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Authors: Debra Webb

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense, #Thrillers

Staying Alive

BOOK: Staying Alive
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She found herself watching his lips.

It was crazy. And yet somehow she needed to feel something besides this stifling fear and overwhelming outrage. She needed to feel anything but that.

“I need you to hold me, Krueger.” She hadn’t meant to say out loud what she felt. But she needed this too badly to pretend she hadn’t meant the words.

He didn’t hesitate. Those strong arms went around her and pulled her close against his chest. Claire laid her cheek there and closed her eyes. When his hands started to move slowly over her back, she could feel the urgent pull of his desire and knew for certain she wasn’t in this alone.

Dear Reader,

Thank you so much for picking up my newest Silhouette Bombshell novel,
Staying Alive
. Writing this book was a pleasure, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

During the process of bringing these characters to life I wrote some of my own past into the story. My sister and I became estranged many years ago. For more than a dozen years we did not see each other or even speak. It was a dark time in my life. Like Claire and Whitney in this story, a tragic event brought my sister and me back together. We shared our regrets, and we cried our hearts out and in the end I had my sister back.

Also, like Claire Grant, I grew up in small-town Alabama. I hope you will enjoy Claire’s story. And if you can take one thing away from this story, please take this: love is far stronger than anything on earth…all you have to do is let it guide you.

Very best regards,

Debra Webb

Debra Webb
STAYING ALIVE
Selected Books by Debra Webb

Silhouette Bombshell

Justice
#22

Silent Weapon
#33

Silent Reckoning
#72

Past Sins
#96

Staying Alive
#124

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DEBRA WEBB

was born in Scottsboro, Alabama, to parents who taught her that anything is possible if you want it badly enough. She began writing at age nine. Eventually she met and married the man of her dreams, and tried some other occupations, including selling vacuum cleaners, working in a factory, a daycare center, a hospital and a department store. Later, with the support of her husband and two beautiful daughters, Debra took up writing again, looking to mystery and movies for inspiration. In 1998 her dream of writing for Harlequin Books came true. You can write to Debra with your comments at P.O. Box 64, Huntland, Tennessee 37345 or visit her Web site at www.debrawebb.com to find out exciting news about her next book.

The characters in this book are very special to me.
The events that take place between these sisters were
drawn from a very real place in my heart. This book is
dedicated to Mary Ann, my beloved sister. I thank
God every day that I have her back in my life.

Prologue

“T
he transport is set for 1:00 p.m. tomorrow.”

Habib Nusair absorbed the information without comment though the news was not what he had hoped for. There was no time for second-guessing now.

From his high-rise apartment he stared out over the city of Seattle, Washington, his hatred searing through him with such force that he shook with the roar of it.

This had been his mistake.

His miscalculation.

But he would right that grave injustice no matter the price.

Today.

“Assemble a team of four to include me,” he said to the man who waited nervously for his response. “Our timing must be precise. There is no margin for error.”

“Habib.” The man who served as his personal advisor moved closer. “The risk is far too great. Allow me to serve in your stead. You know I will not fail you.”

Habib glared at him, anger snarling inside him. “No.
I
will make this right. I will not bring shame on my father’s name by sending someone else to right my wrong.”

His confidante humbly bowed his head. “Of course. I will inform the others that our retaliation is imminent.”

Habib turned his attention back to the view beyond the glass. He would strike quickly with a blow that would bring the imperialist pigs to their knees.

He had waited his whole life for a moment to shine outside the shadow of his father.

Now the time was at hand.

No matter that the coming strike had been motivated by an error in judgment, he would ensure that his error evolved into a monumental turning point for the cause.

He would not fail.

Chapter 1

C
laire Grant cradled her cup of coffee and inhaled deeply of the rich aroma. She closed her eyes and relished the heavenly scent.

Five minutes of peace in the teachers’ lounge. That was all she needed.

Everything had gone wrong this morning, starting with a soggy trip to school. The rain would do her flowers good, but it did nothing for her mood.

From the arrival of her first student until the fourth-period bell rang and the group filed down the hall for art class, she hadn’t had a moment of quiet time to herself. To make matters worse, it
was Monday. No one wanted to be at school on Monday, especially not a room full of fifth graders. They wanted to sleep in as they had done on Saturday and Sunday. Plus, Saturday-morning cartoons were far more entertaining than math, history and science.

Claire wasn’t immune to the curse of Blue Monday herself. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept in…until this weekend. Now she, too, paid the price. Her usual patience had thinned far too early in the day for comfort, hers or her students. And the day was scarcely half over.

Maybe this cup of coffee and a few minutes of peace and quiet was all she needed and she would be good to go. She hoped.

The entire fifth-grade wing was now gloriously silent. The rooms, even the halls, were absent of the usual noises of running feet and teasing banter. The next forty minutes were not to be taken for granted.

The first sip of caffeine-infused heat was no letdown. The savory brew tasted every bit as good as it smelled. Darlene Vernon must have made this pot. No one at Whitesburg Middle School made coffee the way Darlene did. Claire felt certain that whoever created Starbuck’s had lifted the house recipe from Darlene. Claire had to smile when she considered the probable name the popular coffee
house chain would have ended up with had Darlene been the one to conceive the idea. Something like Brewing with Darlene or the Grind, she imagined. Her friend had a fiercely wicked sense of humor for a middle-school teacher.

Speak of the devil.

“I hope your morning is going better than mine,” Darlene noted, that famous sense of humor apparently having gone temporarily dry.

All fifth-grade students spent fourth period in one of three places, physical education, art or music, giving the teachers a free period for planning and, usually, a much-needed break. It looked as though Claire wasn’t the only one extra thankful for the respite today.

Claire leaned against the counter next to the coffee station and shot her friend a challenging glance. “Would you like to compare war stories?”

Darlene fired back one of those skeptical looks, her eyebrow arching upward like a ticked off cat’s back. “Matthew Pearson cut off both of Tessa Mott’s braids.” She faked a smile. “I win.”

“You’re right,” Claire admitted, stunned, “you do win.” She sipped her delicious coffee, trying not to imagine poor little Tessa’s shock at seeing her waist-length braids on the floor.

“Poor you,” Claire mused, suddenly realizing the rest of the story. “You have to tell Tessa’s mother.”

“Tell me about it. Maybe I’ll change my name and run away,” Darlene said dramatically.

A new kind of tension flared but Claire tried to ignore it. She didn’t have to tense up any time changing names and running away was mentioned. Darlene knew nothing about that part of Claire’s life. Her comment was in no way personal. She and Claire had been friends for a long time. Claire was just being paranoid.

Darlene poured a cup of coffee and took a swallow before changing the subject. “Did you hear about that big takedown this weekend? It happened at the University Village.” She leaned in close. “Yours truly was there.” Another of those eyebrow-raising looks followed the statement. “I saw the whole thing happen. It was really freaky.”

Claire racked her brain for some memory of a big news event over the weekend. She finally lifted her shoulders in admission of her failure to stay abreast of current events. “Sorry. I spent half the weekend sleeping in and the other planting spring flowers.” The reality sounded even more pathetic out loud.

Darlene glanced around covertly as if what she had to say was top secret, then she tugged Claire farther from the door. “Hamid Kaibar. He’s on some kind of top ten terrorist watch list. Undercover agents pounced on him right in front of the Pottery Barn.”

Claire felt a frown working furrows across her brow. “Do they have a top ten list?” Okay, she obviously didn’t stay up to speed on that sort of thing to the extent that her friend did. But this sounded like something she should know.

Darlene rolled her eyes. “Duh. They have all kinds of lists. Anyway, this guy is supposedly connected to, like, the most infamous, evil terrorist on the planet. Abdul Nusair. Surely you’ve heard of him.”

Claire definitely recognized that name. She nodded. “I’ve heard of him.” She didn’t follow the whole terrorist business too closely in an effort to ensure she slept at night. It was simply too disturbing. She was happy to leave it to her government to take care of the situation. She had faith in those she elected to office.

Still, with one of the top ten terrorists in the world captured in Seattle, at a mall near the Washington University campus at that, she probably should do a better job of keeping up. She did vaguely recall hearing that border states such as the one in which she lived were particularly vulnerable to the risk of terrorists slipping in undetected. She felt certain the government had taken additional precautions in those states. A couple of local politicians had voiced concerns, she remembered now that she thought of it. State
Representative Reimes had been very vocal about it in a number of forums. Some of the teachers had suggested that he might not get himself reelected if he kept pushing the boundaries about terrorist profiling. Not that they discussed politics regularly but Reimes’s son attended Whitesburg Middle.

“Apparently,” Darlene said, “sometime tomorrow they’re transporting the prisoner to some secret facility where he’ll be properly interrogated. Mr. Allen thinks he may be the key to capturing Nusair.”

Dale Allen was the principal of their school. A former social studies teacher, he liked staying in the know on the subject of world events.

“That should make his friends a little nervous,” Claire suggested. “I wouldn’t want to be the one responsible for asking him questions.”

Darlene indulged her thirst for more caffeine before going on. “It makes me wish I’d bought some protection years ago. And learned how to use it properly,” she added, her tone uncharacteristically somber.

“Sometimes that can do more harm than good.” Claire really hadn’t meant to make the comment but it was out of her mouth before she could stop it.

“And just what would you know about the subject? As I recollect, I was the one who had to chase
that bird out of your classroom a week or so ago. I believe your excuse was something like ‘I’m afraid I’ll hurt the poor thing.’”

“I grew up in rural Alabama,” Claire reminded her. This wasn’t exactly the kind of childhood memory one shared with anyone other than close friends. “My father insisted that his offspring know how to handle a rifle for protection as well as survival reasons.”

Darlene’s eyes widened. “By survival you mean hunting, right? For food. As in stalking Bambi in the forest?”

Claire rolled her eyes. “I never stalked Bambi. But yes, I mean hunting. It’s a Southern thing.”

A devilish grin spread across her friend’s face. “Like your accent.”

“I don’t have an accent anymore,” Claire argued, unable to actually get annoyed at the other woman’s teasing. Darlene loved ribbing Claire about her Southern accent. All her friends did. “I’ll have you know that five years in Seattle has all but abolished any hint of my Southern roots.”

An incredulous laugh danced across Darlene’s lips as she freshened her coffee. “You just keep telling yourself that, darlin’.”

Claire cleared her throat. “I may have a slight Southern intonation, but my diction is impeccable. I never leave off the
G
in
i-n-g
, darling.”

Darlene laughed again. “Oh, touchy, touchy.”

The insistent, high-pitched shrill of the fire alarm shattered the silence in the hall outside the lounge. Well-honed instincts launched Claire and Darlene, as well as every other teacher in the wing, into action.

Double-checking the rooms to confirm all was as it should be, then locating their students and ensuring they evacuated the building as quickly and safely as possible came as much second nature as breathing.

“I can’t believe this,” Darlene huffed as they hustled along the empty corridor and through the double doors that led to the fine arts section at the far end of the wing. “Why would they have a fire drill when it’s raining outside?”

The hurried steps of the other teachers in the corridor echoed behind them. “Maybe it’s not a drill.” Claire’s pulse rate accelerated at the idea. Though they were well prepared for most any type of emergency, no teacher looked forward to the possibility of a
real
emergency. Too many things could go wrong. Too many variables to name when dealing with children. One mistake, one oversight, could cost a precious life.

Claire caught sight of Mrs. Patricia Talley, the art teacher, and hastened her step to catch up with her class. “Hey, Pat.” She surveyed her students and smiled at the other woman. “Is this a drill?”

Pat shrugged her thin shoulders. She was the tiniest woman, scarcely five feet tall, with a full head of gray hair despite being only in her early forties. “I sure didn’t hear anything about it if it is.”

Claire glanced around the building as they exited. She didn’t see any sign of smoke. Didn’t hear any approaching sirens outside. Surely it was a drill, but generally the staff received advanced warning. Apparently someone had forgotten to mention this one.

Rain or no rain.

And it was definitely still raining.

The children didn’t seem to mind, however. They laughed and turned their faces up at the sky to allow the big drops to splash noses, open mouths and joyous, dimpled cheeks.

Claire hustled along, counting heads as the nice straight line of students marched across the inner courtyard toward their designated safe place. She felt proud as she counted heads along the way. Her kids were reacting exactly as trained.

She mentally acknowledged each little face as she counted. Eighteen. Nineteen.

Wait.

She paused, surveyed the faces again. There were supposed to be twenty. No one was absent today unless a student had been checked out during this period, which had scarcely begun.

Uneasiness trickled through her.

“Pat, did one of my students check out?” The urgency of the question had Claire’s heart slamming mercilessly against her sternum. She mentally skimmed the names until she landed on the one whose face she had not seen in the line. Peter Reimes.

Pat shook her head. “I don’t think so. We had just settled down to take roll when the alarm sounded. Who’s missing?” She scanned the row of students as they reached their destination near the flagpole in the front quad beyond the drop-off entrance.

“Peter,” Pat said more to herself than to Claire.

Fear expanded in Claire’s chest. She rushed over to Vance Richardson. “Vance, where is Peter?” The two boys were almost inseparable.

Vance looked a little nervous. Rain dripped down his cheeks like tears. Claire experienced a quake of dread at his hesitation.

“Where is he, Vance?”

She had to find that child
now.

“He didn’t want to paint today, Miss Grant.” Vance scrubbed at the water slipping down his face. “He said he was too tired. He was going to hide in the restroom and maybe take a nap.”

Christ. Claire turned to Pat who had come up behind her. “I’m going back in for him.”

“No.” Pat shook her head vigorously. “I’ll go back for him. You stay with the kids.”

“He’s my student,” Claire reminded. “You stay.”

Not waiting for any more of Pat’s resistance, she raced across the drop-off lanes and the inner courtyard. Her blouse and slacks were beginning to plaster to her skin. Her ponytail was drenched as well but she didn’t care. If there was any chance whatsoever that this drill was real—even if it wasn’t real—she had to find that child.

She couldn’t imagine why he hadn’t come out of hiding when he heard the alarm. The students were instructed over and over again on the proper response to the sound of that alarm.

And then she knew.

He was too tired to paint and wanted to take a nap.

Peter was diabetic. His blood sugar had probably dropped too low. He could be unconscious in that bathroom. If the alarm hadn’t gone off, Pat would have called roll by now and she would have noted his absence and sent someone to look for him.

Not only could he be in grave danger assuming the alarm was real, if his sugar level had dropped that low, every minute counted.

The long, empty main corridor in the fifth-grade wing felt ominous…as if certain doom was about to descend. She had to find that child.

“Miss Grant!”

Claire had just turned left toward the corridor
leading to the art room when her name resounded behind her. She twisted around to face Principal Allen. “Sir, I’m—”

“You should be outside with the others,” he cut her off. “What’re you doing back in here?”

The material plastered to her skin and the water puddling around her feet confirmed his assumption that she’d already been outside. “I’m missing a student.”

The words rang in the ensuing silence. Words no teacher ever wanted to utter. It was the worst-possible scenario under any circumstances. That there could possibly be a fire in some part of the school only increased the urgency.

The whiteness of fear overwhelmed the red flush that had appeared on Mr. Allen’s face during the hurried evacuation efforts. “I’ll radio for additional assistance.”

“Let’s check the boys’ bathroom first. He’s probably there.” She was already moving in that direction as she spoke. “I’m worried about his sugar level. If he were conscious I’m sure he would have come outside when he heard the alarm.”

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