Authors: Julie Ann Walker
Tags: #Black Knights Inc.#1
Copyright © 2012 by Julie Ann Walker
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Cover illustration by Craig White, Motorcycle (Fantasma de Lago) photograph courtesy of Freakshow Choppers
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To my wonderful husband, who didn’t bat a lash when the staid mathematician he married suddenly took it into her fool head to drop everything and write stories. Thank you, sweetheart, for supporting me as I chased my dreams…
In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.
Jacksonville, North Carolina
Outside the Morgan Household
Man, he’d been witness to some bad shit in his life. A great deal of which he’d personally perpetrated but very little of which stuck with him the way those screams were going to stick with him. Those soul-tearing, gut-wrenching bursts of inconsolable grief.
As Nate Weller, known to most in the spec-ops community simply as “Ghost,” gingerly lowered himself into the Jeep that General Fuller had arranged for him to pick up upon returning CONUS—continental U.S.—he figured it was somehow appropriate. Each vicious shriek was an exclamation point marking the end of a mission that’d gone from bad to the worst possible scenario imaginable, and a fitting cry of heartbreak to herald the end of his best friend’s remarkable life.
Sweet Jesus, had it really been just two weeks since they were drinking raki in Istanbul? Two weeks since they’d crossed the border into Syria to complete a deletion?
And that was another thing. Deletion.
, what a word. A ridiculously euphemistic way of saying you put a hot ball of lead that exploded with a muzzle velocity of 2,550 feet per second into the brainpan of some unsuspecting SOB who had the appallingly bad luck of finding himself on ol’ Uncle Sam’s shit list.
Yep, two lines you never want to cross, horizontal and vertical.
“Get me out of here,” Alisa Morgan choked as she wrenched open the passenger door and jumped inside the Jeep, bringing the smell of sunshine and honeysuckle with her.
Ridiculously pleasant scents considering Nate’s day had begun in the seventh circle of hell and was quickly getting worse. Shouldn’t that be the rotten-egg aroma of sulfur burning his nose?
He glanced over at the petite woman sitting beside him, stick straight and trembling with the effort to contain her grief, and his stupid heart sprouted legs and jumped into his throat. It’d been that way since the first time he’d met Ali, Grigg’s baby sister.
She hadn’t been a baby even then. At seventeen she’d been a budding young woman. And now? Over twelve years later? Man, now she was
woman. All sunny blond hair and fiercely alive, amber-colored eyes in a face guaran-damn-teed to totally destroy him. Oh buddy, that face was a real gut check, one of those sweet Disney princess-type deals. Not to mention her body. Jesus.
He wanted her now just like he’d wanted her then. Maybe more. Okay, definitely more. And the inner battle he constantly waged with his unrepentant libido whenever she got within ten feet of him coupled with his newly acquired, mountainous pile of regret, guilt, and anguish to make him so tired. So unbearably tired of…everything.
“What about your folks?” he murmured, afraid to talk too loudly lest he shatter the tenuous hold she seemed to have on herself. “Don’t you wanna be with them?”
He glanced past the pristine, green expanse of the manicured, postage-stamp sized lawn to the little, white, clapboard house with its cranberry trim and matching shutters. Geez, the place was homey. So clean, simple, and welcoming. Who would ever guess those inside were slowly bleeding out in the emotional aftershock of the bomb he’d just delivered?
She shook her head, staring straight ahead through the windshield, her nostrils flaring as she tried to keep the ocean of tears pooling in her eyes from falling. “They don’t…want or…n-need me right now. I’m a…a reminder that…that…” she trailed off, and Nate had to squash the urge to reach over and pull her into his arms.
it, boyo. You touch my baby sister and you die.
Grigg had whispered that the day he’d introduced Nate to his family and seen the predatory heat in Nate’s eyes when they’d alighted on Ali.
was impossible whenever Ali was in the same room with him, but he hadn’t touched…and he hadn’t died. Grigg was the one who’d done that…
“They want you, Ali,” he assured her now. “They need you.”
“No.” She shook her head, still refusing to look at him, as if making eye contact would be the final crushing blow to the crumbling dam behind which she held all her rage and misery. “They’ve always been a pair, totally attuned to one another, living within their own little two-person sphere. Not that they don’t love me and Grigg,” she hastened to add as she dashed at her tears with the backs of her hands, still refusing to let them fall. “They’re
parents; it’s just…I don’t know what I’m trying to say. But how they are together, always caught up in one another? That’s why Grigg and I are so close…” Her left eyelid twitched ever so slightly. “
” Her voice broke and sympathetic grief pricked behind Nate’s eyes and burned up the back of his throat until every breath felt as if it was scoured through a cheese grater.
It was too much. He couldn’t stand to watch her fight any longer. The weight of her struggle compounded with the already crushing burden of his own rage and sorrow until all he could do was screw his peepers closed and press his clammy forehead to the backs of his tense hands. He gripped the steering wheel with fingers that were as numb and cold as the block of ice encasing his heart. The one that’d formed nearly a week before when he’d been forced to do the unthinkable.
A barrage of bloody images flashed behind his lids before he could push them away. He couldn’t think of that now. He wouldn’t think of that now…
“Nate?” He jumped like he’d been shot when the coolness of her fingers on his arm pulled him from his brutal thoughts. “Get me out of here, okay? Dad…he shooed me away. I don’t think he wanted me witnessing Mother’s breakdown and I think I can still hear her…” She choked.
Uh-huh. And Nate knew right then and there those awful sounds torn from Carla Morgan’s throat weren’t going to stick with just him. Anyone who’d been within earshot would be haunted forever after.
it, he liked Paul Morgan, considered him a good and honest man, but
the bastard for not seeing that his only daughter needed comfort, too. Just because Ali put on a brave front, refusing to break down like her mother had, didn’t mean she wasn’t completely ripped apart on the inside. And damn the man for putting Nate in this untenable situation—to be the only one to offer Ali comfort when he was the dead-last person on Earth who should.
He hesitated only a second before turning the key and pulling from the curb. The Jeep grumbled along, eating up the asphalt, sending jarring pain through his injured leg with each little bump in the road. Military transports weren’t built to be smooth rides. Hell no. They were built to keep chugging and plugging along no matter what was sliding under the wheels. Unfortunately, what they gained in automotive meanness, they lost in comfort, but that was the least of his current problems.
pain he could deal with—brush it aside like an annoying gnat. He was accustomed to that, after all. Had trained for it and lived it over and over again for almost fifteen years.
Ali’s pain was something else entirely.
Chancing a glance in her direction, he felt someone had shoved a hot, iron fist straight into his gut.