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Payback (Echo Mountain) Mass Market Paperback – June 2, 2015

3.7 out of 5 stars 8 ratings

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For the first time in paperback, from Dean Koontz, the master of suspense, comes an epic thriller about a terrifying killer and the singular compassion it will take to defeat him. | Learn more
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About the Author

With a degree in journalism, Hope White started her writing career as a reporter but found she wanted to do more than report the facts – she wanted to give readers a happy ending. Now she’s thrilled to be combining mystery, adventure and romance in her suspense stories for Steeple Hill. When not at her computer, you’ll find Hope hiking a mountain trail or enjoying a fine cup of tea with. You can find her at: www.hopewhiteauthor.com or facebook.com/hopewhiteauthor

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

She had to protect him.

Shivering against a strong gust of wind, Nia Sharpe quickened her pace up the mountain trail, determined to find her boss, resort manager Aiden McBride, by nightfall. She knew he was planning a midweek overnight hike to Pleasant Point and she needed to warn him.

Something didn't feel right about the two men, calling themselves Mark and Greg, who came looking for Aiden, men who claimed to be business associates. After they'd checked in, she had the resort's IT tech, Zack Carter, dig into their backgrounds, but he came up empty. It was as though the two men didn't exist.

As concierge for Echo Mountain Resort, it wasn't just Nia's job to help guests. She also prided herself on keeping Aiden's life as calm as possible.

When she'd learned that the mystery men rented hiking gear from the recreation office, her instincts went on full alert.

Always trust your instincts. A hard but valuable lesson she'd learned in childhood. One that she put to good use to protect her boss.

Fearing Mark and Greg had discovered Aiden's hiking plans by talking to resort staff, she took off at lunchtime to beat them to Pleasant Point.

She'd repeatedly called Aiden over the course of the past few hours, but he didn't answer. Reception was spotty in the mountains, so that was no surprise. A shudder trickled down her spine. Had the men already found Aiden?

Maybe she was overreacting, a force of habit from surviving an abusive household growing up. She also tended to overthink things where Aiden was concerned because she knew about the emotional trauma that had followed him home from the war. She seemed to be the only one.

"Miss Sharpe?"

She whipped around and spotted the two strangers heading up the trail. Had they followed her? Frustration ripped through her insides. If that was the case, she was leading them straight to Aiden.

Play it cool, Nia.

"What a coincidence finding you up here," the man calling himself Greg said. The obvious leader, he was tall and thin with a narrow face.

"Yes, indeed," Nia said as calmly as possible.

The men hesitated, as if they didn't want to scare her away.

"As long as we've run into you, could we ask you a few questions—" Greg hesitated "—about your boss?"

Mark, a husky, intense-looking man, watched her with assessing eyes.

"How about tomorrow at 9:00 a.m.?" she answered in the pleasant tone she used with guests. "I came out here for some peace and quiet. I'm sure you understand."

"How well do you know Aiden McBride?" Greg said, ignoring her request.

"As well as an employee knows her boss. Why?" She dug into her pocket for something she could use as a weapon. Her fingers wrapped around a cough drop. Great.

"We didn't want to announce this in a lobby full of people, but we're actually with the FBI. I'm Agent Greg Brown and this is Agent Mark McIntyre." Greg flashed what could be official ID; then again, maybe not.

"And you're interested in speaking with Mr. McBride? He's a war hero."

The men glanced at each other. "There's more to his service record than has been made public," Greg said. "We could use your help with our investigation."

"Of course. I'll be in a better frame of mind to discuss this tomorrow during my shift." She smiled, her insides tangling into knots.

"Are you hiding something, Miss Sharpe?" Greg pressed.

"No, sir, but I do value my personal time."

Mark gave her a skeptical frown, and silence stretched between the three of them. Nia and Greg stared at each other, waiting for the other one to blink.

He took a step toward her.

She spun around and raced up the trail.

"Wait!" he called after her.

It was a good thing she loved to run, sometimes twice a day. Running kept her in good shape, although that wasn't why she did it. It calmed her mind and kept the dark memories at bay.

Not a good time for a trip down memory lane, Nia.

"Stop running!" Greg called after her.

Even if they were federal agents, they had no right to question her up here. She'd done nothing wrong and neither had Aiden. She was sure of it. Although a tough boss with a gruff exterior, Aiden was one of the kindest, most honorable men she'd ever known.

Aiden was also the first man who'd given her a chance. He truly respected her. She'd spent so many years attracting the same kind of man into her life: domineering, bullying men like her stepfather. Counseling and prayer had exposed that pattern, and she'd finally realized that subconsciously she thought that was how relationships—any relationships, romantic or not—were supposed to look.

At first she'd thought Aiden fit that same profile. But there was something different about him. She saw through his tough exterior and embraced a new kind of work relationship—one of trust and understanding. Which was why she had to find him, protect him.

She approached a switchback and adjusted her speed so she wouldn't lose her footing and go sailing over the sharp edge of the mountain. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted the men behind her, struggling to keep up. They were obviously not in shape to sprint uphill. She pumped harder, noticed a fork in the trail up ahead and decided to veer right. With any luck, her pursuers would take the other route.

Calming her mind, she focused on putting distance between herself and the men. She approached a clearing, the trail opening up to expose the valley below and a gorgeous vista of mountainous land. Suddenly something caught her eye.

Aiden?

Across the valley she spotted a bright yellow jacket, the one his sister Bree said could be seen from Mars. He must have changed his mind about camping overnight and decided to head back to the resort.

Which meant he was on a collision course with the agents.

"Aiden!" she called, waving her arms.

The enthusiastic movement threw her off balance and she stumbled. Trying to right herself, she skidded, flailing her arms to get her balance.

"Aiden!" she cried and slid over the edge.

An ear-piercing cry made Aiden freeze.

He scanned the surrounding area.

A flash of pink punctuated the peaceful scene as it floated down the mountainside almost in slow motion. He'd recognize that bright pink anywhere.

"Nia?" he whispered and whipped out his binoculars to get a better look.

It was, in fact, Nia sliding down the mountainside.

He shoved the binoculars into his pack, strapped it across his shoulders and took off, strategizing the quickest way to get to her.

Why was she up here, anyway? Had something happened at the resort and she couldn't reach him by phone? He'd turned it off hoping for true solitude, thinking God could better hear his prayers if Aiden wasn't distracted, because lately he'd felt abandoned by the Lord.

Forget about that. Get to Nia.

Nia, the incredibly efficient concierge who kept things running smoothly at the resort, especially on days Aiden was functioning at 30 percent.

She was also probably the one person who seemed to somehow know there was more to her boss than orders and demands, which was why he kept her at a safe distance. He felt exposed around her, vulnerable.

Right now she was the vulnerable one.

The splash of pink suddenly stopped. His gut tightened as he frantically searched the area above her, looking for the best way down. She'd landed at least five klicks away from a trail, so rappelling down would be the fastest way to get to her.

Crazed with worry, he slipped on the wet trail and scolded himself. He had to get his fear in check—fear of not being able to save her.

Shake it off, McBride.

Reeling in his erratic thoughts, he spotted the perfect location to anchor his rope. Within minutes he was there, securing the rope to a tree. Next, he created a classic rappel, using his body as a friction device. He straddled the rope, brought it around his right hip and across his chest, wrapped the rope over his left shoulder and across his back, then gripped the top end of the rope with his left hand and the bottom end with his right. The device wasn't pretty but it was functional.

"Nia!" he called.

Silence echoed back at him.

"Nia, I'm coming!" He hoped she was conscious but too stunned from her fall to answer.

He started down, pretending this was an emergency exercise, the kind that search-and-rescue team members practiced in case they lost their gear in the mountains but still had to complete a mission. As he descended to Nia's location, he felt the burn of rope rash across his body.

Need to slow it down, get a grip on the panic.

In his experience as a search-and-rescue, or SAR, member, he knew every minute was critical after a fall. As he edged his way down, he was glad he had a first-aid kit, water, extra food, rain gear and extra clothing with him. If Nia wasn't ambulatory they'd have to be rescued by Echo Mountain Search and Rescue, and it could take a few hours for the team to get to them.

A crack of thunder reverberated in the distance.

Aiden tried not letting the threat of an impending storm ruin his focus. He took a slow breath in through his nose and exhaled through his mouth. He had to be close.

"Aiden?"

His grip tightened on the rope. She was hurting, all right. He could hear it in her voice.

"Hang on, Nia," he said in what he hoped was a comforting tone.

He needed to get to her, save her. He wouldn't allow his own incompetence to cause him to lose another person he cared about.

He ventured a glance below and clenched his jaw at the sight of blood trailing down the side of Nia's face. Her big, brown eyes scanned her surroundings as if she wasn't quite sure how she'd ended up down there. She looked confused, as if she was suffering from a head injury.

"Nia, talk to me," he said, realizing he had farther to go than he'd originally thought.

"The men," she croaked.

"What men?" He lowered himself a few more inches. "Two men checked in…looking for you." She'd come out here to find Aiden and had been injured because of a work issue? Anger warred with worry. She shouldn't have risked her personal safety for her job. Could it be that her fear of Aiden's disappointment as a boss had driven her out here?

No, she was naturally and exceptionally efficient. He rarely had to offer constructive criticism because she was that good.

Maybe she excelled at her job, but she could use a tutorial in setting boundaries around her work. He was tempted to give her a quick lesson along with a stern lecture.

But if there was one thing he'd learned from his tumultuous relationship with his sister Bree, it was to tone down the domineering attitude when communicating with people. Sometimes he couldn't help himself, especially when he was consumed with worry.

He finally touched down and uncoiled the rope from his body. Dropping to his knees beside her, he said, "Are you okay?"

She nodded. "Yeah, yeah, I'm okay." She sat up. "Whoa, take it easy."

"No, no time."

"I've got rain gear. We're okay."

"We have to go."

She was determined to get up, so he helped her. She put pressure on her left foot and winced.

"That's it. Back down you go." He adjusted her arm around his shoulders for support.

"We can't. Two men…they checked into the resort and I had to warn you—"

"It's just work, Nia. It could've waited until tomorrow."

It must have been his tone, because her eyes watered as he lowered her to the ground. Apparently he'd failed at softening his domineering tone.

Rather than say anything that might upset her further, he inspected her injury, a two-inch gash below the hairline on her forehead. It didn't look deep.

She sniffed and his insides coiled into a knot. Terrific.

He'd come down to rescue her and had only managed to cause more pain.

He wanted to apologize but didn't know how.

He dug the first-aid kit out of his pack. "So, you came out here to warn me about two particularly demanding guests?" he said in what he hoped was a teasing tone.

"They're federal agents."

Curious, but not alarmed, he pulled out antiseptic wipes and gauze. "Where else are you hurt besides your head injury and your ankle?"

"I'm fine. Patch me up so we can get out of here."

"Look, I know it's your nature to tend to everyone else's needs, but this time let me take care of you, okay?"

She gripped his arm. "They were determined to find you—"

"Well, I am the resort manager," he interrupted. "They followed me up here and tried grilling me about you."

Okay, that was a little alarming, but he wouldn't let Nia see his worry. "Maybe they're working on a sensitive case."

He brushed antiseptic lotion against her wound and she winced.

"Sorry," he said.

"It's okay." She closed her eyes.

He hated that he was the one to inflict pain on such a lovely woman.

Lovely, intelligent, caring.

And completely out of his reach. Besides the fact that she was an employee, Aiden was in no position to explore a serious relationship, not until he unloaded some of his emotional baggage.

He'd never inflict that kind of angst on someone he cared about.

"Don't be angry with me," she said. "I was following my gut instincts."

"I'm not angry."

She raised an eyebrow.

"I guess my tone sounds angry. You should be used to that by now."

"It sounds edgier than usual," she said.

Of course it did. He was worried about Nia.

He finished dressing her head wound. "Okay, that's done."

She sat up again as if not wanting to appear weak. "Do you know your way down from here?"

"Yep, but you're not going anywhere on that bum ankle." He eyed the darkening sky. "I'll call it in."

"No, there's no time to wait for SAR."

"Hey, I've got everything we need to stay warm and dry."

"But the federal agents—"

"Are going to hightail it back down once they sense the storm's coming. Relax. It'll be okay."

He tried his cell phone but couldn't get a signal. Thankfully, he'd brought his radio.

"Base, this is Aiden, over." As he waited for a response from resort staff, he studied Nia. She looked younger in her hiking outfit, quite different than her office dress of dark suit and crisp white shirt.

"Why aren't they picking up?" she asked.

"Give them a minute," he said in a calm voice, to counterbalance her anxiety.

"Base, come in, over," he tried again.

A few tense seconds passed.

"Read you loud and clear, over," a voice finally answered. "Harvey, is that you, over?" Aiden asked. "Affirmative. I'm helping the new kid organize his marbles, over."

Aiden smiled to himself. Harvey, the resort's former security manager, was always the jokester, and Aiden appreciated him helping Scott, the new security manager, get acclimated.

"We have a situation," Aiden said. "Nia came looking for me and took a tumble."

"How serious, over?"

"I'm fine," Nia interjected as Aiden was about to answer.

"Injured ankle, so she can't walk, over."

"You mean you can't carry her down by yourself, over?"

"Very funny, over."

"Give me your location, over."

Product details

  • Item Weight : 4 ounces
  • ISBN-13 : 978-0373446759
  • Mass Market Paperback : 224 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 0373446756
  • Product Dimensions : 4.21 x 0.58 x 6.61 inches
  • Publisher : Love Inspired Suspense; Original Edition (June 2, 2015)
  • Language: : English
  • Customer Reviews:
    3.7 out of 5 stars 8 ratings

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