Authors: Emmy Curtis
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary Women, #Erotica, #Contemporary, #Fiction
An Alpha Ops Novel
New York Boston
For the Chief of my heart.
I’d like to thank everyone who helped me get the details of EOD and JPAC missions correct; anything I’ve had to change to serve the story is entirely on me.
Thanks also to everyone on the Forever team: Leah Hultenschmidt, Julie Paulauski, Fareeda Bullert, Elizabeth Turner, Megha Parekh, and Jamie Snider. Their patience and humor is unending (hopefully).
To my husband, who inspired the whole Alpha Ops series, I give all my thanks and love for his constant support and patience.
A shout-out to my local writing stalwarts, Rachel Brune and Kristin Grimes: thanks for the writing dates and for making the drive on base… and for the coffee and cakes and stuff.
If you enjoy reading about Master Sergeant Matt Stanning and are interested in supporting the USAF community of EOD, please go here to see the good work the EOD Warrior Foundation does for the families of their fallen American heroes: eodwarriorfoundation.org.
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command’s responsibility to bring back all fallen warriors from every war is detailed here, along with their current mission: www.jpac.pacom.mil.
“Until they are home.”
—The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command’s Motto
The rehearsal dinner for the wedding from hell, three months ago
Thank you, God!
A tall, very handsome man approached her table at the back of the restaurant. This rehearsal dinner was out of control. Too many people, too much security, too few places to hide and drink.
Please let him be sitting here. Please let him be sitting here.
Harry looked at the place name next to hers: Matt Stanning.
She promised God she would go to church on Sunday if this delicious man sat next to her. There wasn’t enough alcohol in the world to sit at a table with the bride’s ex-boyfriend, his work colleagues, and as lovely as she was, Harry’s ex-boyfriend’s new fiancée and make it through the dinner without embarrassing herself.
She scratched at a hairpin sticking in her scalp. Why, oh why, couldn’t she have pretended to be out of the country on a dig? Hell, she easily could have been really out of the country. But Sadie had been there for her all through college, been there afterward when Harry’s world fell apart. She fingered Danny’s wedding ring that she’d worn on a necklace since he died. He would be laughing at her, shoehorned into a glamorous dress at a fancy restaurant. So not like her.
“I’m Matt,” the impossibly good-looking man said as he pulled out the chair next to Harry.
“Henrietta,” she said, extending her hand.
He shook it but held on as he sat, sending an overt signal to her. God, he must be a player. She tried to extricate her hand, but he only released it when the waiter arrived to take his drink order. “Scotch for me, and whatever the ladies are having.” He said, slipping the waiter a hundred-dollar bill. “And keep them coming.”
Harry couldn’t help but giggle. She leaned in and stage-whispered, “I think the drinks are free.”
“But now we have our own drinks waiter,” he whispered back.
. Harry threw both arms in the air. “Score!”
Beth, James’s new fiancée, seemed to find her excitement amusing. But come on. It was a wedding, and she knew no one save the bride and the bride’s brother—her ex, who also happened to be the son of the director of the CIA. “So what do you do, Matt?” Beth asked as Harry took a sip of her mojito.
He leaned back, shoved both hands behind his head, and smiled at the pair of them. “I can turn my hand to most things.”
Beth snorted into her drink. “Unbelievable.”
He tipped his head to the side. “What? You don’t believe me? I swear I’m pretty handy to have around.”
So cocky. Now Harry wanted to take him down. She touched his arm in what she hoped he would take as a come-on. “Oh, honey. I can see you are. You obviously think you’re very capable. But some women don’t need men for anything.”
Instead of deflating him, her pushback seemed to interest him. He sat forward, arms resting on his legs. “Nothing at all? I find that hard to believe.”
Harry pretended to think, finger on her chin as she appeared to consider the one thing she could possibly need from a man. “Well, maybe I can think of one thing. One… very delicate task that I frequently need help with…”
His eyes traced her face and trended down to her legs. Beth was right. Unbelievable. If his dark eyes weren’t so mesmerizing she would have left him to deal with Beth. But despite his incredible overconfidence, something compelled her to stay. There was something in his eyes. Like maybe he was playing a role.
Yeah, like maybe that’s just wishful thinking
She dropped her voice as if imparting a huge secret. “Often, in the middle of the night”—she looked around the table furtively—“I get this feeling”—she pressed her hand to her stomach and rubbed it slowly—“and I wish I had someone with me to”—an Oscar-winning pause—“open the pickle jar.”
Matt laughed out loud, throwing his head back. “I’ll admit, you had me in the palm of your hand there.” He shook his head at her. “Man, I definitely owe you a drink for that.”
“So what brings you to the wedding of the year?” Harry asked.
“I’m a friend of the groom. I was supposed to be out of town, but my plans were canceled, so here I am. You?” He pulled in his chair a bit and put his napkin in his lap.
She pulled a sad face. “Maid of honor. Bride’s friend from college. I should have been away, too.” Well, she’d
to be away, at least. “So here we both are.”
“Indeed.” He took the scotch that the waiter had left and gulped almost half of it down. Peering at the glass, he said, “This is the good stuff. Very smooth.”
“I don’t think Sadie’s parents actually know there are things in this world that aren’t the good stuff. This whole shindig should be one for the record books.”
“Well, I’ve never actually been to a wedding before, so I wouldn’t know,” he said.
“Really? I thought I was the only one who’d managed to be away for everyone’s weddings. This is exactly my second one ever.”
“And how does this compare?” he asked.
“Well, the first was mine, and I got married on a beach… so this one is in a league of its own as far as I’m concerned.”
“You’re married?” She saw him peek at her ringless hand. At least he bothered to check. A lot of guys don’t really care.
“Not anymore.” She thought it best to keep the murky details to herself. No point in bringing the party down with her sad story. “You?”
“Nope.” He laughed. “Never even come close. I move too fast.” His player grin came back. She wanted to slap it off his face. She was more and more convinced that he was smoke-screening. She knew because she was an expert at it.
He looked surprised to be called out on it. “I just travel too much to put down roots.”
Harry wanted to know what he did, but she had this feeling that by getting him to spill all his details, she would somehow be compelled to do the same. Life was too short.
“So are you here for the whole weekend?” Suddenly she had to shout to be heard over the chatter in the room that had almost reached critical mass. She looked around. There seemed to be more people in here than the tables could possibly fit. She was jostled by someone walking behind their chairs.
Matt turned all his attention to Harry. “I’m going to slip out for a smoke. Want to come?”
“Nope.” He stood and made to pull out Harry’s chair, too. What? She looked up at him, puzzled. And then she felt a kick on her ankle. Beth gave her a meaningful look and nodded her head toward the door with a grin.
He helped her up with a hand under her elbow and steered her through the throng of people to the restaurant’s patio. He opened the French door and held it for her to go through.
As soon as the door closed behind him, he took a deep breath.
“Are you all right?” she asked, still puzzled by his actions.
“I’m fine.” He took another deep breath and looked out over the gardens. “Wow. Who would have expected this oasis in the middle of D.C.?”
* * *
As soon as her attention was diverted by the picturesque garden, he took several silent, deep, slow breaths.
Come on, Matt. Hold it together
. He tried to concentrate on Henrietta. She was stunning. Petite, blond, with a vibrancy that seemed to pulse out of her. She was exactly his type. Exactly the distraction he needed.
Usually he was able to pick up a woman before the crowds came. Bar, nightclub, party… get there early and close the deal before he got too claustrophobic. It was just the noise and the thrum behind the chatter. Made him edgy. It was like every wave of sound and energy chipped away at his sanity. It was normal, given what he’d been through. Nothing to worry about.
The garden was lit up with low-level solar lights casting shadows in the night. The air was cooler than when he had arrived, suggesting the forecast storm was indeed going to pass through the area. But here he was. Away from the tightness he’d felt at the table.
“You’re right. It’s beautiful out here. I hear the chef grows his own herbs and vegetables in these gardens,” she said, walking along one of the many paths that snaked out into the garden from the patio.
He followed her while he could still see her in the dim light. The fragments of laughter and music from the restaurant diminished with each step. Damp air and darkness swallowed him up the farther they went into the garden. He lost sight of her in a mini-orchard of mature fruit trees.
Suddenly her voice came from his left. “If you don’t smoke, what made you want to come out here?”
Out of the corner of his eye he saw her sitting on what looked like a stone bench under a tree. SERE school had taught him that peripheral vision was stronger in the darkness. It had saved him more than once during the Survive, Evade, Resist, and Escape training he’d undertaken years earlier.
“You must have great night vision,” he countered, trying to change the subject. He picked his way through the plants to get to her.
“I have to in my line of work,” she answered softly, as if a loud voice would shatter the peace.
“What do you do that requires good night vision?” he asked as he sat in the middle of the bench. No use being polite and sitting as far away from her as he could.
“I’m an archaeologist. All tunnels, crypts, and cold dark tents in the middle of fields.”
“That must be interesting. And dirty, and cold.”
“All of those.” She laughed.
He was well aware of how archaeologists work. He worked with a lot of them. “What made you want to be one?” he asked.
She hesitated, and for the first time he sensed he had somehow touched a nerve.
“I was left some money when I was young, so I decided to use it to study. I decided…” She stopped again.
He didn’t fill in the silence. He never did.
“Initially, I just liked the past. I decided that I could live in the past quite easily if I elected to study it. And soon it became the love of the job. The discoveries, the frustrations, the investigating. It’s like a drug to me.”
“I get that. Completely.” She had just described his feelings about his job precisely. He protected teams who did what she did. He investigated, dug, and enjoyed moments of elation followed by intense sorrow at what they’d found.
“So why did you want to come out for a smoke?” Her voice firm in the darkness. She clearly wasn’t going to let that one go.
“I like being outside. Away from people,” he said, taking a subconscious move away from her on the bench.
Fuck. Where had that come from?
“Well, at least these people. Too rich for me,” he recovered.
“I’m not one of those too-rich people?” she asked softly.
He smiled in the dark. “I know you’re not. You’ve been scratching the pins in your hair since I first saw you. And as you walked the path, you kept smoothing the sides of your dress, like it was unfamiliar. I’d say you’re dressed for the occasion, not the lifestyle.” He leaned his elbows on his knees and looked at her in the dark. “Am I wrong?”
She paused. “No, not wrong at all. This is the first time I’ve worn a bra and a dress in about three years.”
What? Did he hear that right? He half laughed, half coughed. “What?”
“You heard. I’m usually in shorts and a tank top. And these girls do not merit a bra, as I’m sure you’ve already noticed.” She sounded rueful.
When he’d first seen her he’d thought she was ideal for him, almost feline in her petite frame. Women have a very skewed impression of what men like. Or maybe it was just him. “You looked flawless to me. I just wish I could see you better in the dark.”
“That’s easy. Let’s see if your fingers are as observant as your eyes.” She took his hands in hers and stood to rearrange herself. “Come on.”
Speechless, he stood with her and sat when she did, astride the stone bench so their knees touched.
“My best friend at high school was blind. She taught me to see with my hands,” she said, placing his fingers on her forehead. “Close your eyes and touch me.”
His brain just about exploded. How did he go from wanting to take Henrietta home to here, having her ask him to touch her? He hesitated, struggling with the thought that this might be an elaborate hallucination. How else did you go from chatting at a wedding to feeling up a beautiful woman in the dark?
Hell. Just go with it.
Her hands rested on his knees as she tipped her face up slightly. His fingertips traced her forehead and hairline, ears, eyelashes. Her skin felt like warm silk. “You’re beautiful,” he said, cursing his gravelly tone. He was as hard as fuck, and he didn’t know why. He wasn’t some damn teenager. Strangely, touching her felt completely right and slightly wrong at the same time.
“May I?” she asked in the dark, and raised her hands to his face before he agreed. Her touch was warm against his skin. He closed his eyes again and just concentrated on her fingers.
“You feel tense to me. As if you spend too much time frowning. Do you have a stressful job?”
He used to, that was for sure. He used to be an EOD airman. The one they bring in when they find explosives. The one who has to detonate bombs safely in a war zone. The one who has a two in three chance of not making it home. He’d been young and figured he was invincible. They all had. Until they weren’t. Until he’d lost his best friend because they’d been messing around.
After another couple of years of EOD, he’d been sent to JPAC, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. The dry name for a team of people who scaled mountains, hiked deserts, and parachuted into inhospitable areas to find missing troops. Didn’t matter how long they’d been missing, one year or eighty years. They went to get them. It was his atonement for leaving Danny in Iraq. Well, most of him.
His heart clenched at the wound inside that just would not heal. It had been seven years, and he still lived with his loss every day. Was it supposed to be like this?
“What’s wrong?” Henrietta’s hands stilled over his tight lips and then dropped to his hands. She wove her fingers between his rigid ones. “Tell me about it.”
Hell, no. Hell. No. “I’d rather talk about you.” That was a lie. All he wanted to do was lose himself. To forget. Before he could second-guess his motivation, he leaned forward and snaked his hand into her hair and pulled her toward him.