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Hermosa Beach, California - 1000

The warm morning sun warmed the sand and sparkled off the nearby surf that rolled lazily up the edge of the beach. The Tuesday morning crowd was thin, the five-member covert operations team having no trouble finding an open volleyball net near the Silver Star, an old and currently closed Hotel they called their base of operations.

Jason "Chance" Walker carefully positioned a thick beach towel, then slowly lowered himself down to stretch out while the others watched, ready to help if he needed them. The already warm sand radiated just enough heat to ease his still-aching muscles. Still recovering from a recent airplane crash, the handsome black man had volunteered to act as their line judge, sparing himself the exertion of a game and still escaping the walls he'd been staring at for several days while he "rested" per his doctor's orders.

A coin toss determined who the two-person teams would be -- Benny Ray and Margo against Matt and C.J. Having lost the toss to pick his teammate, Matt opted for the side of the court that put the sun to his and C.J.'s back -- a small advantage he knew he was going to need.

Benny Ray and Margo both slipped on their sunglasses and positioned themselves to receive the serve, a pounding blow from Matt that knifed over the top of the net. Margo moved gracefully under it, popping the ball up. Benny Ray slapped it back over the net just outside of the reach of the two men. He grinned. "Slow as a hound with a cold," he chastised the pair. "Just serve the ball," Matt growled, tossing the ball back to the pair. . . .

Forty minutes later the game was one point away from a win. Matt Shepherd, leader of the merry band of commandos, wiped the sweat off his well-tanned forehead with the back of his hand and waited for the inevitable. His light brown eyes studied Margo as she prepared to serve the final blow. With the dark sunglasses on he couldn't see her penetrating grey eyes, or where she was focusing the serve. And Benny Ray wasn't any help either. He was focused on his opponents, using the same intense, single- minded stare he employed when peering through his sniper's scope at a doomed target. And that was exactly how Matt felt, doomed. Benny Ray would be ready to respond to whatever Matt or C.J. managed in response to the serve. All the practice Benny Ray had built-up playing two-man beach volleyball with Chance had obviously paid off.

Matt sighed. Damn, he hated losing.

Margo tossed the ball into the air, preparing to serve and Matt noted the way the sunlight accented the red in her dark auburn hair. She was a beautiful woman, and deadly. She struck the ball, sending it streaking just over the top of the net. Matt lunged, managing to get under the ball and popping it up to C.J., who set the ball. Matt spiked it back over the net. But Benny Ray was there, blocking the ball and reflecting it back with bullet-like speed. Matt and C.J. both lunged, but neither could reach the ball in time. It slammed into the sand and bounced away.

"Yes!" Margo cried, slapping Benny Ray's waiting palms. "That's game!"

The ball, rolling towards the surf, prompted Matt to chase after it before it was lost in the waves. The army major jogged along, grinning at several shapely young women who flashed him inviting smiles. He knew they'd been watching the game, and he was glad to see that his loss hadn't tarnished his image too severely.

Reaching the ball, Matt bent over and scooped it up in one fluid motion. Close by a young man was loudly carping at his female companion. The girl, a young blonde, shrank back on her beach towel, her chin tucked in to her shoulder, her eyes averted. She was scared.

Matt straightened slowly, his gaze automatically studying the man. He was several years older than the girl, maybe twenty- five or twenty-six, in good shape -- in an amateur athlete kind of way -- and with spending money, if the two gold rings, Rolex, diamond-stud earring and designer swim trunks were any indication.

The woman glanced up briefly, large amber-colored eyes meeting Matt's for a brief moment.

Definitely scared.

Matt's jaw tightened and he squeezed the volleyball between his hands.

"What the hell're you lookin' at?" the man demanded, his gaze whipping from the girl to Matt and back again.

The ex-Delta Force operator knew the question was directed at the girl, but he couldn't stop himself from replying, "Why don't you tell me?"

"Rich Boy," as Matt immediately tagged him, straightened and turned. A cold, pale blue gaze swept over Shepherd, then he snorted softly, dismissing the soldier. "Get the hell outta here," he said, turning back to the girl.

She quickly looked away again, a soft sob escaping her throat. Rich Boy grabbed her arm, and she squealed softly as his angry grip pinched the soft tissue near her underarm. Going slightly limp, she waited for the blow she knew was coming.

"Hey," Matt snapped, his anger flaring. "I think you better leave the lady alone."

"Damn," the man snarled, not bothering to look at Shepherd. He drew his hand back, but his wrist was immediately snared in a vice-like grip. He took a step and spun, anger and surprise on his well-tanned face.

Matt released him, reining in his desire to flatten the man with a swift knife-hand blow to the throat. "I said, leave the lady alone," he repeated, his voice hard and determined. Watching the muscles along Rich Boy's jaw twitch with anger, Matt dropped into a slight crouch that was invisible to anyone but another operator. He was ready in case Rich Boy charged or attacked. But the man's gaze slipped past Matt, resting briefly on each member of the commando team who now stood in a semi- circle just behind Shepherd.

The man snorted. "Stackin' the odds a little, aren't ya, Hoss?"

Matt grinned slightly. "Nope. They're just here to pick up the trash when I get done."

Rich Boy gave a brief barking laugh and shook his head. "Who the hell do you think you are, G.I. Jane?"

"That would be her," C.J. replied, hiking a thumb at Margo, a predatory grin on his lips. "He's more like, uh, Rambo."

The man smiled, but the half-feral expression disappeared immediately when Margo instructed the young woman to "come over here." He reached out, grabbing her arm as she stood. "Where the hell you think you're goin', slut?"

The girl immediately looked down, drawing into herself like a shell-less turtle trying to escape danger.

Matt took a step closer, his eyes flashing. "You don't have to put up with this," he said softly. "There are places you can go, people who can help you."

She looked up just far enough to see Matt's face through the curtain of her blonde hair. Her voice was pitched just above a whisper. "Please--"

"Please, what?" Rich Boy demanded, giving her a rough shake. "You're not goin' anywhere."

"Mister, I wouldn't do that if I was you," Benny Ray growled, advancing on the man with deadly intent.

Matt reached out, stopping the sniper with a hand on his arm. "We won't hurt you," he said, his comments and attention completely on the girl. "If you want to leave, you can. We can help you."

"Look, I don't know who the hell you people think you are, but she's not goin' anywhere. Now, get the hell away from me before I--"

"Before you what?" Benny Ray hissed, blue eyes narrowing menacingly. "Hit a defenseless woman again?"

The man drew himself up, but his bluster and confidence began to melt under the deadly appraisal of the five people nearly surrounding him. "She's my--"

"You don't own her," Margo snapped. She looked at the girl, adding, "Nobody does."

"There's a place not far from here," Matt continued addressing the girl. "It's church run. They help women like you. We can take you there. You'll be safe. I promise."

The man squeezed her arm harder, causing the girl's knees to buckle slightly. She stumbled and squealed, but kept her feet.

"You'll never be safe," Rich Boy hissed lowly. "I'll find you, I swear it, and then you'll wish you were dead."

"Come on," Matt said, extending his hand to the girl. He needed to get her away from the man before he lost what little control he had left and beat the man to a bloody pulp. Or Benny Ray beat him to it.

"Marty, please," she begged softly, "you're hurting me."

"I'll hurt you real bad if you think you can just--"

"Mister, I'm runnin' out of patience," Benny Ray hissed, muscles along his jaws twitching. "You let her go. Now."

"Better listen to the man," Chance added.

C.J. grinned. "Cops are probably on the way by now. Looks like we're drawing quite an audience. Probably see it all on the six o'clock news."

Marty glanced around, realizing for the first time that everyone within twenty yards was now watching the confrontation. The cops he didn't need. He shoved the girl toward Matt, who caught her before she could fall. "You're mine, Jilly. I'll find you, and you'll--"

Benny Ray took another step closer to the man, putting him about a foot short of in the man's face. "The only thing you're gonna find around here is trouble, sport. Remember that."

Taking a step back, Marty reached down and grabbed a dark silk jacket and a set of car keys on an Armani keychain off the large gold beach towel. With one last look at the girl he snapped, "Bitch. Worthless fuckin' whore!"

"Get out of here," Matt said, his voice low and hard. "Now."

Kicking the towel they'd been sitting on into a heap, Rich Boy stormed away. "I'll find you, Jilly!" he called back over his shoulder.

The girl watched him leave, breaking into deep, wracking sobs. Margo slipped a comforting arm around her shoulders and led her back to the Silver Star.

Sacred Heart Church, Hermosa Beach, CA 1105

The older priest handed the girl a kleenex. "Now, let's start with an easy one, I'm Father Bob, and you are. . .?"

"Jill," the girl sniffed. "Jill Tammany."

"Well, Jill, you're safe here."

She shook her head. "I'll never be safe. Marty'll find me. He'll kill me. I know it."

The sad expression on the Father's face said clearly that he'd heard the same story far too many times before. "Well, not while you're here," he assured. "Where did you meet this Marty?"

She shrugged. "I ran away," was the whispered reply. "Three years ago. I was living on the streets, in Hollywood. Marty saw me. . ."

The priest reached out, resting a reassuring hand on the young woman's shoulder. "Maybe you'd feel more comfortable talking to one of our lady volunteers?"

She shook her head. "It's okay. I used to go to Sunday school."

Father Bob grinned thinly. "Go on. He found you in Hollywood?"

She looked up at him, her large blue eyes rounded with fear and hope. "Is this like a confession, Father?"

The priest cocked his head to one side, then nodded. "It could be, if you wanted."

She sighed heavily. "I think I better."

Some time later Father Bob escorted Jill to the shelter that occupied the rear area of the big church building. Nancy, one of the long-time volunteers, took over, leading Jill up to a small but comfortable room on the second floor. He watched the eighteen-year-old go and shook his head sadly. Since retiring from the Marine Corp and joining the priesthood he'd heard and seen a lot of pain, and Jill's story was nothing he hadn't heard many times before. But for some reason her tale of sexual abuse at home, trepidation about living on the streets, and her eventual descent into the drug/porn scene haunted him. Maybe it was the lingering innocence that clung to the girl like a weak aura. In any case, he was grateful that Matt and the others had brought her to the shelter.

"Hey, you," a voice barked. "I wanna talk to you!"

Father Bob turned. He knew immediately that the man littering his church was Martin Slate. Has to be a name he made up, the priest decided, recognizing the man Matt had described as "Rich Boy."

"Can I help you?" he asked, trying to sound civil.

"My girlfriend. I want her."

"I think you better leave," the priest said, turning away.

"I said, I came for my girlfriend," Marty snarled, taking a step closer to the priest.

Father Bob's eyes narrowed and he turned back slowly. "Listen, you will not cause trouble here," he stated matter-of- factly.

Slate snorted. "Yeah, old man? What do you have? An army hiding in there?"

A smile curled the corners of the priest's lips. "Son, I don't need an army, I've got one good Marine."

Slate glanced around. "Just one?"

"Just one," the priest said, taking another step closer. "Would you like to meet him? Up close and personal?"

Slate drew himself up, but then took a step back. "No. I don't wanna meet him. You just tell Jilly that I'll be back. She can't stay here forever."

"If I were you, I'd go find yourself another pigeon. Jill's finished with your life."

Slate snorted and smiled. "Yeah, right."

"Now, I think you better leave before we call the police."

He nodded. "Fine. I'm outta here. But I will be back."

"No," the priest countered, "you won't."

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