Authors: Kimberley Troutte
And then, she’d run like hell.
“Jenna, may I come in?” She rapped lightly on the door right below the sign that read, “Captain’s Quarters.”
“Oh, Amber,” a small voice croaked inside the room.
She took that as an invitation and went in. It was dark in the Captain’s Quarters. Amber held very still and let her eyes adjust.
“I don’t want anyone to see me like this,” Jenna said softly.
“Don’t beat yourself up. It’s okay, really. Everyone understands. Will it be all right if I turn on one lamp to see where I’m going?”
“All right.” The voice in the dark sounded beaten-down tired.
When Amber switched on the light she was shocked to see Jenna Collins—the only person who seemed to have every ounce of her shit together—clutching a pillow like a life vest and blinking at her as if she’d been in solitary confinement for thirty days.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
“I never used to drink,” Jenna whispered, still clutching the pillow. Still blinking. “Whiskey, please.”
“Okay then.” She forced a smile. “Coming right up.” A glass liquor cabinet was bolted above a miniature sink. She hoped there was at least one bottle of whiskey in there with enough mind-melting liquid to calm both of them. Amber’s nerves were shot too.
“It could be gut-rot.” She handed Jenna a shot glass and poured the whiskey into it.
“Doesn’t matter,” Jenna said, her hand shaking.
“I hear that. Cheers.”
They clicked the glasses together and downed the whiskey. Amber shivered as the liquid fire singed her innards. It was a notch above gut-rot, but it would do. She poured Jenna another and waited.
After a long beat of silence, Jenna whispered, “I’m so embarrassed.”
“Don’t be. There’s no reason to feel that way.”
Amber noticed Jenna’s blond hair was a giant mess. And from out of her own ancient past, she remembered what Mom used to do when she was a sad young girl. Mom would brush her hair. She picked up a brush. Coming up behind Jenna, she lifted the long blond hair off her shoulders and gently started.
Jenna looked up, dark shadows ringing her eyes. “I hate to lose control.”
Welcome to my world.
“You’d hate to be me, then. Nothing about my life is controlled. It’s been a giant freefall since the day Mom died.”
“I’m sorry,” Jenna said softly. “Sometimes life sucks.”
“And then you die.”
“My Dad used to say that expression all the time and then he’d add: ‘Might as well eat pie.’ It was just an excuse for him to sneak a slice.” Jenna actually smiled. “Old devil has an enormous sweet tooth.”
Amber kept brushing, gently working out the tangles, making the golden locks shine. “Feeling better?”
Jenna sighed. “Yes. But I’m not ready to go out there yet. I can’t face them.”
“You don’t have to.” She started sectioning Jenna’s hair. “I hope I can do a French braid on someone else. It is times like these I wish I had a sister.” She wished that a lot when she was younger. She still did occasionally. It would be nice to have someone to confide in.
Pull the strands taught, right side cross to the middle, left side cross, …
“Huh? Oh rats, I screwed up.” She took out the lopsided braid. “Let me try again.”
Tug, right cross, left cross…
“Amber. Have you ever killed anyone?”
Her fingers froze. “What?”
Jenna faced her, pulling her hair out of Amber’s hands. “I killed two men in Colombia. Total strangers. Shot them both, dead. They could’ve been devoted husbands, fathers, had mothers who loved them.”
Jenna Collins killed two men. Was her mouth hanging open? She forced it closed. “Um, that’s…hard to deal with, I’d imagine. But look, from what I read, you guys were up against dangerous militant guerrillas who’d kidnapped an innocent family. It was a war-zone and you were lucky to get out alive. Those men could just as easily have killed you. Try not to feel guilty about it.”
“That’s just it. I don’t. I mean, I do feel bad that I took a life, but that’s not what haunts my dreams.”
Amber frowned. “No?”
Jenna went on, “I feel terrible, really, really sick about what happened to the group of men I hired. We were all ambushed and those hired men…” Her voice cracked. “…didn’t survive. That’s on my head. My fault.”
Ah, the worm eating through her soul. “You might have made a bad call. It happens. I’m sorry about those guys but you can’t blame yourself forever.”
“I can. And I will. But that’s not the problem.” Jenna took a deep breath. “It’s Mack.”
Amber sat down. This conversation was exhausting.
“When the hostiles started shooting at us today…” she paused to gulp the last sips of whiskey, shuddered and went on, “…that day in the jungle came back. I couldn’t stop the flashbacks. I never can.”
Ty Whitehorse had called it. Jenna did have PTSD. Her face was lined with exhaustion. Amber wondered how much sleep she was able to get each night.
“Another whiskey? We might as well finish the bottle.”
“No, thanks. I want to get through this and tell you everything, so that you can understand.”
“Sure. Go ahead.”
“I can’t stop reliving the horrible moment. When it hits, it’s like I’m really there. It’s happening all over again. I see Mack’s face, just as it was back there in the jungle. Everything about him—muscles, sinew, bone—all bunched and tight, ready to pull the trigger. I want him to.
I silently scream.
Take the shot.
But the terror...I can't block out the terror in his blue eyes. He doesn’t breathe, doesn’t move. Every fiber of his being is focused on the man choking me with one filthy arm. The other hand holds a gun to my head. I know, before Mack makes a sound, he’s going to sacrifice himself for me. He can't. In my head I’m screaming,
Oh, God, don't let him do it!
My heart nearly explodes when Mack lowers his gun and surrenders. He’s going to die. Willingly. For me.” Tears drip off her cheeks.
Jenna’s sad gaze pricks Amber’s heart. It was a surprise to feel wet spots on her own shirt.
“If Charlie hadn’t taken the shot at that exact moment, Mack would’ve been murdered before my eyes. Those are the flashbacks I can't live with," Jenna said. "Not being stripped and beaten by guerrillas, not thinking I'd die in that hellhole. None of that means anything, not really. It was the thought of almost losing Mack that kills me. And the worst of it all? Knowing he'd do it again. He'll die for me, for you, the country, the SEALs.... He’s too willing to die, for what’s right and good. But Amber, I want him to live. It's selfish, I know, but I love him."
Jenna put a hand on Amber's knee. "Yes. I believe you do."
She didn't tell Jenna, but she also understood what Mack did. Wasn't she planning to do the same thing? She'd do everything in her power to protect Charlie, even if that meant sacrificing her life to save his. Apparently, that’s what people did when they were in love.
"There's one thing I don't get.” She tried to make her voice sound casual, inquisitive. “How were you taken hostage in the first place? Weren't you with the team?"
"My stupid mistake. The guerrillas lured me away by hiding the little boy in the bushes. I walked right into an ambush." She shook her head. "Dumb, almost deadly mistake."
"So you just walked away from the team? Didn't they try to stop you?"
"They were a little busy at the time locked in a deadly gunfight. Oh, and I almost forgot, Charlie was involved with the radio, trying to stop friendly fire from blowing us to kingdom come—missiles were about to be dropped on us, long story. Basically, they all had a job to do. They shouldn't have had to babysit me. I wasn't supposed to walk away."
So, if Charlie is involved with the radio, I might be able to sneak away...
"What are you thinking?" Jenna studied her.
"Nothing." She tried to erase the emotions from her face. "You’re doing a lot better now. Mack has been really worried. Maybe we should go on deck and ease his mind."
Jenna nodded. "I'm ready. Besides, I need to make sure that Ty is following my plan and taking us to the right coordinates. We should arrive at the island within the hour."
She left Jenna and went to the comm room in search of Charlie. He wasn’t there. A window was wide open. She leaned out, cranking her neck to see along the railing of the junk. The water was black, silent.
“I wouldn’t stand there.” Charlie’s voice came below her.
She jumped. “You scared the shit out of me. I didn’t see you there.”
“You weren’t supposed to. I’m camouflaged.” He sat on a wooden bench just beneath the open window, his back against the boat. He did blend in. The only thing flashing were his beautiful white teeth. “You’re the perfect target hanging out the window like that, especially with the backlighting.”
She glanced around. “I don’t see any boats.”
“Not yet.” He pointed up. “Big brother is always watching.”
“I did a scan for satellites. We’re in a blind spot here, but you can’t be too careful.” He patted the bench. “Come sit by me.”
She didn’t need to be asked twice. Hustling out of the comm room, she made her way along the railing and curled in next to him. He draped his arm around her. “That’s better.”
It was. Cinching his arm tighter around her, she ran her fingers slowly across his skin, tracing the tendons to his fingers. He smelled so good, felt even better. The water was dark, but comforting, and the stars went on forever.
“I thought you would’ve cracked open the hard drive already,” she said softly.
“I did. Damned thing is encrypted.”
“Really? What a surprise,” she teased.
“At least this will give us a chance to work together. It’s a dream come true.”
“Yes,” she said quietly. She doubted Charlie’s dream included her sneaking a message out to the bad guys before she left. Crap, she hated this plan more and more. “Do you want to go back in and get started?”
“Not yet.” He leaned his head back against the boat. “I just want to hold you for a minute.”
She sighed. Why couldn’t this minute last forever?
He nuzzled her hair. “Did you mean it?”
“That you’re my girl.”
She tried to keep the smile off her face and couldn’t. “You were strangling your brother.”
“Nah, just playing with him. He’s too stupid to feel pain.”
“I don’t know. It looked like he was going to pass out.”
“I would’ve revived him. Not a problem. But what I’m hearing is that you were just trying to save Willy’s sorry ass.” Even in the dark she could see that he was crushed.
It warmed her heart, but she couldn’t torture him any longer. “I meant it more than you’ll ever know. But it doesn’t make sense. Even if I wasn’t going to prison—”
“I won’t let that happen!” he said fiercely.
“Okay, let’s say it doesn’t. Why would you want me, Charlie? You’re too good for me.”
He tipped her chin up. “You’ve got that backward, sweetheart.”
“I’m a thief.” She bit her lip. He never forgave his own father, why would she hope he’d forgive her? “Just like your dad.”
When his arm tensed around her and his back straightened, she sort of wished she hadn’t said those words. She’d hit a sore spot, an old wound.
“You’re nothing like him. You were tricked into a job and have spent every minute trying to protect and return the data you stole. My father would have sold it by now. To the highest bidder and then spent the money on booze.” He rubbed her chin with his thumb, softening his voice. “Don’t compare yourself to him. Not ever.”
“I don’t have a stellar record, Charlie. I’ve done things I’m not proud of.”
She made a face at him. “Right, Mr. Perfect. I totally believe that you’ve got lots of heinous skeletons shoved in your closet. ”
“There are a few.”
She kissed his thumb. “Not like mine.”
“Your prison record.”
Spinning around, she faced him. “You knew?”
He shrugged. “We all had to read your file before we came.”
. She crossed her arms. “You all know my dark past? No wonder Mack has been treating me like a criminal. He believes I stole the card on purpose. Once a thief always a thief.”
“I don’t believe that. Like I said, you’ve been trying to return the card. Protecting Americans. A thief wouldn’t do that. Besides, your record is really old. You were a kid. Barely eighteen.” He pulled her back into his arms. “We’ve all made mistakes.”
“Right. You’ve been to prison?” She was still a little hot and embarrassed that everyone knew her secrets.
“Almost. I ran with the wrong crowd for a while. I told you about them, sort of.”
“The bullying supervisor. You blew the whistle on him, but you didn’t tell me what he’d done.”
“It wasn’t just him, it was the whole team. They were egotistical and sadistic assholes. One of my best friends rang the bell because of those jerks. If I hadn’t wised up in time, I would’ve been court martialed with the whole bunch. “