Authors: Lynn Raye Harris
“Great,” she said, tossing her hair over her shoulder. “You can give me a hand with this luggage. Then we can say a tearful good-bye at the gate.”
One corner of that delectable mouth turned up in a grin. “’Fraid not.” He jerked a thumb in the direction he’d just come from. “Got a rental over there with my stuff. Also got two plane tickets to DC. First class.”
Her belly did a swan dive into a pool of acid. “DC? Why?”
He came closer, and her heart kicked up a notch. Why did this man look so damn good in a white T-shirt and faded jeans? And why did she have to notice?
“We’re based there now. HOT’s moved up in the world. No more Army bullshit to deal with. Just missions now. And freedom.”
“Freedom? How can you call what you do freedom? You’re tied to the Army whether you think so or not.”
His eyes sparkled in the light shafting down between the gaps in the structure. “We’ve gone deep black. We’ve got money, equipment—Jesus, things you can’t imagine. It’s different now.”
She felt light-headed—and not all of it was from how close he stood. “It’s not different. You still risk your life. You could still die out there, same as Marco.”
The glitter in his eyes dialed down a notch, and fresh guilt assailed her.
“Yeah, I know. But we’ve still got it pretty damn good. And we do important work. You know we do.”
The lump in her throat was elephantine. She closed her eyes, saw her husband’s face—and then she didn’t. All she could see was Kev.
“I don’t want to be a part of this,” she said, forcing the words past the tightness. “I don’t want to go back to that life.”
He reached out as if to touch her, but his hands fell to his sides, and she knew he’d thought better of it. “I know. But we need you. Al Ahmad—” He broke off, looked over the top of her head as if he were staring at something only he could see. Then he made eye contact again, and her blood roared in her ears. “He’s dangerous. You know that. And he has to be stopped. You’re the only one who can positively ID him.”
Her head swam. “He could have changed his face. He’s vain, but not so vain he wouldn’t make that sacrifice if it was needed.”
Kev nodded. “He could have. But he can’t change his voice.”
She drew in a deep breath. That insidious voice still played in her ears sometimes late at night.
“I know this is a lot to ask of you. I know you hate us—hate me—but we need you. It’s important.”
She wanted to hang her head. And she wanted to step into his embrace and slide her arms around his waist the way she once had. That single, too-brief time when he’d held her after getting her out of Al Ahmad’s compound. It had been everything she’d wanted—and everything she’d feared.
And it hadn’t lasted nearly long enough. She’d thought he would be the one to come to the hospital when they put her in for observation. But he hadn’t. Marco had.
“I don’t hate you.”
His eyes glittered. “That’s good,” he said after a long moment.
The note of caring in his voice was her undoing. “Why didn’t you come to see me?”
She wanted to recall the words the instant she said them. It was weak, and she hadn’t meant to show him any weakness.
He didn’t ask what she meant, and she realized that he didn’t have to. That he knew. His gaze dropped to her arm and her heart fell. He knew what was there beneath the long-sleeved cotton shirt she wore, the crisscross of Xs that rode up the inside of her arm to her elbow. They’d faded to silvery-pink lines now, but they would never go away.
“I couldn’t bear to see what he did to you.”
She hugged herself instinctively. The other arm looked exactly the same. And then there were the scars on her abdomen and back. She still felt such a mix of emotions over what Al Ahmad had done to her. Rage. Shame. Guilt.
“It’s just skin,” she said. “It heals.”
But she felt ugly, damaged. And his rejection had only made those feelings worse.
Anger surged inside her. She glared at him. “How can you ask me to go back, knowing what he did to me? How can you think I would want to?”
His handsome face creased. “I think you want him dead. I think you’d do anything to make it happen.”
It was a direct hit and utterly true. Since earlier on the beach when she’d reacted from her gut, she’d been thinking about this mission. About Al Ahmad. About how much she wanted him dead and how, if she didn’t help HOT get him, she’d have to live in fear of him coming after her.
Because he would, sooner or later.
“You’re right,” she said softly as the wave of her anger broke against the shore and receded.
“Then come to DC. Help us nail him.”
Her heart thumped. Adrenaline surged through her veins, left her trembling and cold in spite of the bright, hot day. She wanted to rewind the clock, wanted to go back to that fateful day when she’d first been assigned to HOT and ask for another tour of duty instead. Anything to stop the boulder that tumbled down the hill toward her.
Except there was no way to avoid the boulder. Nothing to do but trust that HOT could get the job done this time. Because if they didn’t, she didn’t know what her life would become.
Lucky sagged beneath the weight of her decision. She had no choice. It was this, or run away and live in fear every day of her life. She’d taken Marco’s name when they’d married, but that would not protect her forever. Al Ahmad would find her.
But she had other reasons to worry too. There was her mother, her stepfather and half sisters. What if Al Ahmad figured out who they were? He would kill them too, simply because she cared about them.
She couldn’t let that happen.
Lucky swallowed the lump in her throat. “All right. I’ll come.”
A sense of unreality filled Lucky as she stepped off the plane at Baltimore-Washington International Airport in the early morning hours. DC was not where she’d expected to be when she’d headed down to the beach with her surfboard yesterday morning, but here she was, walking off a plane and feeling a bit shell-shocked. For one thing it was nearly Christmas, and it would definitely feel like winter outside, unlike in Hawaii.
There, in spite of the Christmas lights and trees and decorations, it was easy to ignore the approaching holiday because it was always hot and sunny. Here, not so much. The lights and trees on the concourse seemed to jump out at her and hammer her over the head with the idea it was almost Christmas. In just a couple of weeks, she was supposed to head to Montana to be with family. She’d tried to get out of it, but she feared if she didn’t go, her mother would drag her stepfather and the triplets to Hawaii.
Which was something Lucky did not need. Dealing with the cheerfulness—and downright alien-ness—of those five was not something she wanted to do on her own turf. In Montana, she could suffer a few days and then be on her way home again.
They passed down the escalator and into the baggage claim area. Kev grabbed a cart and they stood to wait for her luggage. Not his, of course. He’d traveled with carry-on only, which told her a few things. First, this trip had been last minute. Second, he hadn’t been expected to stay for long. Third, Mendez knew she would come.
Of course he did. The bastard. John Mendez was one of the toughest career soldiers she’d ever run across. She had a lot of respect for him. And a lot of fury too. Especially now. He would use whatever tool for the job it took, and to hell with the consequences.
She was a tool. She knew it, and she’d come willingly.
No backing out now, chickie
. No, whatever the consequences, she was here.
Kev stood with his arms folded and stared at the baggage carousel as if he could will it to start moving. He was so quiet, so enigmatic. Always had been. All he’d ever done had confused her. Once, she’d thought he was interested in her, when she’d first arrived at HOT. He’d smiled and flirted, and she’d flirted right back.
But then came North Africa and Al Ahmad, and everything had changed. Lucky bit the inside of her lip. She’d been so uncertain of herself after that. She’d married Marco when what she should have done was run far and fast in the other direction until she could get herself together again.
It hadn’t been fair to Marco. Or to her.
Dammit. Lucky pulled in a deep breath and swore she wouldn’t cry. Not now.
She looked up at Kev and realized he was frowning. “You okay?”
“Hell, no,” she bit out. “I was minding my own business, surfing and having a good life, and then you showed up and ruined it all.”
A good life
. That was a lie.
“You aren’t. You’re following orders and there’s nothing else you would prefer. If Mendez told you to leap from the top of the Capitol, you’d ask him how soon he wanted it done.”
Cool blue eyes stared at her. “I am following orders. You know that I have to. You’d do the same thing if you were still in. There’s no choice. But I do care.”
He took a step toward her, loomed over her while her heart kicked up a beat. Something flashed in his eyes then, and she realized there was a whole lot more emotion burning deep inside Kev’s soul than she’d given him credit for.
“I’m pissed as hell that Mendez is bringing you back in. I want nothing more than for you to be back in Hawaii, doing whatever you want, far away from HOT and everything we stand for.”
Lucky swallowed. She could smell the anger rolling from him, could feel the heat of his body so near hers. He smelled good, like sunshine and water, and she wanted to close her eyes and drink him in.
His anger shocked her. And touched her.
“I’m sorry for what I said about Marco. About his death.” Her voice was soft, strained. She should have said this before now, but she hadn’t been able to bring it up again. “I know you loved him too.”
Now he was the one who seemed stunned. His jaw flexed. “Yeah, I did. If I could have taken his place out there, I would have.”
Her heart thumped hard. She touched him, nearly withdrew when the sensation of skin against skin was almost too much. She didn’t like touching people when she could avoid it. In the months after she’d returned from North Africa, it had been everything she could do to work up to touching—and being touched—by Marco.
She swallowed. She’d gotten much better about touching, but it wasn’t something she went out of her way to do. This touch was almost sensory overload. Her nerve endings leapt to attention, her skin blazing hot. It was everything she could do not to jerk away and tuck her hand beneath her armpit.
“Don’t say that, Kev. He wouldn’t have wanted that at all.”
“No, but I do. If I could have given him back to you—”
His voice choked off as the buzzer rang for the baggage carousel. It lurched to a start, and Kev moved away from her, going to stand near the mouth of the carousel as the first bags began to disgorge. Lucky stared at his broad back, pulled in one deep breath after another.
The thought of Kev dying out there the way Marco had… She shuddered. It wasn’t right, not for any of them, and yet it was what these men risked every time. They put their lives on the line to protect this country, and most people would never know it. Marco should have had a hero’s welcome, but he’d come back in a lonely casket met at Dover by an honor guard. And then he’d been buried quietly at a ceremony featuring as much of HOT as could come to the funeral, and her.
No, it wasn’t right, but it was what they’d signed up for.
Lucky wrapped her arms around herself. Marco had deserved so much better than that. Than her.
She sniffed and waited for the jumpy sensation beneath her skin to ebb. Finally, Kev hefted her bags from the carousel.
When he came over to her, he was frowning again. “You got a coat in here? That sweatshirt won’t do you much good outside.”
She ran her hands over the soft material and frowned. “I have a jacket. Nothing thick though.”
He led them off to the side, away from the crowd. “Which suitcase?”
“It’ll be fine. We’re going to get into a car, right? The heater will warm me up.”
“It’s just as easy to get the jacket now.”
She sighed. “Fine. I think it’s in the red one.”
Kev set the suitcase on the floor, and Lucky bent to unzip it. After rummaging around for a few moments, she came up with a wrinkled jacket that said U.S. Army on it. She didn’t know why she’d kept the damn thing, but she stood and put it on before zipping the suitcase closed again. Then they were rolling out of the airport and into the parking deck.
The air was a shock to her system after the months in Hawaii. Her breath frosted and her fingers grew stiff in the chill air. Kev led them to a white pickup where he slung her bags in the back and then started the engine. It took a while for the heater to finally feel warm instead of frigid, but by then she didn’t think she would ever get warm again.