Excerpt from Wicked Persuasion

Chapter One

Trujillo, Puerto Jardin
South America

Sometimes Decker Nguyen felt more like the ringmaster of a circus than the captain of a Special Forces team. He didn’t have trapeze artists, human cannonballs, or jugglers, though. No, he dealt with gunrunners, drug lords, and rebels. And of course, the clowns he worked with. Like the one standing in front of the gates to a convent, chatting with the Mother Superior instead of focusing on his assignment.

Deck gave his sergeant a hard look but didn’t slow. The type of men who thrived in covert ops were independent which was great most of the time. Not so great when they visited old friends at abbeys instead of doing their job.

Shaking his head, he continued to walk toward the open-air market. The new safe house needed provisioning and he should be able to purchase everything they needed there.

Trujillo was a blend of old and new architecture. The market was in the historic part of town, and as he grew closer, the worn concrete sidewalk gave way to even more worn cobblestone. The crowd thickened. Most people took one look at him and gave him a wide berth, but he was dressed like a mercenary—his cover for this op—and no one wanted trouble.

A group of men caught his eye. The three were in their early twenties and wearing denim vests with the name of a gang across the back. They weren’t interested in him—they wanted an easy target—but they planned to jump someone.

Not his business.

He had enough on his plate without defending some stranger, but there was no way he could stand and watch.

Deck slowed, falling farther behind them, and tried to identify their intended victim. The sheer number of people made it difficult. Every time he followed their line of sight, he was stopped by a throng headed toward the market.

Then there was a break in the crowd. A flash of long, red hair caught his eye.

Damn it, they were after a woman.

He was already in anyway, but Deck had a soft spot for redheads. He could only see her from behind. Her long hair was past her shoulder-blades and she wore a red and white dress that hit her knees. Over her left shoulder, she carried a gray tote bag, large enough to have a laptop inside it. That was probably one of the reasons the gang zeroed in on her. Computers sold for good money down here. The woman didn’t seem aware of the men lurking behind her.

They wouldn’t attack now unless they simply planned to grab her bag and run. Too many eyewitnesses, no matter who the gang paid off.

As for the trio, Deck could handle them. They were armed, but so was he, and he’d been trained.

He didn’t see any signs they had backup. They were content to follow her for the moment, and Deck tailed them.

As they passed the market, the gang seemed to lose track of their intended victim. They became agitated, conferred briefly, and then fanned out, searching for her. It was shoulder-to-shoulder people here and they darted among them, trying to find her again. Deck hoped she’d eluded them and he could walk away, knowing she was safe.

No such luck.

One signaled, and the other two adjusted course to the left. Pausing long enough for the throng to swell between them, Deck followed.

The crowd thinned, and he was forced to drop back. The redhead was far enough ahead that he could hardly see her.

If they made their move, he was too far away to stop it. He ran possibilities.

What if he caught up to the woman and pretended he’d been looking for her?

If she didn’t realize the danger she was facing from the gang members, she’d probably see him as a threat. And he looked like trouble.

About ten minutes later, he watched them turn down another street. Deck walked past and with a single glance, knew the trio wasn’t waiting much longer. This part of town was virtually empty at this time of day. He knew the area well. It wasn’t that far from the team’s former safe house.

If he turned on the next road, there was an alley that would put him behind the woman. As long as Deck moved quickly he could get into position before she could pass the opening.

He hustled down the alley. Voices drifted toward him as he neared the street.

“There’s no laptop,” a man said in Spanish, “and very little money.”

Damn, they’d grabbed her bag already.

Deck picked up his pace, moving silently. When he reached the alley mouth, he paused and took a moment for recon. The pavement was uneven, and patches were made to the old concrete to keep it passable. Power poles lined both sides of the narrow street, but the homes were in good repair.

He’d have no cover when he stepped out of the alley.

The redhead stood directly in front of a deep cutout in the line of buildings, an entrance to a tuck-under garage. If the gang started shooting, it would give them a bulwark. He drew his pistol, concealing it in the folds of the open, untucked camo shirt he wore over his olive drab T-shirt.

“She might have money on her,” another male voice said. “Maybe in her bra. Let’s take a look.”

Deck crossed the open street to reach her. His stride hitched and he stared.

What was she doing here?

A split second later, training kicked in and he refocused on the trio. There’d be time to think later.

Shielding her, he angled them so she was tucked behind the wall of the garage. Deck could shift quickly if necessary, forcing her deeper inside the cutout. He hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

The gang members were younger than Deck initially thought. Two were maybe eighteen. Maybe. The third looked to be twenty or twenty-one. He knew better than to write them off as kids. They posed a legitimate threat.

“Return the bag to the lady and leave.”

“This doesn’t involve you, asshole,” the oldest of the three said with a sneer.

“The hell it doesn’t. That’s my woman you’re bothering.” Deck held his breath, half worried there’d be a protest despite the danger, but she remained silent. Maybe she didn’t understand street Spanish.

“A woman like this doesn’t waste her time on a mercenary.”

“Everyone has a weakness,” Deck drawled, deliberately adding a note of amusement to show the little effect the goad had. “Now hand over the bag and get out of here.” His voice went hard as he gave the order.

Two of the gang members shifted uneasily and both looked to the man who’d been doing the talking. Okay, there was only one person he needed to convince that this was a waste of his time and energy. That made it easier than if he had to get a group consensus, but the odds still favored a fight.

The leader twitched. Deck had his pistol up and aimed before the man could complete the movement. “Do we really want to do this?”

For the younger pair, the answer clearly was no. Both of them edged backward.

“He won’t shoot,” the leader said. “No mercenary wants the attention of the police.”

“Wrong. This mercenary is protecting his woman. I’ll handle whatever fallout there is if it means she’s safe.” The kids took another couple of steps back. “Drop the bag and take off.” Deck had spent enough time dealing with clowns who didn’t want to stay in their clown car—AKA his Special Forces team—to imbue the order with serious command. There was no mistaking he meant business.

The younger two ran off.

“You’re on your own now.” Deck kept his voice hard, his Glock unwavering.

“They’ll be back with more men.” His bravado was slipping.

“They’re too scared to think about reinforcements. New recruits?”

Deck felt movement behind him and shifted enough to drive her deeper into the alcove. All he needed was one more wildcard because despite his words, those kids could be getting backup. He wanted to be done with this before it happened.

Deck paused, then added, “It’s just you and me, and you’re basically unarmed because if you reach, I will put a bullet in you. The only good option you have is to drop the bag and disappear the way your buddies did.”

“You were in the US military. You won’t shoot an unarmed man.” The swagger was back, but it read more like someone trying to convince himself than true courage.

“Mercenaries have no honor. I will kill you and not lose any sleep over it. Count on it.”

The gang leader swallowed hard, but he didn’t back down.

Deck gave him another push. “The police won’t give a shit about a gang member. They’ll have forgotten about you before your mama can claim your body.”

There was no response, so he raised the Glock, aimed at the kid’s heart, and brought his other hand up to hold the weapon steady. It was a shooter’s stance.

“She didn’t have nothing anyway.” The man threw the bag on the ground, backed up about ten feet, then turned and ran.

Deck moved again, adjusting his position to cover both ends of the street. If the kid had been a little older, a little harder, Deck might be in a shootout about now.

When he felt confident the situation was over, he holstered his pistol, walked over to the bag, grabbed it, and returning to the garage, held it out. After taking it, she checked the inside, then zipped it closed. Deck used the time to study her.

Her hair was long, reaching below her breasts, and just a shade or two shy of auburn. Her skin was pale, not a freckle to be seen, and her lips were full, begging to be kissed. Her nose was narrow, her cheekbones high, and her eyes were a clear, bright, sapphire blue. The top of her head reached his chin and her scent was vaguely tropical, but he didn’t know if it was perfume or shampoo.

She didn’t say a word and Deck gave up his study to meet her gaze. Curving his lips, he tried a friendly tone. “Hey, Nerd, long time no see.”

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