HERO Force Series, Volume 6
All of the HERO Force books can be read as standalone stories.
HERO Force is on a mission to save senator’s daughter Cassidy Lane from a cult when a skydiving accident leaves Navy SEAL Austin Dixon to complete the mission alone. Trouble is, Austin has a history with Cassidy—and she definitely doesn’t want any saving.
Cassidy is an investigative journalist who infiltrated the cult after another reporter disappeared there on assignment. Together they must learn to trust the broken bridge that joins them as they weave their way deeper into The Community and find out the truth about Cassidy’s missing friend, Julianne. But when they’re exposed, will they be able to untangle themselves from the cult’s grasp and make it to safety?
It was the scent of dew heavy on the crisp morning air that first registered on Austin Dixon’s senses. The fact that he wasn’t dead, the second.
So fucking cold.
His eyes were closed, the lids too heavy to open, and his teeth chattered. His body was seemingly suspended in air, making him wonder if he wasn’t dead after all.
The weeping pain in his skull seemed to expand against the bone. Alive, then. He worked to feel his limbs, fighting a deep-seated fatigue that immobilized his muscles, straining for the slightest movement of his feet. He knew what was wrong with him.
Hypothermia. He was freezing to death.
Where the hell was he? He tried to remember the last thing he’d been doing, but only emptiness met his efforts. The wind blew cold with a whistling howl and a bird squawked in the distance.
Wake up, asshole, or you’re going to be food for the vultures.READ MORE
It took every bit of energy he had to open his eyes, the brightness focusing the pain in his head to a fine, brutal point.
Evergreen branches surrounded him in pale pink light, his body hanging down and his feet dangling beneath him. God only knew how high up he was.
He twisted his neck, noting the stiffness that told him he’d been in that position far too long. There above him were paracords that held him suspended, a crumpled parachute higher in the tree, his memory instantly returning.
Air rushed by his body as he fell through the sky. He’d made hundreds of jumps in his career and hundreds more for recreation, though this was the kind that really got his blood pumping. Two in the morning and pitch-black, his night vision goggles throwing the world into an eerie green.
Logan and Noah were right behind him, the three of them falling toward the Sawtooth Mountains at breakneck speed.
The landing zone was a small clearing in the dense forest which would require careful turns after chute deployment, and Austin kept an eye on the other divers’ locations to be sure he had the clearance he needed to make those turns.
Noah was an experienced skydiver, but Logan only had forty or fifty jumps under his belt, with this being his third one in darkness. The night vision goggles were bulky and took a lot of getting used to. The ones they’d used as SEALs had four tubes to allow a greater range of vision, but the HERO Force sets had only two.
The effect was like looking through toilet paper rolls, and it could be unnerving when you were also falling through the sky.
He checked his altimeter, having chosen manual chute deployment instead of automatic for this jump. They were too close together for a one-size-fits-all answer, and Austin liked to keep as much control as possible. He pulled his ripcord, slowing his rapid descent to a gentle ride.
Then something went wrong.
He started to spin and he looked up to see his canopy partially uninflated. Noah must have clipped him with his legs. He tried to self-correct but the spin only intensified. He needed to cut his main chute loose and deploy his reserve, but if Logan was directly above him Austin’s chute could become entangled in his.
A more experienced skydiver would see Austin was in trouble and get out of the way, but he could no longer see Logan and didn’t know if that’s what Doc had done.
He could only rely on best practices and hope Logan had done what he was supposed to do. He cut away his main chute— all too aware of the numbers flashing by on his altimeter—and deployed his reserve.
It should have solved his problem, but it did not. Now he was spinning in the opposite direction. He must have collided with Logan again. He was going down, the tree-covered ground approaching much too quickly. He worked to control his descent as best he could but the results were futile.
He crashed into a tree and blacked out.
That explained how he got here. Now where the fuck was everybody else?
He was worried. More than worried. Skydiving accidents were rare, but canopy collisions were all too frequently the cause and just as often, unsurvivable. He’d been lucky to land in the tree as he had, and he could only hope his friends had been just as fortunate.
He activated the com set in his helmet. “Logan, you copy?”
There was only the blowing breeze.
He tried several more times, his mind considering what had likely caused the accident and how that might have affected Noah’s landing.
It could be bad. Really bad.
He gave up on the headset. “I’m fucking talking to myself.”
He needed to cut himself down, but the way his legs were feeling that would be like cutting a dead man from the gallows. He slowly pulled his knees up to his chest, forcing blood into the muscles once more despite the pain. He pumped his arms as his mind returned to their mission.
I have to get to Cassidy.
He thought of what it must have cost her father to look him up. Senator Keaton Lane had gone to extremes to keep Austin out of his daughter’s life. The fact that he had sought him out now told Austin just how dire the situation really was.
An investigative journalist in Washington, Cassidy had told her family she was going to Paris for a much-needed vacation, but when her parents checked up on her they found she’d never left the country.
After calling in a favor from the CIA to access their daughter’s email, the senator and his wife learned Cassidy had joined The Community—a group of more than two hundred people living high in the Idaho mountains under the direction of a man named David Kelleher.
Her parents immediately checked with Cassidy’s boss at the paper, who insisted he hadn’t sent her, but told them another journalist from the Post had gone missing after entering The Community several months earlier.
Cassidy’s best friend, Julianne Garrison.
That was bad enough, but when Senator Lane’s eyes met Austin’s across the table and he told him Julianne’s bloodied press credentials had been delivered to the Washington Post in yesterday’s mail—along with a necklace she always wore— Austin started to pace the conference room like a caged animal.
Julianne was dead and Cassidy—his Cassidy—was in trouble.
It took HERO Force two days to prepare for the mission, time in which Austin thought he might lose his goddamn mind.
Community leader Kelleher had grown up on the four thousand acre Longwood Ranch that was now home base for The Community, inheriting the property from his parents when they were killed in a farming accident years earlier. His parents were potato farmers with a small herd of cattle, but Longwood Ranch no longer sold any goods.
It was a dot on the map of a sparsely populated area that most people wouldn’t even know existed. The perfect place for a crazy motherfucker to set up shop unnoticed.
Satellite images showed Longwood Ranch was a world unto itself. A world full of potentially dangerous isolationists in an extensive, self-supporting compound surrounded by a razor-wire-topped fence and two guard towers—and somewhere inside, a senator’s daughter who may or may not want to come home. There was a series of buildings close to the main house as well as several outlying structures that had likely once been used for crop storage and machinery.
He thought of the picture Cassidy’s mother had pushed across the conference table with her trembling hand and perfectly manicured fingernails, Austin suddenly feeling like he’d been sucker-punched. Cassidy wore a slim skirt and slightly open blouse, her dark hair tucked behind one ear and her green eyes laughing at the camera.
She’d only gotten more beautiful in the years since he last saw her. She was an ivy league girl with the world in her hands, who clearly came from money and swam in the waters of opportunity.
Whereas you grew up running through the spray of fire hydrants in Brooklyn.
That was only part of the problem.
His mind was off and running, the photograph taking him back in time until she was beneath him in the grass, her naked body open to him and her legs wrapped around his hips, the scent of flowers and summer breezes surrounding him as he pumped into her sweet body.
“Cassidy would do anything to make sure Julianne was okay,” said her mother. Her voice broke, and her husband took her hand.
“I’ll find her,” said Austin. “You can count on me.”
The senator met his eyes with a soulful look. “Yes. I believe you will.”
That was why they came to him, he could see now. He’d been useless to them then—someone to be looked down upon—but now his passion for their daughter could work to their advantage.
It doesn’t matter. That’s all in the past.
“There’s something else,” said the senator, glancing at his wife’s worried face. She nodded. The senator turned and stared hard at Cowboy. “It’s classified information. I could go to jail for telling you this, but I am a father before I am a congressman.”
Cowboy nodded. “Go ahead.”
“My contact at the CIA tells me The Community is planning to attack a major city five days from today. The CIA is going to raid the compound, but Cassidy…” His throat worked and his stare went to each member of the HERO Force team, one by one. “They can’t guarantee her safety. You have to get her out of there before anything happens. I’m trusting you with her life.”
Memories haunted Austin on the flight from Atlanta, along with the image of a smiling Cassidy in his mind. He’d even dreamed about her, his head bouncing against the window of the plane as he touched her skin after so many years without her.
“Stop it,” he said out loud, forcing his attention back to the present. Blood was flowing through his extremities, and while that intensified the pain, it showed progress. His muscles were contracting at will. He was still weak, but that would only get worse unless he could get himself out of this tree and moving around. He reached into the pocket of his tactical vest and withdrew a knife.
He made a sign of the cross, a habit ingrained from his childhood and one of a hundred things Cassidy’s father probably hated about him. “Here goes nothing.” He cut the cords that held him and fell through twenty feet of branches on his way to the ground. His vision jerked and shook with the impact that knocked the wind out of his lungs.
The pack on his back was heavy—some sixty pounds—and he circled his stiff shoulder backwards as he unbuckled the strap. He opened the pack and withdrew a map. He had no way of knowing where Noah and Logan were, or if they were even alive. They’d been separated at a high enough altitude and with enough force that the other men could be a quarter mile or more in any direction. One or both of them might have bounced—a not-so-accurate description of hitting the ground at an unsurvivable speed.
He could only focus on Cassidy now. She was in danger and he might be the only member of HERO Force who was close enough to do anything about it. They were down to three days until The Community attacked and he needed to get her out of harm’s way.
There wasn’t enough time for him to hike out of these woods and make it back to HERO Force in time to regroup and try again. He’d have to go in after her alone. That woman needed somebody on her side, and he was it.
He unfolded the map, quickly locating their intended drop zone. He was sure he was near it, just a mile and a half from Longwood Ranch and The Community to his north. With his concussion, hypothermia and muscle fatigue, he’d be hard-pressed to make it there by nightfall.
But he would make it.
Nighttime would be the perfect opportunity to infiltrate the perimeter. He withdrew his compass and kissed the glass face his father had given him when he made Eagle Scout, just weeks before the old man died.
He set out toward the compound, a plan taking shape in his mind. His mission wouldn’t be as simple as it would have been with Doc and Noah by his side, but Austin was confident he could get inside the compound and find Cassidy on his own.
Hell, he’d better be confident.
There was no other way.COLLAPSE