“Every time I read a Sydney Croft ACRO novel it leaves me hungry for more. Tempting the Fire fueled my flames for more ACRO like no book in the series has.”
—Joyfully reviewed, A Joyfully Recommended Read!
“Croft’s ACRO series is fascinating to say the least and features an endless supply of agents just waiting to have their story told by this talented author! The multiple characters in Tempting the Fire keep the reader engaged as each facet of the action-packed, scorching plot is revealed!”
—Reader to Reader Reviews
· Chapter One ·
Sela Kahne sat at her desk, staring at the computer screen and wondering why she hadn't taken one more day of vacation time. An extra day would have meant another layer of tan on her normally pale skin, another couple of chapters of the latest James Patterson novel read, and a few more hours' reprieve from typing up reports that all said the same thing in conclusion: HOAX.
She sighed heavily and reached for the bag of Skittles she kept on her desk. She popped two into her mouth and cringed. She'd lost a filling during her vacation and desperately needed to see a dentist.
"ACRO's dentists are the best in the area," Torrence Olivia, the only other psychic besides Sela who worked in the Agency for Covert Rare Operatives' Cryptozoology department, said as she walked by.
"I hate it when you do that," Sela grumbled, mainly because her own psychic ability was restricted to reading people only during orgasm.
"Hon, I didn't do anything. You have 'dentist' written on your to-do list." Torr tapped the notepad next to the computer with a crimson-painted nail.
"What's wrong?" Torrence crossed her arms over her chest, her dark skin contrasting beautifully with her cream blouse. "You just got back from vacation. You should be vibrant. Unless...was Puerto Rico not as relaxing as it should have been?"
Sela stiffened. "How did you know I was in Puerto Rico?"
"Hello?" Torr tapped her temple. "Psychic."
She never knew whether or not Torr was kidding when she said things like that, but given that Sela had told everyone, including her immediate boss, Mitch, she was going to the Bahamas and not to Puerto Rico, she could only assume that Torrence had gone psychic on her.
"You didn't tell anyone, did you?" Not that her change of plans had been a huge secret, but she was supposed to have been drinking fruity cocktails on a beach instead of investigating the origins of El Chupacabra.
She couldn't wait to debunk the myth of the "goat sucker" once and for all. Confirming that the crazy things people believed in were false was a passion of hers, and it made her one of the few cryptozoologists in the field who were in it to disprove mythical creatures' existence.
And the cryptid she wanted the most to prove didn't exist was the one highlighted in the book in front of her,Chupacabra: Myth No More. The author, an eccentric, ego-maniac billionaire she'd met half a dozen times at cryptozoological society gatherings, claimed to have spent years in the jungles of Central America observing chupacabra behavior like one of those nuts who infiltrated a pack of wolves.
The chupacabra is a solitary creature that will kill others of its kind, though they do appear to mate for life. They give birth to a single offspring, which is capable of living on its own within six months. Males are larger than females, and they mark their territory by spraying scent and clawing trees and fences. Their ability to heal from wounds is nothing short of amazing, something I witnessed after a young female was attacked and nearly killed by a jaguar...
What a freaking blowhard con artist. The book had made Parker Grady a celebrity in the cryptozoological circles, but Sela thought it only made him look like an idiot.
"Earth to Sela..." Torr waved her hand in front of Sela's face. "I just said I won't tell anyone about Puerto Rico. It's not my place." She shoved her glasses up on her nose. "I'm going down to the lab. Oh, I almost forgot. A messenger delivered that package on your desk. He said after you watch it, you're supposed to call Dev."
Dev. The big boss. Head of ACRO, whom she rarely saw...and she preferred it that way. He hadn't exactly hired her under normal circumstances five years ago, and while she didn't regret how she'd come to ACRO, she did feel a little sleazy about it.
Twenty-one, cocky, and just sure she was smarter than ninety-five percent of the planet's population, she'd pretty much forced her way into the agency. Only later had she realized that Dev could have taken her apart and made her disappear so completely there wouldn't have been a trace that she'd ever existed.
For some reason, he hadn't. He'd played her game, let her believe she had the upper hand...and even after she figured out Dev had been one move ahead of her from the beginning, he never rubbed it in. But he knew she knew. It was in his gorgeous brown eyes every time he saw her.
Stop thinking about it.
She shook out of her past, out of the things she'd done before she'd come to the Crypto department, and opened the padded envelope. Inside was a DVD. She slipped the disk into her computer, entered her individual access code, and palmed a handful of Skittles.
The screen filled with trees. Thick brush, vines...a jungle. The camera shooting the scene was in motion – a helmet cam? Yes, definitely. The person wearing the camera turned to the side, and she made out two men in camouflage, their faces painted, their rifles aimed and braced against their shoulders.
She popped a piece of candy into her mouth, remembering too late to chew on the left side. Pain shot from her molar into her skull.
On the screen, one of the men made a hand signal, and the camera panned to the right. Slowly, it moved forward. The camera jolted, and then focused on the ground.
Sela slapped a hand over her mouth to hold in a gasp of horror. What was left of a man lay strewn about on the forest floor, his bloody mouth frozen in a terrified grimace.
And then came a scream. All hell broke loose. The sound of guns firing, men shouting, and something screeching had Sela reaching for the volume.
The camera jerked around wildly, giving her only glimpses of the action, but what she saw sent chills up her spine. The men seemed to be fighting off some sort of creature. It moved fast, and if the film could be trusted, it had red eyes and huge fangs.
What the hell was it?
Suddenly, the camera stopped moving, its angle skewed, apparently lying on the ground. Sela saw clawed, scaly feet approaching. Her heart shot into her throat, blocking the candy as she tried to swallow. Between the thing's legs she could see the men. Well, parts of them, lying in a growing pool of blood.
A snarl vibrated the camera, and then there was a gaping mouth, a splatter of blood on the lens...and all went black.
Sela choked on her own breath. Dear God, those men had been...slaughtered. Dismembered, disemboweled.
Her phone rang, and she nearly bit her tongue. She'd seen some gruesome things during her career as a cryptozoologist, but nothing could have prepared her for seeing humans torn apart before her eyes.
She picked up the phone with a shaky hand. "Sela."
"It's Dev. You watched the video?"
"Meet me at my office in ten minutes." He hung up, and she slumped back in her chair. Something told her it was a good thing she hadn't unpacked yet.
Logan Mills smelled the hot, fetid breath of the beast hanging heavily in the humid air of the Amazonian jungle. They were close but somehow no closer than they'd been since they'd begun this mission.
The animal was smart - and Logan had a sickening feeling that he and his team were actually the ones being hunted.
He took a swig of water from the canteen that hung from a line on his pack and then capped it and checked his weapons again - an M14, a Sig and two tranqs with enough juice to put down a hippo.
His body had finally adjusted to the heat after thirty plus days in this place - he'd gotten used to sweating as his body tried to keep up with the constant water loss and all of this reminded him of his days in Special Ops.
"Hey, Lo - we gonna call it a day soon?" Dax, one of his men, called quietly. Logan glanced at his watch. 1600. Thanks to the overlay, they'd find themselves in total darkness sooner than later.
They'd been on the move since 0600 - non-stop except for water breaks and, while they'd found evidence of the escaped beast, they still hadn't been able to track it down.
His men were tired - of the jungle, of this mission, of Logan's non-stop barking and near-obsession with recovering the creature he didn't know anything about, beyond the fact that it was lethal.
His men didn't understand the full consequences - and if he had his way, they never would. No one else would either, and that's why Logan planned on continuing his search for a few more hours.
"I'm not paying you to sleep," he answered Dax evenly.
The man shook his head and held up his arms in silent surrender and Logan sighed. He got it - they were exhausted. It was a feeling he could barely remember, and so garnering sympathy for it was harder than he'd expected.
He wasn't tired - never got tired anymore. In fact, he often had to force himself to sleep so the still-human part of his mind could take a rest.
He was a product of his father's company, a company he now oversaw - one he had controlling shares in, thanks to his father's continually bad decision making. Global Weapons Corporation had been his father's brainchild and was now Logan's baby, having rescued the company from nearly complete financial ruin to a growing enterprise in four short years.
It had been severely mismanaged, thanks to his father's ego - the old man could never see past the get rich quick aspect of the weapon's development - to see that GWC could be a huge asset to the American government in the fight against terrorism.
Except his father insisted on making decisions behind Logan's back. Like this most recent one - the re-acquisition of some kind of species - labeled UnClass 8 - that killed an entire SEAL team last month when GWC had accidentally released it after nearly three years of modifications.
Logan's gut twisted as he thought back to his own accident four years earlier - when the helo had crashed into the side of a mountain, killing his own SEAL team and leaving him maimed and dying at the bottom of a ravine for three days.
After he was found by the Marines, his father had him airlifted from the military hospital in Germany to a private hospital in London where a team of scientist and surgeons waited to save Logan's life.
He'd been rebuilt with special bioware - his arms, his heart, part of his brain. He functioned with an efficiency that scared even him, wondered if maybe the company had taken things too far.
But how could he have told his father he did the wrong thing by not letting his son die?
"We'll work for another hour and then head back to camp," he told Dax, who nodded and turned to let the other four men know there was an end in sight to today's mission.
Logan turned back toward the twisted path and studied the broken branches, tipped with the blood of the animal's most recent kill – a deer they'd found fifty yards away. He'd told his men they were hunting something that looked like a komodo dragon when, in all honesty, he didn't know what the hell this thing was, never mind what it looked like.
He and his own team had been in the jungle for only two days searching for it when they'd stumbled on the massacre - four Navy SEALs killed - torn to pieces hours earlier.
According to reports that Logan still had access to, there had been five SEALs on that mission, not four, and a search and rescue team was on the way. And Logan had made it his mission to find that man, because the thought of him being left behind made Logan physically ill - especially when he'd realized that it was his own father who'd caused the entire catastrophe.
Just after he'd given the order to his men to continue their search for a fifth body, he'd tripped over something - cursed and turned back to kick the branch out of the way.
But it hadn't been a branch at all. It was a human - or what was left of one. Immediately, he'd motioned to Dax and the two of them brushed the leaves off the body and uncovered what Logan believed to have been one of the missing SEALs.
Tentatively, he'd felt for a pulse and nearly jumped out of his skin when the man later identified as Chance McCormack grabbed his wrist and whispered, "Watch out - it's coming for you."
They'd gotten him back to base camp, and because of that decision Logan was forced to leave the massacred SEALs behind for the Navy search and rescue to find. Which they had - and they also had evidence of the slaughter, thanks to a helmet-cam one of the men had worn, but no clear shot of the animal that was responsible for the rampage.
And so Logan had been hiding Chance for the better part of the month, even after the Navy had called off their search. Hiding him, healing him...and figuring out what the hell to do next.
Watch out - it's coming for you.
Now, as he moved forward through the ever-darkening jungle, those words continued to echo in his ears.
·end of excerpt·