Survive the Hunt
24 Hours - Final Countdown Series Book 2
All’s fair in love, war, and survival…
SWAT Rear Guard Aidan O’Rourke puts his life on the line every day. But never his heart.
Tenacious reporter Zoe Zagretti gets under his skin. She refuses to back down from anything, knows a good story, and can always find the hidden truth. After all, she’s no stranger to secrets.
She’s determined to uncover the truth about Aidan’s father’s death. To clear his dad’s name and restore the family’s honor.
Aidan knows what his father’s killer is capable of. He doesn’t want Zoe anywhere near this story. Family honor is one thing. Her getting hurt is something else entirely.
He’ll do what it takes to protect her…even risk his heart.
Zoe’s more afraid of her own secrets coming out. Could a man like Aidan love a woman whose entire life has been a lie?
None of that may matter however…if they don’t first survive the hunt.
Just 24 hours can change your life.
Book 2 of 4 in the "24 Hour Final Countdown" Series.
“When you are pushed to the edge of all you have known and are about to step out into darkness, faith is knowing there will be something solid to stand on…or you will learn how to fly.” ~ Irish Proverb
Riverside, Oregon, SWAT rear guard Aidan O’Rourke crushed nagging impatience as he coordinated the tactical operation forming in River View Mall’s parking lot. Too focused to think about anything other than the job. Too focused to worry. Too fucking focused to feel.
Yeah, keep telling yourself that.
Maybe, eventually, he’d believe it.
Hell, he shouldn’t have any problem. Incarcerating his emotions in a steel cage was his MO.
Sleet stung his face, but he ignored the shitty weather, just like he ignored dread’s smothering weight. Normally, he guarded the team’s back. But unless Captain Greene arrived, which didn’t look promising, Aidan was high-ranking officer. Team leader and incident commander by default.
Every member of Alpha Squad had answered the call-out except his younger brother Conall, the team’s door-kicker. Con was trapped inside the mall with a crew of ruthless bank robbers. Unarmed and defenseless.
Con’s lady, Bailey, was trapped along with him. The robbers held three additional hostages—the bank manager, a pregnant woman, and the O’Rourkes’ eighty-year-old neighbor and honorary grandma, Letty Jacobson.
Aidan had played with, worked with, and fought shoulder-to-shoulder beside Con. He admired and respected his brother. He loved him—with fierce loyalty. First and second of the siblings, he and Con had forged a nearly inseparable connection since little bro was born.
All four O’Rourke brothers shared not only the calling to be SWAT cops, but also a deep bond that strengthened as they grew into men. No goddamned criminals were gonna steal that from him.
Nine years ago, Aidan had become head of the family when his father was murdered, a victim of senseless violence. One wrenching loss was plenty. He’d vowed to protect his loved ones—at any cost.
He would get his brother out alive.
He prepared to head across the street, shoulders stiff in rebellion, his warrior’s instincts outraged at leaving the combat zone.
Move your ass, dammit. Stick to procedure and establish the on-site command post. Don’t let emotions interfere. Bring everybody out breathing.
Blinding light stabbed his peripheral vision, and he pivoted.
A TV news crew had encamped in the rear of the parking lot, setting up cameras and floodlights around a white van. The lights illuminated Aidan, the team, and the mall. A slick blond male reporter sporting a salon tan postured in front of several cameras, emoting dramatically into a cordless mic.
“Who the hell let civilians breach the inner perimeter?” Aidan roared. “Tighten up that line! Not even a fucking gnat gets through unless he’s packing a badge!”
An abashed chorus of “Yes, sirs” swelled in the frosty air.
Aidan stalked toward the van. “Kill those goddamn lights!”
A petite woman with short, wispy brunette hair stepped in front of him. Dressed for the turbulent weather in a well-worn purple parka, red scarf, and matching gloves, she planted both palms on his Kevlar vest.
Option A: mow her down. He chose option B.
“That’s Parker Dane,” her low musical voice said. “The award-winning anchorman.”
He glanced down into intelligent hazel eyes and deliciously feminine, almost feline features. The startling jolt to his senses, the kick of heat in his belly was—anger.
“I don’t care if he’s the Pope, in town to bless the masses. Kill those lights, they’re compromising my operation.”
The exotic-looking brunette dropped her hands. Colorful beaded earrings swung as she waved at a stocky guy standing beside the van. “Douse the lights while Parker rehearses.” She turned back to Aidan. “And you are?”
“Officer Aidan O’Rourke, acting SWAT Incident Commander.”
Her eyes, a fascinating, changing combination of green, brown, and gold, inventoried the length of his body from tousled, sleet-soaked hair to scuffed combat boots, then back. Unwelcome warmth flash-flooded his bloodstream, and he clenched his jaw. “You’re in a secured area. Clear out.”
She tilted her head. Icy wind tumbled shiny chestnut curls around her face in an angelic halo. Talk about blatantly deceptive packaging. Her spicy tropical fragrance seemed incongruous in the dangerous winter night as she grinned up at him. “What does SWAT stand for? Sure We Are Tempting?”
Like a numb limb with circulation suddenly restored, long-dead and disturbing feelings tingled painfully to life. A distraction he didn’t need, and sure as hell didn’t want. “I don’t have time for games, lady—”
“Zoe.” She interrupted him, a rare occurrence. His fierce concentration and alpha dog dominance intimidated most people. Not the little gypsy, however, because she didn’t budge. “Zoe Zagretti, with KKEY, your key to breaking news. See it happen as it happens. I’m Parker’s fact checker.”
“I’ll just bet you are.” He was lusting after a reporter, for Christ’s sake. Perky harbingers of doom. Peddlers of destruction and death. Vultures, pimping out people’s anguish for the ratings god. Been there, done that, with bitter, painful scars on his soul to prove it.
He’d rather suck face with a scorpion.
He drilled her with the brain-piercing glare that made hardened felons cower. “You’re endangering my officers and the hostages. Leave. Now.”
Apparently immune to his death stare, she whipped a notepad and pen from inside a battered canvas bag. “You can confirm there are hostages? How many? Who’s holding them?”
He stepped closer, widening his stance, aggressively invading her space. “I’m gonna say this once more. Pack your stuff, clamp a leash on your pet monkey and bug out.”
She didn’t so much as blink. “This is an opportunity to provide information to our viewers, and we have an obligation to take that opportunity. Any good news organization would do the same.” Her small pointed chin jutted in a challenging angle. “The public has a right to know the truth.”
Frustration vised the back of his neck. He was used to being obeyed without question. “The public has a right to safety. And protection from piranhas who rip personal tragedies apart on live satellite feed and feast on the bloody chum. If one person, one item of equipment, is still on the premises in two minutes, I will personally place you all under arrest.”
Her pretty red lips parted in a shocked gasp. “For what?”
“For starters, interfering with an officer in the line of duty.”
“You wouldn’t dare! Freedom of the press is a guaranteed Constitutional—”
“Try me. You’ll be on your way to jail before you can say ‘yellow journalism.’” He flicked a glance at his watch. “One minute and forty seconds.”
Not waiting for her reply, he pivoted and stalked away.
That’s when everything went to hell.
Two four-wheel-drive SUVs careened around the corner of the mall, studded tires sparking on the ice. Gunshots exploded and bullets screamed. Running, shouting cops dove for cover, returned fire.
Adrenaline fueled his system, and his body moved before his brain fully engaged. He whirled and lunged at Zoe, taking them both down in one leap. Cushioning her head in his hand, he rolled on the frozen pavement, absorbing most of the blow, then rolled again, pinning her petite body beneath him.
She didn’t make a sound, didn’t move as he snatched his Glock from his thigh holster and fired at the retreating SUVs. Shit, too far away, moving too fast.
Shrieking, strobing police cars chased the SUVs into the raging storm. He inhaled frosty air. Holstered his weapon. He rolled to one side and scooped the woman from underneath him. “You all right?”
Her small body limp, Zoe stared sightlessly as swirling sleet pelted her colorless features—bleached by death.
His heart stopped.
I let her down.
I let her die.
July 26th, 10:00 a.m.
“Zoe!” Aidan woke shouting her name. Panting, he sat up and blinked away stinging sweat. He glanced at sun-dappled mocha walls, then at the digital clock on the nightstand. He wasn’t in that dark parking lot. He was in his bedroom. Not a cold December night, but a warm, peaceful summer morning.
Jesus. He exhaled a shaky breath. The mall incident had happened six months ago. When would the nightmares end?
He scrubbed an unsteady hand over his bristly jaw. More importantly, why did his subconscious keep replaying it wrong?
He always dreamed everything exactly as it had happened, in sharply focused detail. The mall’s bank had been robbed, his brother trapped inside for hours. The wheelmen outside started a firefight and escaped. But nobody had died. Not his brother or Bailey, not the hostages, not even the bank robbers.
And especially not Zoe Zagretti. Since that fateful December night, Zoe and Aidan had continually crossed paths, and crossed swords.
Like a bad case of heartburn he couldn’t relieve, the rabid reporter always appeared at his crime scenes, poking her pert nose where it wasn’t wanted. Yammering questions he refused to answer. He’d swear she was tailing him.
Worse, she turned up at least once a week in his bed—in dreams. He climbed out from between navy-blue sheets and twitched the matching comforter into place.
Make that nightmares.
Naked, he strode into the bathroom where he cranked on the shower. As the water warmed up and steam curled around him, the faint scent of plumeria mingled with the mist. Zoe’s inquisitive, heart-shaped face shimmered into his mind, and his dick instantly woke up. Shit.
He snatched a purple candle off the counter, tempted to two-point it. But Letty Jacobson, his family’s irascible octogenarian neighbor and honorary grandma, had given it to him for Christmas. While it seemed an odd choice for a staunch bachelor’s neutral-toned bathroom, he’d been touched by the gaily-wrapped gift, presented with generous delight, and he’d put it on display.
He set the candle down, unable to bring himself to trash it. The sultry tropical fragrance also reminded him of a trip to Hawaii—their last family vacation before Pop was killed. The islands’ bright flower leis were made from plumeria. Letty had mentioned fond memories when she’d bestowed the gift.
He scowled. The scent used to appeal to him, before it became associated with a sassy, pain-in-the-ass brunette. How could one small woman both exasperate him beyond reason and entice him as dangerously as a diabetic to a dessert bar?
He stepped inside the shower enclosure. The shiny green/brown/gold glass tiles were the same shades as Zoe’s eyes. He groaned and banged his forehead on the wet tile.
Losing it, boyo.
Exotic and sensual, with her bewitching, ever-changing eyes and lush red mouth, Zoe wasn’t even in the same hemisphere as his usual type. He preferred his women with curves. Yeah, so what, he liked generous breasts. Zoe was fashionably starvation-skinny, probably because TV cameras added ten pounds.
Along with curvy, he went for cool, elegant, reserved blondes.
Passionate, stubborn, rash women— He shuddered and reached for the shampoo. Hell no. Strong emotions were baffling. Crippling.
Caused nothing but misery.
He’d never met a woman he was willing to risk everything for. Or a woman who’d risk it all for him. His relationships—such as they were—were amiable, short, and maintained at a comfortable emotional distance. No mountain peaks, but also no hurtling over unexpected cliffs.
As a career SWAT cop who continually charged into combat, he’d never get married. Several years ago when his Irish grandmother’s antique Claddagh wedding ring was bequeathed to him as the oldest grandchild, per O’Rourke tradition, he’d refused it.
His younger brothers hoped he’d change his mind and declined to commandeer his bequest. So the ring would remain safely with his mom until Con, Liam, or Grady had a child.
No way would he put a woman through the hell his mother had suffered. No way would he subject a family to the anguish that’d scarred him and his brothers. Though he was relentless about birth control, he’d decided to eradicate any chance, and had scheduled a vasectomy consultation with his doctor for next month.
He stuck his sudsy hair under the hot spray. Why in holy hell couldn’t he wash Zoe Zagretti out of his head? Out of his life?
He glanced down at his persistent hard-on, and ground his teeth. What was wrong with him? He wasn’t a pimply, perpetually horny teen.
Except where she was concerned.
Was Zagretti some kind of gypsy sorceress? After he’d repeatedly refused to pander to her chronic nosiness, had she cast a spell on him?
He snorted. Yeah, that idea was as batty as Letty’s romantic notions about soul-mates. He wrenched the hot water lever off, the cold all the way on, and reached for the soap. No freaking way. He didn’t believe in woo-woo.
Shivering under the icy spray, he vigorously scrubbed his chest. He knew what, or rather, who, was driving him around the bend, and his nemesis had a definite earthly origin. The situation could not continue this way. So, what was he gonna do about it?