanovich had drugged Anya, hoping that would make it easier for Koli to execute her. Still Koli hadn’t been able to follow Ivanovich’s heartless orders and had paid for that “weakness” with his life. The drugs, with the gift of Anya’s silence they offered, probably kept Aili and the girls safe on their frenzied flight through the jungle, and just as it was over, they wore off.
Aili couldn’t hear the baby’s screams but her lovely face was twisted in terror and rage, and her perfect pink mouth was open wide, showing off her five tiny teeth.
As the helicopter demonstrated its vertical takeoff abilities for Ivanovich’s men on the ground, Aili held Anya close and covered her head, but still the toddler cried. There wasn’t much Aili could do about that; it couldn’t be helped. Eventually, Anya would wear herself out and sleep
again. Then, later, she would wake, and when her mother didn’t come, it would probably start all over. Aili couldn’t do anything about that either. It couldn’t be helped. Katya was as dead as Koli, who had tried to spare her life.
Heck, Alice Carroll had died, as well, the second the chopper had lifted out of the Shangku jungle. And soon Aili MacIntire and baby Anya would be “dead” too, one way or the other.
So Aili did the only logical thing she could do: took one breath and, along with the baby, she wept.