To the Edge
A Heroes at the Brink Novel
Anna del Mar
Genre: Erotic Romance
Clara's gone wild.
Naked. Cuffed. Caged. Is this the sweet senator’s daughter I left behind?
I didn't know it was her when I rushed into that room filled with flames, but I'll never let her go again.
She’s proposed a unique way to thank me. It could bring us both to the edge of ecstasy—or to the point of no return.
Clara wants to submit. To me. Totally. Damn any limits. The very thought of it has brought me back from the dead.
But a stranger is watching from the shadows. He’s made us his fantasy. And he plays rougher than I do. Where he’s taking us now is somewhere so dark, and so dangerous, that this time it could be inescapable.
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For several days now, my team and I had been trailing one of the world’s most wanted, a terrorist with many aliases, code named Josephus. He was the mastermind of a series of lethal attacks on Americans abroad. His deadliest role included recruiting disaffected children of the West to kill their own kind, something he did over the Internet and the Dark Net with infuriating regularity.
My team and I had already identified and helped capture most of Josephus’s recent contacts, but I was determined to get the fucker. I’d traced the asshole all the way to Spain. The takedown operators had reported they’d missed him by less than five minutes. The snake had slithered away at the last minute, but the raid had netted the rest of his cell, including his cousin Rashid, who was now in paradise fucking a bunch of ex-virgins. Son of a bitch. I was going to get Josephus.
I reached the top of the spiral steps, barged into the octagonal room at the top of my newly restored widow’s walk and grabbed the binoculars. From my perch high above the ground, the profile of a single roof pierced the tree line west of me. Sure enough, a column of smoke rose from the clearing, billowing from the only other house remotely close to mine, a place I knew well.
Dammit. We didn’t have a fire station on Avalon Island. We did have a loosely organized volunteer fire crew, mostly composed of local fishermen who weren’t sitting around waiting to fight a fire at the moment. Even if I gave the alert, it’d be at least thirty minutes before anyone showed up. Hell, if anyone was trapped in the house, they’d be toast by the time the fire crew got there.
I ran down two flights of stairs. What the hell was going on? In the past two years, no one had visited the Luz compound, not even summer renters. In any case, the island’s brief summer season was over. Leaden clouds darkened the afternoon and the Chesapeake Bay roiled in advance of an October gale.
I jammed my arms in my jacket and rushed out the back door, coming to a screeching halt at the end of the deck. My body refused to move forward. An invisible barrier held me back, jolting me like an electrified fence. My heart boomed. Slowly, I put a tentative foot on the ground. The lawn bulged and pulsed under my shoe. I gritted my teeth. Tick-tock, a countdown began in my mind. Shit. I jerked my foot back.
“There are no improvised explosive devices buried in the yard,” I muttered, pacing the deck, trying to impose logic over irrational emotion. “Stick to reality, Noah.”
None of my frozen muscles reacted to my brain’s logical appeal.
“Fuck this.” I stalked back into the house and kicked the door shut. “You fucking coward.”
I plopped down at the base of the stairs, raked my fingers through my hair and sank my face into my hands. How the hell had I turned into such a useless pile of crap? I wasn’t some ignorant grunt. I was an ex-Navy SEAL and a high-level intelligence operative. I’d fought wars, infiltrated hostile countries and hunted the world’s most dangerous terrorists, yet here I was, trapped in my own house. What a joke. I pressed at my temples. Someone could be in danger and all I could do was watch from afar.
I clenched my jaw so hard that my teeth ached. Even a piece of shit like me had to admit that the house currently on fire was the number one reason why I’d chosen this place for my self-inflicted exile. The Luz compound was one of the few places on earth I associated with happiness. Those memories were the only thing I had left. Would they evaporate like so many other things in my life if the house burned?
Hell, no. I couldn’t let the memories go. Not yet, anyway.
My gaze fell on the little green bottle on the kitchen counter. The last time I’d had some of that, I’d been sick for days. But it had allowed me to make it through the funeral. I’d even gone to the grocery store for a few minutes. LCOS, the guys from the support group liked to call it, liquid courage on steroids.
I got to my feet and made my way to the counter. I picked up the bottle and rolled it between my fingers. No label, no warnings, nothing. Home brewed by some biochemically savvy veteran in his basement and most definitively not FDA approved. If it were any other uninhabited house on the island, I might have called it in and been done with it. But this was the Luz house. I couldn’t let go. What the hell. I unscrewed the top of the bottle and, after suctioning half a measure into the glass dropper, squeezed it underneath my tongue.
Bitter. Sharp. Sour. My taste buds screeched. The poison set my throat ablaze. I shut my eyes, gritted my teeth, and clutched the counter until the world stopped whirling. Toxic. That’s how the stuff felt as it burned through my body. As if it was killing me, right before it freed me.
Thirty seconds later, I could think again. That’s when the vascular spasm hit me. My toes and fingers went numb and my fingertips turned white, all side effects from the liquid courage. It would take a few minutes to work, but the Luz house was burning right now.
I forced myself out the door, onto the deck and down the steps. I closed my eyes and, heart pummeling my ribs, settled a boot on the lawn. Nothing exploded. I let out a rattling breath and took another step. I edged my way across the trees, fighting an irrational impulse to run back to my cottage and the false assumption that I’d be safe in there. Safe from this moment, maybe, but not safe from myself.
“Mind over matter,” I muttered to myself. “Baby steps. Fear is the mind killer.” Whatever cliché worked, it didn’t matter. I forced myself forward, hoping that the stuff I’d taken would kick in soon.
I made it to the woods and onto the deer track then ran through the scrub. No IEDs here. No booby traps or shooters. Move, move, move. My mouth and nose sucked in the humid air, and my feet hammered the earth in an all-out race toward the fire. My ears and eyes worked the terrain, anticipating the snipers hiding behind the trees, the enemy waiting in ambush. The fear pounding in my temples was as vivid as the flashbacks.
I broke through a line of overgrown sedges and into the backyard of the main house, heart pumping to the point of pain. I bent over my knees, assessing the Victorian mansion between gasps. Most of the grand old house was intact, but a small window on the far side of the house puffed with a stream of smoke. The liquid courage must have kicked in then, because my entire body flushed. A roar ignited my blood and bellowed through my veins. For an instant, I felt superhuman. Best part? The earth stopped shifting beneath my feet. My nerves settled and my mind cleared. I focused on the present.
I cupped my hands at either side of my mouth and shouted at the top of my lungs. “Hello? Anybody in there?”
A muffled scream broke through the fire’s rumble, shrill, sustained and desperate. Was it real? I called out once more. The sound came again, undefined but urgent, echoing from the first floor, where, if memory served me right, the main living room of the house was located.
Someone was in there.
I reverted to my old self. I considered the house with the eyes of an experienced SEAL evaluating the mission. It helped that I remembered the interior layout so well. So far, the smoke came only from the south corner of the house. I had a few minutes yet.
I mounted the wraparound porch and tested the French doors. They were locked. I stepped back to gain some momentum. That’s when it hit me, a sense of impending catastrophe, the knowledge that I was at a crossroads, and choosing this path would result in the destruction of my life as I knew it.
Fellow veterans and survivors often spoke of experiencing this powerful sense of doom, right before their arms and legs got blown off, an instant before getting hit. I’d felt the odd emotion before, advanced notice that the world was about to tilt on its axis, an inexplicable sense of fate, danger’s clear and imminent warning. Standing on the porch of the Luz house, I felt the shift coming my way. My hackles went up. The world contracted as an invisible pulse thumped through me, heralding a cataclysmic detonation like the one that had rendered me captive in my own house.
And yet I made the same choice I’d made before. I had to go in, because dread was not an excuse for cowardice and bravery was the act of punching through one’s fears.
I kicked open the doors and rushed into the living room. It was like time travel, like stepping into the past, where an old black-and-white reel whirled before my eyes. The stately old home showed none of the luster I remembered. The furnishings were covered with sheets. The place felt drab, forlorn and forgotten. Smoke puffed from the hallway and drifted into the living room in an ethereal, foul-smelling haze.
An odd sound caught my attention, a primal mewling. My head swiveled toward the fireplace. An antique Victorian aviary stood in the corner, the same tall, elegant wrought-iron cage that I remembered admiring fifteen years ago. A pop of color caught my attention.
What the hell?
Time slowed down as I took in the odd sight. For an instant, I forgot about the fire, because the cage—which had once housed a pair of expressive, impressive macaws—now held another species, an erotic mirage. No, not a mirage. A real woman, and not just any woman, but one plucked right out of my head, true to my personal definition of beauty down to the smallest physical details. My oldest, wildest and most treasured fantasy come true.