EXCERPT courtesy of St. Martin’s Paperbacks
Rick Sullivan liked the scent of blood.
And the taste, too.
His mouth was full of it and he only spit it out to intimidate his opponent.
Let him see how much he liked bleeding …
Around them, the guards were shouting. They had their hands hooked into the battered fencing that served as a cage for matches. There was money on the table, lots of it, folded around the rungs of the wire while he and the prisoner across from him fought.
One of the guards fired off a shot from his gun at the ground to get them fighting again. Sullivan waited for his opponent to lunge at him before he twisted and brought his fist up into the underside of the man’s jaw. There was a crunch and a gurgle as the bone broke and the man went down.
The guards roared. Some with victory and others spouted profanity. Sullivan absorbed it all, taking note of who had won money on him. Information was the real thing he was after, not the scraps the guards would give him for providing them with entertainment.
Still, later that night, he sipped at the tequila he’d won and smiled at the woman between his knees. Mexican jails were shit holes, but that just meant there were loopholes for him to slip through.
Carl Davis and Tyler Martin could bet that Sullivan would be slipping out of the jail they’d left him to rot in. No one double-crossed him. Martin was going to learn that even all of his Secret Service agents wouldn’t make a difference. Because when a Sullivan came for you, there were only two choices: make your peace with God or placate the devil.
He enjoyed the idea of seeing Carl Davis beg for his life.
But he fucking loved the thought of killing him.
* * *
The party was winding down. At least the first phase was.
Somewhere around ten, the toddlers were sleeping and mothers were gathering up the last of the swim towels. You could feel the vibe changing. The carefree demeanor that had presided during the day was being overshadowed by the darkness and the cravings it somehow granted permission to. The summer weather was perfect for it, negating the need for layers of clothing. As soon as darkness was added, people shifted closer to each other and ventured deeper into the shadows.
Bram Magnus leaned against the house, the stucco still warm from the heat of the day.
Or maybe it was from his temper.
A couple moved further off into the darkness, unaware that he was watching. The way the female looked around before taking a few more steps into the night, it didn’t take a genius to deduce what sort of party they were in the mood for. There was a flash of trim thigh as her short dress flipped up with her hurried steps, a sultry sway to her hips that was unmistakable. She leaned in closer to her companion, his fingers tightening around the curve of her hip before he slid his hand further down until he was gripping her thigh beneath that short skirt.
LeAnn let out a husky laugh. Bram recognized it, which pissed him off.
The problem was, he realized he was mad over the fact that he’d always known LeAnn’s feelings for him didn’t run deeper than lust.
“Jesus…” A bag of trash hit the concrete but Jaelyn surprised him by controlling the rest of her emotions. Her eyes flashed wide but returned to normal faster than he’d have given her credit for. He’d never pegged her as having much nerve. But she stared back at him, steady as could be.
“I’m sorry, Bram, I didn’t see you.”
Jaelyn’s voice trailed off as she heard a soft laugh and recognized it as her sister’s. Bram watched her face, wanting to know if she knew what her sister was about. Jaelyn turned toward the sound and frowned.
“Your sister is busy,” he informed her dryly.
“But you’re her boyfriend … oh, never mind.” She bent to pick up the trash bag but only made it halfway there before straightening. “Look … I’m really—”
“Sorry? Don’t be,” he said with a shrug. “Better this way.”
“I can’t see how.”
His temper was sizzling, and another soft laugh drifting on the night breeze turned up the heat. “It’s simple enough. I’m shipping out at daybreak, and it looks like I’m doing it as a single man. No strings attached.”
She started to bite her lip. There was something on the tip of her tongue; he watched her contemplate whether or not to voice it.
“Yeah, that’s your MO, isn’t it? Always playing it safe.”
He knew he was being a dick by saying that. Pushing her away with a cutting remark because … well, the flat truth was, there was something about her that made him feel less than worthy.
Her eyes narrowed as she sent a harsh look straight at him.
“If you’re trying to show a contrast between the way I live my life and the way you show up here whenever you want to feel like you have a relationship … you’re damned right I’m the opposite of what you and LeAnn have been doing,” Jaelyn informed him. “For the record, I don’t call it playing it safe. I call it having integrity and not using my grandfather’s home as a place to get your fix of family love while you invest nothing of yourself.”
Bram felt his lips curving slightly in response. She was kicking his ass and doing a good job of it.
Her eyes narrowed as she took in his grin. She let out a snort and reached for the bag of trash again. “Fine. Hope you and LeAnn are deliriously happy with your … relationship.”
LeAnn and her lover had moved off into the night. Bram found it suited him because Jaelyn was far more interesting.
He wanted a fight and was being an ass. But a flare of hunger entered her eyes, deflating his initial surge of temper. It left him poised on the edge of something volatile, something he felt like he’d known had been simmering inside him but had been ignoring. For all the right reasons, of course, but tonight, there was a boundary missing between them. That knowledge set something loose inside him.
“Your sister seems to have vacated the post of being my girlfriend, so you won’t have to worry about seeing me again.”
The trash bag dropped once more. Jaelyn faced off with him like she didn’t notice that her head barely reached his chin.
“Are you really torn up about…” She gestured toward where LeAnn had gone. “It’s not like you put a ring on her finger.”
“Your sister doesn’t want a ring weighing her down.”
“No shit,” Jaelyn retorted.
Jaelyn rolled her eyes. “Right, you think I don’t cuss. Know something? I don’t give a fig for your opinion. You were using LeAnn as much as she was you. At least I won’t have to worry about you showing up and messing with my grandfather. He thinks the world of you, and you’re just here to get your fix. Judge me as you will, but I see through you.”
He’d been cussed out by the best—seasoned brass and underworld thugs—but there was something about her Lucy Ricardo insults that shamed him.
“You’re not a prude after all.”
“You’ve got nerve.” She made a scoffing sound and sent him a glare. “Know something? Just because I think sex should be more than physical doesn’t make me a prude. My grandparents loved each other. Maybe you’ve just never seen how amazing that looks, but I have and I’m not settling for”—she was gesturing at him—“for what you’re clearly willing to settle for. I am going to find a man who curls my toes and—”
He pushed away from the wall and wrapped his arms around her. He was being presumptuous at the least, a huge prick at the worst, but the flicker of heat in her eyes drew him to her. Maybe it was plain old desperation to cling to the living before he shipped out to a place where life was cheap and easily smashed.
Like hell it was that simple …
Whatever had broken free inside him was growing, stretching, as it gained freedom. It was hungry and needy, as well as uncontrollable.
Bram trapped her arms at her sides, sliding one hand up her spine to capture her nape before claiming his kiss. He needed to hold her, needed her to feel his strength. A soft gasp got muffled between their lips as he pressed a deep kiss against her mouth. He forgot what his intentions were when the taste of her swept through his brain, knocking his better judgment out cold.
The only thing left was the feel of the woman in his arms. The way her lips moved beneath his, the way her body curved to fit against his, was mind-numbing and exhilarating at the same time. She was warm and soft, and he teased her lips with a sweep of his tongue because he needed to know what she tasted like. The thin, summer dress she wore was nothing but a frail barrier between her hard nipples and himself. He slid his hand around and cupped one breast, feeling its weight, and brushing his thumb over the puckered tip. The soft sound she made snapped him back into focus.
What the fuck was he doing?
He opened his arms, fighting that thing inside him with every ounce of self-discipline he had. All he wanted was to press her against the side of the house and keep pressing until he was deep inside her.
God … he craved her …
Jaelyn staggered back a pace, her respiration agitated, her eyes wide.
That was why she tasted so good. She was everything pure, everything his hands were too dirty to touch.
She was waiting … and he was a damned bastard for touching her when she was pure and he was a hell of a long way from it himself.
“I had no right to do that.” But he wanted to do a whole hell of a lot more.
His jeans felt too tight, his cock swollen and demanding. Her taste clung to his lips as he forced himself to walk away before he lost his grip on his discipline.
Before he took what he wanted …
“Hold it right there, Bram Magnus.”
Surprise made him stop. The husky sound of her voice was something he’d never heard before. Or expected to.
But he liked it. Liked it a hell of a lot.
He turned to face her and felt his arousal spike when he found her standing only a pace from him. There wasn’t a hint of outrage on her face, only a glimmer of something in her eyes which promised him hell.
He liked the look of that, too.
“Kisses…” She closed the gap between them, captivating him with the way her hips swayed. She stepped up to him and settled her hands on his chest. “… aren’t meant to be one-sided.”
She stroked him, moving her hands up and over his collarbones to his neck. It was slow, so damn slow he wasn’t sure he could remain still but it was worth the effort. Her touch sent shivers down his spine, the kind he hadn’t felt since he’d been a raw youth in the troughs of his first love.
Back when he’d believed in love, that was.
She believed in love, though. He saw it glittering in her eyes, and it threatened to buckle his knees.
“Always shared, Bram … it’s called … making love.”
When her hand reached his head she rose onto her toes to complete the kiss but he was still too tall. She gently pulled on his neck and he had no problem complying with her demand.
Shit, he could take orders from her all night so long as she was touching him.
This time their kiss was sweeter but not because it was slower. It was in the way she explored his mouth, teasing him with soft pressure while tracing his lower lip with the tip of her tongue before thrusting shyly inside. That was his undoing. He wrapped his arms around her and captured her neck so he could turn her head to suit his desire. The kiss became hard and blistering hot. Control vanished as he fit her against him, pushing her back into the shadows and against the warm stucco of the house. He ravished her mouth with his lips and tongue. She moaned, the little sound pushing him further over the edge as she arched up against him, pressing against his cock and trembling when she felt the hard proof of his desire.
He pulled his head back, stroking her back as he detected the ripple of reaction. Her eyes were wide, her lips open as she panted.
“I shouldn’t have started this,” he said.
“Well, I’ve decided to finish it.” She surprised him with how determined her tone was. Her fingers fisted into his shirt, pulling a handful of his chest hairs in the process. The little tingle of pain intensified the moment, feeding the savage side of his nature that was all too close to the surface.
“Shut up.” She surprised him again—actually, stunned was a better way to put it. She was the sweet sister. The family-supporting, apron-wearing sibling who always embodied the model of a good girl.
But there was one hell of a woman hiding inside her.
He cupped her jaw, holding her head in place as he studied her gaze. It was hot enough to blister him, giving him a peek at the woman he’d never taken the time to notice she was.
Hell, maybe he’d ignored it because he’d been stupid enough to chase her sister. A hundred missed opportunities flooded his brain as he watched the way her face turned sultry with the help of her lips still wet from his kiss.
She kissed him again. There was nothing shy about it. Their mouths met with a hunger that curled his damned toes as she pressed up against him from knees to chest without a hint of hesitation.
And then, she was gone, slipping along the side of the house while he was lost in the moment. He blinked and pushed off the stucco in a flash only to find her watching him with her hands propped on her hips and a very confident little smile on her lips, while her hard little nipples pushed out the soft jersey of her dress, proving she was every bit as turned on as he was.
She was stunning in that moment.
“Good-bye, Bram Magnus.”
She reached for the bag of trash again but he nabbed it before she got a grip.
“You’ll see me again, Jaelyn. Count on it.”
* * *
“Count on it…”
Jaelyn heard Bram’s words ringing in her ears as she made it back into the laundry room.
Ha! You mean after you ran for your burrow …
God, why couldn’t she feel as confident as she wanted to be? It was such a stupid twist of reality that a person could be so sure of how they wanted to be and yet when faced with an epic uprising moment of hard, blunt reality like the one she’d just encountered, her damned emotions would liquefy.
He wouldn’t be coming back.
She needed to get real about that fact and fast, before the feelings he’d unleashed inside her settled into her bones.
Yeah, she cussed.
And it felt like Bram Magnus was a really good reason to lay out some mental profanity as she found herself having to force her fingers to release the doorknob.
It was over …
And it was better that way …
Okay, logically it was way wiser to be in the house, even if it branded her a frightened little rabbit, than … well … she shuddered as her mind was all too happy to offer up what she might be doing with Bram.
Hell, he’d curl her toes alright.
Yeah, and leave you at the crack of dawn …
Jaelyn ended up laughing at herself as she made it back into the kitchen.
He was a true man-animal.
Seriously cut and hardened and untamed.
And she was jealous. It was true.
But no one had it all.
Getting a taste of him would be epic but it would haunt her, too.
Life was just a bitch that way. Bram wanted to play midnight games, sure enough, but he wouldn’t be sticking around. Man-animals like him prowled.
The word suited Bram so very well. There was a way about him that just drove her insane with curiosity. Both for the feeling of him against her and the need to know him. She’d been itching to tell him off for a while because of the way he seemed so detached.
Ha! You think you can save him …
He wasn’t a baby bird.
She snorted and realized she was looking out the kitchen window.
Bram didn’t need to be brought in for protection from the night.
But she did.
Oh, it wasn’t that she thought she would go to hell if she indulged in sex. If that was the case, she was damned already for how often she masturbated. She had a healthy sex drive, that was a fact.
But there was something more in life.
She’d seen it in her grandparents and in a few of her friends who had met their soul mates.
Bram would laugh at that idea.
And then again, maybe that made her just a little sick to her heart to think he wouldn’t understand something like soul mates.
You’re back to wanting to save him …
Yeah, but she was in the house, so, safe for the moment.
Safe from yourself …
It was the logical thing to do.
So why did it suck so bad?
* * *
“Need a hand?”
Bram jerked around, earning a smug little grin from Dare Servant. The Shadow Ops agent was halfway concealed in the dark, positioned so he could see anyone coming toward them.
“Your knees look a little unsteady, Magnus.”
Bram lifted one foot off the ground and sent a kick toward Dare. It was crotch level, perfectly executed, and controlled so that he stopped just a couple of inches shy of the target.
Dare snickered at him and shrugged.
“I don’t need a wingman.” Bram joined Dare in the shadows.
“Saxon Hale didn’t ask for your opinion,” Dare replied as they walked across the lawn toward a car. “You might have noticed he’s the team leader.”
Bram opened the passenger side door and got into the car as Dare slid behind the wheel and turned the key.
Dare looked over at him. “The Raven is dead but Tyler Martin and Carl Davis are very much alive and looking for retribution.”
Dare looked at the traffic as he pulled the car away from the curb.
“One could hope Tyler and Carl have learned their lesson to leave the Hale brothers alone.”
“Don’t count on it,” Dare replied. “Tyler Martin sold us out for his position with Carl Davis. Tyler isn’t going to leave a loose end like us dangling.”
“Saxon Hale’s Shadow Ops team is more than a loose end,” Bram remarked. “We’ve kicked Martin’s ass three times now.”
“All the more reason for Saxon to send me along to sidekick around with you.” Dare made a turn and headed for the interstate on ramp. “Real shame about your cheerleader girlfriend there.”
Bram only shrugged and looked out the window.
“The sister though…”
Bram snapped his head around and held a finger up in warning.
Dare Servant ignored it.
“A little bit of a dick move there on the side of the house…”
“I know that,” Bram said with a grunt.
“Still, it looked like it worked out in the end. She knows how to make a move.” Dare let out a low whistle. “Wouldn’t have guessed that by the way she takes care of that old man.”
“You sound like more of a dick than me,” Bram said. “There’s nothing wrong with being devoted to family.”
“You’re doing your best to run away from yours.”
Bram glared at his fellow agent. Even with his attention on the traffic, Dare noticed.
“Just calling what I see,” Dare said. “You’re playing with our teams because it gets you out from under Daddy’s shadow.”
“There’s more than one way to do that,” Bram said to defend himself.
“Right,” Dare responded back. “Like taking another tour in Afghanistan?”
“Kagan hasn’t offered me a badge,” Bram said. “I was there in New Orleans with you and the Hale brothers going against the Raven. Don’t expect me to sit around waiting for a formal position to be offered. I’ve given Kagan a nice long sample of what worth I bring to his Shadow Ops teams.”
“No argument,” Dare replied seriously. “Which is why you have a wingman.” He cut Bram a look. “Don’t want you to get waxed because Tyler knows your habits and decides to lay you out in the city morgue to make sure the rest of the team knows he’s still coming for us. Or even just to let us know he’s watching. He’s that sort of a prick.”
Bram took the reprimand. He’d stepped right back out into the light and he knew better. Dare was politely reminding him that he couldn’t sit on the fence. Shadow Ops teams weren’t for weekend warriors. He’d played the game. He’d been dabbling his fingers in the murky underworld of classified missions since he’d come face-to-face with Saxon Hale when the man was assigned to investigate Bram’s family.
It was an odd arrangement, to be sure, and maybe part of Kagan’s hesitation in offering him a badge was due to the fact that Bram hadn’t made it clear what side he wanted to be on.
Army or Shadow Ops.
He wanted the badge. But it meant choosing a life that was separated from the one he’d known. It didn’t mean he couldn’t have happiness. Saxon Hale had a wife, as did Vitus Hale. Both married women they’d met through missions. Hell, his own sister was married to a Shadow Ops agent.
But they’d followed their men into the world of changed names and no contact with their previous life. For the Hale brothers, their wives had already been victims of fate. Their choices stolen by circumstance and underworld thugs like the Raven.
Bram should never have gone back to the Sondors house. Dare was right but it was Jaelyn’s words that stung. She’d called it right on the money. He’d gone there looking for a taste of home.
That fabled thing deployed soldiers dreamed about when they’d been scared so long it felt normal.
He’d wanted to see Jaelyn making her grandfather’s coffee and wearing an apron that made her look like a prude when she was anything but. And maybe, just maybe he’d been daring her to tell him off for the way he was playing games with her sister, LeAnn.
He grinned. She’d done that. sure enough.
Dare let out a grunt. “Don’t look like that, Bram.” The Shadow Ops agent sent him a long look. “I like having you on the team. Don’t go getting attached to a woman.”
“She left me in the yard.”
“I noticed.” Dare pulled into the parking lot of a house. It was quiet and normal looking. Just the kind of place Shadow teams liked to use as operation centers. “Let her go. Kagan will offer a badge soon enough.”
Inside the house two junior agents were working at computers. They looked up and nodded as Dare entered. He was their team leader at the moment. Kagan was giving Dare a little room to stretch his wings. It was touching in a way, because five paces into the living room Bram realized Dare had set them to tracking him—
To watch his back when he’d been too stupid to realize he was crossing back into the open. His relationship with LeAnn was something that could be traced.
And yet, as he finished showering and lay down on a bed in one of the rooms, he just couldn’t quite swallow the idea of never going back.
He needed to.
He pulled a picture from his wallet and looked at it for a long time.
He was a dumb ass. Shit for brains.
The picture was of LeAnn and Jaelyn. He’d never taken the time to contemplate why he was carrying around both of them.
He should have.
LeAnn might be fine with an open relationship but Jaelyn had been right about her grandfather and the way Bram had been showing up to get a taste of normalcy. Milton Sondors was crusty and happy-go-lucky all the time. It was kind of nauseating in that way a sweet old man could be. Damn if it didn’t tickle Bram to be around him.
Yeah, well, that was an excuse to be around Jaelyn, too.
He realized the truth as he forced himself to put the picture on the side table.
He’d been drawn to her.
He was taken in by her dedication to her family, which might be confused with being subservient by someone dim enough not to see that she was the backbone of the family.
He needed to leave her behind. Let some guy who hadn’t gone off and played dangerous games find her. He needed to leave the picture behind when he left in the morning.
* * *
“I want out of here.”
The guard only gave him a bored look. Rick Sullivan smiled at him. “Fine. Just thought you were the type of man who would like to profit from an opportunity. One I can make for the right man. A friend.”
“What opportunity do you speak of?”
Ricky moved closer to the man. “You could make a lot of money betting against me in the next fight.”
The guard’s eyes narrowed as he caught on. “With your record, the odds are very much in your favor.”
“Every man loses once in a while,” Ricky said. “Law of mathematics. At least, that would be how you explain the fact that you bet against me, when everyone knows my record.”
The guard was considering it. Rick enjoyed watching the way the guy rolled it around his brain. Hell, Ricky just loved knowing he was dicking around with the man’s principles. Some people were so damned much fun to mess with.
“It would be very hard to get you out of prison. Yours is a sentence of life.”
“So, I’ll make sure I don’t lose until I’m bloody enough to be taken down to the doctor. Share a little of your winnings with him and slip me out with the dead. I won’t stick around for anyone to know I’m still alive.”
The guard was weighing his options. He just might toss Ricky in the hot oven in the middle of the yard during the afternoon heat, but it was a risk worth taking. But messing with him, when there were plenty of other prisoners who would provide entertainment. The guy knew Ricky could earn him money but only if Ricky was in condition to fight.
That was really all it took to get what Ricky wanted from a man like the guard. He had to weigh the options and make sure the one Ricky wanted was the better deal. Tyler Martin might have paid someone to toss his ass in jail for life but that someone wasn’t this guard. This guy hadn’t gotten a slice of the pie Martin paid with. Rich men like Martin never learned that if you left your dogs too hungry, they’d turn on you if someone offered them more meat.
“You have a deal. Next fight.” The guard shot him a sneer. “Double-cross me and I will make you wish you were dead.”
Sullivan contained his glee. The guard wandered on, leaving him hugging the victory close. Tyler Martin thought he was safe in Washington, DC. Along with that prick Carl Davis, who was about to be elected president. They’d sold Ricky out, used him to do their dirty work, and left him to rot.
Because he was alive and that meant he could do more than survive, he could thrive.
Step one was to get out of prison. Ricky popped his knuckles and made a fist. He punched the concrete wall, smiling at the pain and chuckling when his flesh began to harden against it.
* * *
His watch started chirping.
Magnus rubbed a hand over his eyes. The room was lightening with the approach of daybreak. His watch started its second cycle, and he turned his wrist so he could silence it. He sat up, rejecting the urge to close his eyes for a few more minutes.
But his discipline faltered when he found the picture facing him. Jaelyn was smiling, and even the sight of LeAnn didn’t bother him as much as the idea of leaving the picture behind.
He knew he should.
He went toward the bathroom, hoping a shower would sober him up enough to cowboy up and get on with what needed doing.
Six months later …
Jaelyn sat up, the bed squeaking. Her forehead was dotted with perspiration and her nipples were hard beneath the old T-shirt she’d worn to bed.
She was a rotten sister.
A horrible excuse for a human being.
But that didn’t erase the memory of Bram Magnus’s kiss from her mind or the feel of his hands from her body. She lay back down, frustrated with the way her dreams tormented her. It was a torment because the man hadn’t contacted her even once since that night. After six months, even the excuse that he was in a war zone wasn’t holding water anymore. She just wasn’t his type. Which made her madder, because he was the type of man she’d never forget the feel of. He’d known exactly how to touch her, kissing her with a skill that still had her dreams full of him.
She snorted and punched the pillow but it didn’t improve her mood any. She wanted Bram to come home to her, she wanted to know how much hotter the passion could get between them. She wanted …
It wasn’t going to happen.
It was exactly what she deserved for jumping her sister’s boyfriend the second she could. Karma was a bitch. Just because her sister had it coming didn’t make her crime any less awful. Considering the circumstances, he didn’t owe her squat. He was likely relieved he didn’t have to deal with her.
Bram had never noticed that she watched him. There had been plenty of times she’d considered that a blessing. But there was still part of her that wanted him to notice the way she watched him.
Hell, what girl wouldn’t?
He was hard-bodied and focused in a way that curled her toes when he looked her way. She would swear she could feel a buzz in the air when he walked into a room. He was a man-animal with solid principles who made a woman feel like there was nothing on his mind except her.
So she’d jumped on her opportunity to taste him. It hadn’t been the brightest thing she’d ever done.
Yeah, but she’d loved every second of it …
For a moment she grinned, like a kid with a handful of cookies.
“Intimacy” was no longer a word with a definition floating around in her brain. It was a hard, pleasure-packed action. One she was hungry for more of.
Shit … they’d only kissed …
Yeah, well, it seemed to be enough to keep him firmly in mind half a year later.
And there was no way she was ever getting more.
Still, she found herself unable to truly regret it.
Sometimes, it was best to live in the moment before it got away.
Cobra Fire Base, Afghanistan
“You got a girlfriend?”
Communications Specialist Gideon had a hopeful gleam in his eyes. He waited for Magnus to answer with an intensity that was slightly edgy. His eyes brightened but otherwise he held perfectly still, like he was setting a trap and waiting for the right moment to pounce.
“I got a girl.”
“Yeah?” Gideon hit his knee and leaned closer. “Can I see her picture? Blonde or brunette?”
Magnus slid the firing pin back into his rifle, keeping his mouth shut while he ensured his weapon was in prime condition. Inattention could translate into a flag-draped coffin being sent home to his father, or wherever his father was at the moment, anyway. He could sure as hell bet it wasn’t home.
Gideon was a civilian, one making big bucks to put his neck on the line in a hot zone. The guy was a typical subcontractor. One who marketed his degree to the military and was getting his student loans forgiven in the process. Sure, he was making the dough but he could care less about any duty, which left him going stir-crazy while Bram and his men were on a mission.
“You like them curvy or thin? Your girl got tits or melons?” Gideon pressed him.
Bram shot him a warning glare. “She’s a lady. Mind your mouth.”
Gideon offered him a sheepish grin. “I get it. Nothing better than a good girl to keep your dreams peaceful, so long as she knows when to be naughty.” He waved an open hand between them. “Where’s her picture? Come on, buddy, share the wealth. The chicks only wait for you uniform jockeys. I’m shit out of luck until I get back stateside.”
Gideon sat down on the bunk next to him, his face too bright with excitement for Bram’s comfort. Hell, the guy’s lips were wet from being licked. There was lonely and then there was too lonely. Bram lifted one hand and pointed to his temple. “I keep it right here. Private.”
Gideon’s face darkened. His lower lip actually began to protrude just a fraction of an inch before he curled it back toward his teeth.
“How come you don’t have a picture?” Suspicion coated his voice along with disappointment. “If she’s waiting for you, why don’t you have a picture?”
The cot shook when he stood. Bram finished reloading his weapon before lying back and taking up the spot Gideon had sat on. He placed the rifle across his chest with a hand resting gently over the trigger guard.
Gideon sniffed before shaking his head. “You don’t have a girl waiting on you.” His voice turned grumpy, and he shuffled his feet against the floor. “You’re not alone, buddy. No need to lie about it. Lots of us don’t got a girl. Why did you think I wanted to look at yours? You didn’t need to jerk me on like that. It’s just not right to mess with a fellow comrade. Maybe I ain’t a soldier but my ass is still on the line…”
Gideon moved off, still grumbling. Bram crossed his booted feet at his ankles and ignored his frustrated comrade.
Gideon was right, Jaelyn wasn’t his girl. But that didn’t keep him from dreaming about her.
Right or wrong didn’t really matter at the moment. Jaelyn kept him alive. She was the water for the dried-out parts of his soul. Without her, he’d watch that last part of his civilized personality evaporate and drift off into the sand surrounding him.
His lips pressed into a firm line as he swept the area once more before closing his eyes. He didn’t sleep much. It was a good habit to adopt in Afghanistan. But there was more than fear of impending attack that kept his eyes wide open for eighteen hours in a row. Every time he closed them, Jaelyn was waiting for him. Her dark eyes, framed by inky long lashes. The memory of the way her body moved beneath a summer dress, her hips swaying under a thin layer of cotton. Sultry and seductive with its feminine sway. She didn’t employ any practiced method of seduction; she just flowed like a woman. Just the memory enchanted him.
And turned him on.
His cock twitched as her laughter floated through his brain, its silver tinkle sending blood toward his rising erection. Reaching into his shirt pocket, he pulled out a folded photo. Cupping his hand around it, he kept it cocooned away from the eyes of the rest of his comrades. It was like looking through a window into life. He was stuck in the desolate desert and right there, sitting on his palm, was a frozen moment of springtime. Just looking at it was like feeling the spring breeze hit his face, carrying away the harsh desert heat. He could smell the fresh grass, practically feel its satiny smooth blades gliding between the toes of his bare feet.
Jaelyn wasn’t waiting for him. The girl in the photo looking at his camera only had a smile of friendship on her face for him. He kept the picture of her and her sister as a reminder of just how big of a fool he’d been.
He hadn’t lied to Gideon. It was more a matter of declining to admit what an idiot he was. Jaelyn wasn’t waiting for him because he’d been too stupid to notice what a treasure she was when he had been close enough to touch her. Afghanistan changed that. It was the kick in the ass he needed to recognize what really mattered in a girl.
Woman, actually. Right there was the difference. Jaelyn was a woman, one who didn’t waste time on games. She’d been right there and he’d been too much of an idiot to recognize her for what she was.
He saw it now. The memory was eating him alive but he preferred that to being alone.
His cock was hard now. Stiff with longing as his lips rose into a hint of a grin while he continued to let his memories of Jaelyn parade through his mind. He rationed the time he let his guard down, only allowing himself a few moments before he slept to indulge in his mental obsession.
In those few, private moments he allowed his mind to enjoy the sweet anticipation of the day he’d be able to show her how much he’d learned since leaving her.
He wrote her letters she hadn’t answered but he was still going to pen another one tomorrow. He had no way of knowing if the mail got to her. A low grunt escaped his lips. He was reaching. His buddy Mercer got his letters just fine. Still, he wasn’t going to let the lack of response bug him. Quitting wasn’t in his vocabulary.
He would write another letter tomorrow.
Tucking the picture back into his shirt pocket, he made sure to button it to keep the photo secure. He patted it, and heat spread through his chest as he fantasized about her dark hair being spread out over him.
His cock throbbed behind his fly and his lips curved up higher. Anticipation might be good, but the moment he touched American soil, he was going to search out Jaelyn and live his dream. Reach out and touch it … touch her. Dig in his heels and court her like she deserved for not running around with every guy the way her sister did. He’d been the stupid one who was too immature to notice the gem sitting in front of his nose. He knew better now, felt the newfound knowledge rippling through him like a river.
Court her … That was what he was going to do. With flowers and carefully planned dinners and every sappy thing he could think of or find in a book to help him plan. Until then, he’d write to her and he’d picture her reading his letters and smiling because he took the time to reach out to her.
Yeah, he had a girl and he was going to show her just exactly how much she meant to him very soon.
* * *
It wasn’t right.
Some guys just didn’t understand the bond necessary to survive in a war zone. If a guy wouldn’t share the picture of his girl with another guy who didn’t have one, he couldn’t be trusted.
Gideon watched Bram strip off his vest. A ripple of relief crossed his face but it vanished a second later when the stench of his shirt hit his nose. Gideon grinned. Damn officers liked to think they were so much better than a normal guy like him but they stank just as bad after a few days without a shower. Gideon waited. He was good at waiting. Better than most guys. His mamma had always had some mean-assed boyfriend sleeping with her while he was growing up, and they were always quick to take a swing at him if he woke them up before they were ready to get out of the sack. So he’d learned to be quiet. Real quiet, like a ghost. He knew how to watch and wait for the perfect time to get what he wanted.
He stared at the vest lying over the half wall that served as a shower stall. There was a neat row of them on the east side of the base. Large hoses were secured to four-by-four rough wooden beams. They curled around to spray down into the stall. A hastily laid concrete slab with a drain set in its lowest point completed the bathing faculties. Bram’s boots appeared, along with the rest of his clothing. He stripped down quickly, ignoring the fact that his bare ass was on display. There were no female personnel at Cobra Fire Base. If you wanted to wash off the stink of the desert heat, you did it right out in the open.
Bram reached up to pull on the chain to release the water. It cascaded over his face in a white, frothy spray. He stared up into it and shook his head when the water hit his face.
It was time.
Moving across the sand, Gideon approached the showers. Water splashed down onto the concrete but he ignored it. Bram wiped the water from his eyes and looked at him out of reflex. Gideon began mimicking the motions of stripping down to bathe. Bram dismissed him, reaching for a bar of soap that he started to work over every inch of his skin from the top of his head down.
Gideon ignored the itch from his own skin. He stood close enough to the vest to finger one pocket. The snap opened with a tiny pop. Bram tugged on the chain, raising his face upward once more.
In a swift motion, Gideon pulled the small picture out of the pocket. He tucked it inside his own vest before the water stopped flowing. He had to wait to look at it. But it would be better that way. He licked his lower lip as excitement began to twist through him.
“You showering or what, Gideon?”
Bram eyed him with water still streaming down his face.
“Yeah, just thought I saw a bogey.”
Bram jerked his head around, scanning the horizon. Gideon began stripping. He draped his own vest over a stall and couldn’t resist giving it a little pat. Sweet anticipation spread its warm glow through him. She was his girl now. Because he’d been slick enough to steal her picture, that made her his. A man got to keep what he stole, that was one of the oldest laws on earth. Gideon reached up for another chain and yanked it hard. Cool, life-giving water covered him. He kept the pressure on that chain for a good minute, enjoying the fact that he could take a shower when there were people just over the rise who were worried about getting enough to drink.
He didn’t feel sorry for them. Didn’t waste his time on anything that didn’t have to do with him and what he wanted. Nothing else mattered.
Life wasn’t fair, so there was no reason for him to be.
* * *
They’d buried him in a shallow grave. Sullivan woke up gasping. When he sucked in a breath, he got a face full of burlap from his shroud. He could smell the dirt he was lying under and strained to move it. He fought for his life, struggling against the hold the earth had on him. He broke free with a snarl, clawing at the burlap and ripping it as two of his fingernails went with it.
He fucking loved the pain because he was alive to feel it. His entire face hurt like Satan himself had kissed it and that made Sullivan laugh. Yeah, the devil didn’t want him in hell, at least not just yet. He crawled out of the hole and happily kicked the dislodged soil back into place. A rough cross was hammered in at the top of it.
Ricky turned his back on it and walked away from the lights of the prison. His lip was split but he started to whistle as he went because he was on his way to happiness.
Vengeance was going to make him very, very happy. Tyler Martin was going to regret leaving him for dead. And while he was extracting what was due him, Saxon Hale, Vitus Hale, and Captain Bram Magnus owed him plenty for getting Carl Davis pissed off at him.
Yup, it was payback time.
Time for the devil’s due.
“Hurry up, Jaelyn!”
LeAnn stomped into the kitchen with the grace of a truck driver. Her candy-pink miniskirt swishing over her thighs didn’t look sweet or innocent. Neither did the scowl on her sister’s face. LeAnn always knew how to make the male population squirm and she enjoyed doing it, too. But it was an act, one that wasn’t employed behind the closed doors of the house.
“Can’t you iron faster? It’s preliminary tryouts today, and there is going to be a line a mile long. I could lose my spot if I’m not there to defend it.”
Jaelyn held up the iron and a puff of steam rose between her sister and her. “By all means, show me how it’s done.”
LeAnn instantly changed her demeanor. Her face brightened with a soft smile designed to coax. “Oh, Jaelyn, you know I’m a complete flop when it comes to making things nice. I’ve got to shine…”
“I know it’s important. Two minutes, if you want it done right.”
Jaelyn pressed the iron back down onto the little white top spread out on the ironing board. There was a hiss and another puff of steam. Her sister smiled and turned around to look at her face in a wall mirror. LeAnn lifted one perfectly manicured finger, expertly smoothing out her eyeliner on her bottom lid.
Her makeup was perfect. The sort of thing you saw staring out of a magazine. Of course, that made sense. There were dozens of the things stacked up in the house, and she invested serious time in makeup classes. Jaelyn could admire the dedication, even if she didn’t see the personal value in doing it herself.
But they were alike when it came to their taste in men.
Jaelyn felt the sting of guilt as she lifted the little top off the ironing board. LeAnn grabbed the top and inspected it with a critical eye, then a rare, genuine smile crossed her lips. “You’re the best, Jaelyn.”
For a moment, time shifted, returning them to when they’d been kids and best friends. Just a blink, though, and there was a scamper of high heels on the entryway tiles. Her sister stopped long enough to shrug into the top before she opened the door to vanish down the walkway in a cloud of perfect hair.
“She’s an alien.”
Her grandfather lifted a gray eyebrow at her. His lips were pressed into a hard line of disapproval but he shook his head, dismissing the matter. He made his way to the coffeepot and poured himself a mugful. He looked at her over the rim through the rising steam.
“I refuse to accept that any kin of mine can run out my front door without even saying good morning to me,” he drew a long sip from the coffee and shook his head. “Nicest thing I can say is, that girl must be alien spawn. I’ve got to be succumbing to old age for letting her live under my roof while she treats me like I’m already dead.”
Rolling her eyes, Jaelyn reached for a skillet. “She’s just impulsive. LeAnn loves you.”
It was a weak excuse but Jaelyn didn’t want to admit to her grandfather just why she let LeAnn walk all over her.
Guilt. It was chewing a hole in her.
Cracking an egg, she dropped it into the heating pan. It sizzled while her grandfather glared over the rim of his coffee mug at her. His face might be wrinkled by time but his gaze was still keen and cutting into her.
“Don’t ask,” Jaelyn advised him.
Adding two more eggs to the pan, she tried to let the promise of breakfast distract her grandfather.
“Does that mean the date didn’t go well?”
No such luck.
“It didn’t go … bad…,” she muttered. Unless she wanted to admit that Richard Sherlot’s kiss didn’t even curl one of her toes.
Not even a tingle, actually.
“That young man was put together rather nice.”
Jaelyn pointed the spatula at him. “The deal was, I’d go on the date. I did. A postmortem discussion was not included in the agreement.”
Jaelyn fluttered her eyelashes and held on tightly to her poker face. Her grandfather’s eyes twinkled, the finger aimed at her beginning to wave back and forth. Jaelyn shrugged.
Slipping the eggs onto a plate, she delivered it to the table in front of her grandfather with a flourish.
“You should be out where the boys can chase you instead of cooking for me.”
“I need to check the rolls.”
Jaelyn grabbed a dish towel and wrapped it around her hand. Her grandfather grunted and she opened the oven door to avoid the conversation, ducking out of the way as heat escaped. She gave her full attention to the cinnamon rolls bubbling on the center rack of the oven. She didn’t need to see the look on her grandpa’s face, didn’t need to hear him tell her to find a boy.
She didn’t want a boy. Disgust blossomed inside her, disgust for her own fascination with someone who wasn’t going to be thinking anywhere near as much about her. It had just been a kiss … God, she was pathetic.
She should have slept with Richard just to get her fascination with Bram out of her system.
Except that the entire idea made her feel like a quitter.
She wanted to fall in love and have amazing sex, not just sex. Was it too much to ask?
Jaelyn shook her head to clear it, earning a grunt from her grandfather.
“Kenny Gardener has a couple of boys. I’ll give him a call and—”
“One more word about setting me up and I won’t make the icing,” Jaelyn warned, looking over her shoulder at her grandfather. He narrowed his eyes at her. “One blind date a month is my max.”
“You play rough.”
She allowed her hand to hover over the power switch on the mixer. The icing ingredients were already carefully measured and waiting for the whipping blade to cream them together. Her grandpa only got home-baked rolls on the weekend because during the week she kept him on a strict low-fat diet. His eyes were bright as a boy’s on Christmas morning as the scent of hot sugar and cinnamon filled the air.
Fine, she was being rotten again but every girl had her limits. She flipped the switch and the mixer started up.
The phone rang, too. Her grandfather nabbed it.
“Why yes, Richard, Jaelyn’s here … she was just telling me about your date … Nope, it’s not too early at all.”
Milton smirked at her as the icing came together and he held the phone out to her.
She knew the look. Her grandfather looked sweet and innocent, but she’d learned to play hard from him. Seriously, Milton could sweet-talk a gang of old ladies into shining his shoes. She took the phone because she knew when she’d been one-upped.
Milton beamed and used the opportunity to cut himself a huge slice of cinnamon roll twist that he happily slathered with icing. Coffee mug in hand, he carried his prize toward the living room table as he winked at her and Richard started talking.
She really needed more coffee.
* * *
Bram kept his gaze on his tablet but his attention wasn’t on the information being displayed. Men were pouring out of their tents and work areas, high-tailing it on the double to where letters and packages were being handed out.
He was waiting, too, eager, poised, needy.
He was practically drooling like a dog waiting for a bone. Just one damned meatless bone to prove he wasn’t invisible.
The private finished off his bag of mail without calling Bram’s name.
What did he expect? He’d jumped on her the second her sister tossed him aside. A girl like Jaelyn wouldn’t settle for a guy who thought of her as a consolation prize.
He forced himself to focus.
He would still write her another letter.
* * *
LeAnn climbed into her car Monday afternoon and frowned. The mailman was blocking the driveway. Clicking her fingernails against the steering wheel, she watched him stuff a folded bundle of sale circulars into the mailbox. With a rattle, the mail truck moved on to their neighbor’s box.
Backing up, she stopped at the curb. Getting out of the car she pulled the mailbox open. The letters were all sitting inside the circulars. Flicking through them, she pulled out the ones addressed to her. A little huff passed her lips as she found one with an overseas stamp on it.
Magnus. Captain Bram Magnus who had been overseas so long the man seemed to have forgotten whose boyfriend he was. LeAnn scowled at the letter. It was addressed to Jaelyn again.
She took it anyway and closed the mailbox. Climbing back into her car, she tossed the letter onto the passenger seat. Punching on her music, she merged into the traffic.
Boyfriends did not dump her.
Oh, she’d read every one of his letters to little Jaelyn. Each one made her madder than the last. He was hers. No boyfriend of hers was going to do one thing for any girl except her, and that included her sister.
Especially since little Jaelyn wasn’t as innocent as she put on. Magnus had penned such a nice apology for kissing her. LeAnn was the one owed an apology and she was going to get what she wanted.
Actually, what she really wanted was to … well … she couldn’t grasp the right word for it. In some part of her brain, she realized Jaelyn deserved a guy like Bram. But that made her realize maybe she didn’t.
She clicked her fingernails and pressed the accelerator down.
She wasn’t going there. Nope. Life was hard and sharp edged. It wasn’t her fault and she wasn’t going to spend her time apologizing for playing hard in order to get what she wanted. Men did it all the time. Even Bram. He’d show up anytime he wanted attention, expecting her to be there, and she had been. But she wasn’t going to miss out on life while he was away.
He certainly wasn’t. Nope. Bram was earning his position and so was she. There was no way she was going to be shamed into becoming a groundhog that waited for spring to show up.
Cobra Fire Base
Gideon licked his lower lip. Sneaking a final look around, he unsnapped his vest pocket. Shoving two fingers into it, he felt the worn edge of the picture. Excitement sent adrenaline pumping through his veins. His hand actually shook when he pulled the picture free.
His voice was raw and his mouth went dry. Behind his fly, his cock filled until it was hard.
“Sweet little pair of pussycats.”
The captain was a bastard for not sharing.
Gideon stroked the picture with the tip of his index finger. But which one belonged to the captain?
Gideon peered at the photo until he noticed the way the pretty girl had her skirt raised up to show off some thigh.
He pushed the picture deep into his pants pocket.
Yeah, he knew which one. Because he was smart. Smarter than the idiots wearing uniforms. Maybe they got the glory but he was getting the paycheck. A man with money could get any girl he wanted, no matter who took her picture to war with him.