HE'S A NAVY SEAL SUSPECTED OF MURDER.
SHE'S HIS LOVER--AND THE CHIEF INVESTIGATOR.
Chris Waldron, an elite U.S. Navy SEAL, is used to getting out of tight spots. But all his years of training can't prepare him for the crisis he now faces. When a mission to rescue a kidnapped ambassador and his wife goes tragically awry, an FBI hostage negotiator is killed and Chris finds himself at the center of the ensuing investigation. Leading the charge is Jamie Michaels, a blistering-hot special agent--and Chris's onetime lover.
Despite their reignited mutual attraction, Jamie is determined to keep things professional with Chris this time. But seeing him bruised and battered in that hospital bed has rekindled all those feelings she thought she'd left behind during their brief, passionate encounter in Africa. Now Jamie must keep at bay her craving for danger as she spearheads a search for the truth that just may blow Chris's career to bits--and put them both in the crosshairs of an unseen enemy.
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January 25, 2010
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Excerpt from Hold on Tight by Stephanie Tyler
So I may be tainted in my truth
When I claim I'm bullet-proof
But every half-assed assault
Has been a death by default
--Abby Ahmad, "Tri-Me"
Chief Petty Officer Chris Waldron knew he looked like hell and he felt a hell of a lot worse.
He didn't know how long he'd spent strapped to a bed staring up at a plaster ceiling in some kind of drug-induced haze while his body healed and his mind remained numb.
He floated in and out of consciousness, mainly because the doctors kept waking him up, which was really starting to get on his last fucking nerve.
He'd been a SEAL for eight years, long enough to know that complaining never did anyone much good. But inside his head--man, he was bitching up a storm and a half.
Someone had shoved his iPod earbuds in, and until the battery died he'd been slightly contented listening to AC/DC's Back in Black album in a continuous loop.
He woke himself up singing the chorus of Creedence's "Green River" out loud. The nurse was staring at him as if he was crazy and normally he'd be all Oh honey, I could give you some of this crazy if you'd just lay yourself down here.
But not today.
Because even though she was pretty, with a kind face, he realized on some level that his mind could take longer to heal than his body if he didn't start dealing with what had happened. Sex wasn't the answer.
Still, the nurse was so intent on staring at his eyes--the two different colors tended to do that to people--that she'd forgotten about the needle she was supposed to inject into his IV tubing. Now the drug that had kept him foggy hovered in his periphery.
He was slower than normal, but still pretty damned fast. The nurse called for the doctor, but it was too late. He'd yanked the needle out and held the IV pole like a weapon, since they'd confiscated all of his.
"Son, it's all right--you're on a U.S. Military base infirmary in Djibouti. The nurse was trying to give you your pain meds but we can talk about it first." The doctor spoke slowly while Chris stared at him, willing himself to believe that, but his body was still reacting--his hand held tight to the IV pole in a fight-or-flight response, and since flight wasn't an option, he was going to bash whoever came near him with the damn pole.
"Chris, come on, man--put that down before you fuck someone up."
It was his CO's drawl, heavy like thick syrup, which meant Saint was as tired as Chris felt.
"No more drugs," Chris told the doctor while he continued to retain possession of the I won't take any more drugs pole.
The doctor looked at Saint, who said, "If he needs them, he'll ask."
The doc relented, motioned to Chris for his arm, which was bleeding all over the place, and Chris reluctantly let go of the metal pole.
"Sorry, ma'am," he told the nurse as she put a bandage on his arm.
"You've got a great voice, Chief," she said with a smile. Saint rolled his eyes because normally one comment like that could make Chris a one-man concert. But even though the music was still playing in his head, all he did this time was say, "Thanks."
He remained seated at the edge of the bed once he and Saint were left alone, struggling to get his equilibrium back. He stared down at his bare feet and felt a sudden urge to rip the hospital gown off his body. Which he did promptly, throwing it on the ground while asking, "How long have I been here?"
"Twenty-four hours. You made it to the helo on your own steam."
He didn't remember that fully. The memories were there, but the edges blurred, bleeding into the bigger, slow-moving picture like he was attempting to see clearly underwater.
Cam. His teammate's face was the last thing he remembered seeing before he surrendered to the safety of unconsciousness. "Where's Cam?"
"Already in Germany--he stopped by to see you before he left."
"I remember, thought I was hallucinating."
"You're getting transported there yourself at 0500 for evaluation before they'll take you home."
Chris took stock of the various bruises and contusions on his body--a few stitches here and there, but nothing major. His head, however, was a different story. There was a definite aching throb behind what was left of the narcotics. "Concussion?"
Saint nodded. "No fractures. You're pretty banged up, but you should've been hurt a hell of a lot worse. They held you here so they could run some tests."
Chris closed his eyes for a second and said a silent prayer to his momma, who he was sure was responsible for this one. "Do Jake and Nick know about this?"
"It's been all I could do to hold them back. They're calling every hour on the hour. They weren't going to tell your father but--"
"He knows." His dad always knew when things went wrong--it was next to impossible to hide anything from a parent with second sight. His brothers would've found out by the more traditional routes and were, no doubt, freaking. Not that he would've been any different had one of them been in his position.
"Are you awake enough to answer some questions for me?" Saint asked.
It wasn't really a question, since Saint had already pulled up a chair. His CO had remarkable patience, but Chris could tell it was wearing thin.
He didn't relish this conversation one bit, thought about Jake and Nick and wished his brothers were here with him now.
He wondered if he'd make it through this without throwing up.
It wasn't every day that you had to tell a man how his best friend died. Their team was close, for sure, with so much history tying all of them together. This was the first tear in the fabric. "Yeah, I'm awake enough."
"What's the last thing you remember about what happened with Mark--what did he say?" Saint stared at him steadily, searching for some kind of answer before Chris even began speaking.
"He told me he was going in, against Josiah's orders. He told me to stay put. I tried to talk him out of it, but he pulled rank. And I don't remember him going in, Saint. I remember every other fucking thing . . . but all I remember is Mark's hand on my shoulder and then . . ."
And then Josiah, the FBI member of the Joint Task Force Team and the man in charge of the Op, was arguing with them, angry that Mark had gone in against Josiah's direct order to stand down. Chris and Cam insisted on going into the embassy--which was already taking heavy fire--but they were at least fifteen minutes behind Mark for the hostages. Inside was chaos; they both heard Mark yelling down the hall but they couldn't get that far without leaving the ambassador in greater jeopardy.
"We made a decision to get the ambassador and his wife out and then go back in for Mark," Chris said. "Everything was happening at once and we had a split second."
"Don't second-guess it."
Chris nodded, swallowed hard. "I was just outside the building, Cam was maybe twenty feet ahead of me, with the ambassador and his wife and their kids close behind. I was backing him up."
"Were you alone?"
Chris thought hard. "No. Josiah was with me."
Chris and Josiah were providing cover, with Chris ready to go back in for Mark, when the explosion rocked the building. He'd been thrown hard, woke up maybe half an hour later, ears ringing and still looking for Josiah and then for Mark.
"And then they killed him," Saint spoke quietly, his voice tight with anger. "The rebels killed Mark and took him away from there so they could have an American trophy rather than leave him in the building to die in the explosion. There are already reports that have the rebels claiming they killed a U.S. Navy SEAL after they'd gotten him to give them some classified information about anti-terrorism initiatives."
"There's no way Mark would've given intel." The rebel soldiers might have killed him in the most inhumane way imaginable, but they'd never broken him. Chris was sure of that.
"His body still hasn't been found." Saint spoke quietly, stared at the white wall of the hospital room, a tinge of disbelief in his voice that this was really happening. His jungle greens were fresh, his blond hair damp, as if he'd just showered, but there were circles under his normally bright blue eyes, his mouth pulled into a tight, grim line.
Saint and Mark had come up through BUD/S together, had served in Coronado and had come to Virginia to take charge of Team Twelve.
To leave Mark behind in this country left a knot in Chris's stomach that no amount of IV drugs could take care of. No body meant no closure, signified a failure. "I'm sorry, Saint."
"Don't give me that sorry bullshit, Chris. Mark died doing what he loved. You did everything you could, so fuck the guilt. He'd kill you for it." Saint's words were more than ironic, and more than true, and still Chris knew it would be a long time before he was able to let any of this go.
"They'll keep looking?"
"If they don't, I will. I already told the admiral that." Saint stood, looked toward the small open window, jaw clenched for a second before getting back to business. "You should get some clothes on. There's an FBI agent who needs to hear what you've got to say in more detail."
And he didn't bother to ask Saint if it was her coming to question him, because he could sense her, in the hall, maybe right outside the door.
He caught himself rubbing the fingertips of his left hand together lightly.
"Yeah, it's her," Saint said, catching the familiar, pensive sign that meant Chris was processing something important.
For as far back as Chris could remember, he'd been different, stood apart from everyone but his momma and dad, because he knew things.
Over the years, he'd attempted to convince himself that he was only dealing with a sharper, more refined intuition, that he'd merely honed an ability others never took the trouble to do. His brothers called it psychic Cajun bullshit even though they knew, the way Chris himself did, that there was much more to it than that. More than he wanted to think about right now, and so he forced his palm flat against the sheet as Saint asked, "Are you ready?"
Chris wondered how long Jamie had been here, if she'd questioned Cam before he left. She hadn't come in to see him before this--he'd have to be dead not to remember that. "You can let her in."
The Joint Task Force Chris had been a part of on this mission had consisted of himself and Mark; Josiah Miller, a hostage negotiator for the FBI; a Force Recon Marine named Rocco Martin, whose specialty was languages and a Delta operative named Cameron Moore who had extensive knowledge of the kidnappers as well as the area.
It was a relatively straightforward mission--rescue the four kidnapped UN peacekeepers, the American ambassador and his movie-star wife, who worked as a Goodwill Ambassador and visited many war-torn countries, and their two adopted children. Africa was her newest project--hence, the massive publicity when she and the ambassador arrived in the Sudan.
That was never a good thing in a country like this.
As of today, the ambassador and his family were safe, the UN peacekeepers had been assassinated and all of the men on the Joint Task Force were dead except for Chris and Cam.
Chris reluctantly pulled on a pair of sweats that Saint had brought him, the pain coming on stronger now. But the pain was good--he needed to feel that after days and days of numbness. The burning hot grief was as fresh as if time had stood still while he was out cold.
Nothing was ever going to be the same, especially not after Special Agent Jamie Michaels walked into his hospital room. Her stride was confident, more than necessary, as if trying to hide her hesitancy in seeing him again.
He couldn't blame her--he'd walked away from her two months ago in the DRC and hadn't gotten in touch with her since.
To be fair, she hadn't exactly been knocking down his door either.
"You know Agent Michaels," Saint said, acknowledging the elephant in the room as he pulled his own chair closer to Chris in a show of support.
"How are you feeling, Chief Petty Officer Waldron?" She was all business, addressing him formally, although there was an edge of softness to her tone that only Chris could discern. He'd heard that same softness when her naked body had pressed against his.
"Let's get this over with." He slid back into the bed and yanked the covers roughly over his bare chest, more as a shield than for any particular modesty, and out of respect for the job she was here to do.
To have to talk about this, time and time again, was hard enough. To have to share every last vulnerability in front of Jamie made every primal instinct in him scream.
It's not Jamie--it's Special Agent Michaels standing there watching you.
He rubbed his cheek, bruised and tender from where he landed after the embassy exploded in front of him, remembered cracking his nose back into place on his way to the helo.
She remained standing, nearer to the window than to him. She had a pad on the sill, pen in hand, and she kept her eyes focused on his. "Can you confirm that your team could not save the UN peacekeepers?"
Chris's hands fisted the sheets tightly. "Do you think you'd be here asking me these questions if the mission had gone well?"
"Are you going to answer the question?"
"You don't want to fuck with me now--if you're not going to ask real questions, get out."
"I'm trying to make this easy on you, Chief Petty Officer."
"Well, thank you for that, Agent Michaels. I sure as shit appreciate it." His voice was guttural and Saint shot him a warning look. But he ignored it, too busy watching Jamie.
She didn't react, didn't blink. He wanted to see something from her, but she had her game face on.
It was time for him to put his on as well. If nothing else, he owed calm and collected to Mark Kendall.
It was Mark's own words that came to mind now, a speech he'd given to the new BUD/S recruits during their first E&E session.
Mark, who'd been captured twice before and escaped, had used his own experiences to pound the recruits under his charge. Capture comes when you least expect it. Sometimes it's because you lost focus momentarily. Sometimes it's because you let your guard down when you shouldn't have.
In real life, letting your guard down happens. In combat, it never should.
When anyone would ask Mark if he felt like he had nine lives, he would always answer, No one's that lucky.
"I'm going to cut the title crap, call everyone by their first names. I know that's not how you like to operate . . ."
"I can live with that," she told him, and at least she was focusing on him and not Saint. Progress.
He fought an urge to drop his head into his hands and rub his temples. "You know the mission was to rescue a group of UN peacekeepers who'd been kidnapped outside Khartoum along the road to the British Embassy. They were with an American ambassador and his wife, traveling to a meeting with the Sudanese government because they're trying to adopt a child from the country."
"And they had their own children with them," she added.
"Yes." Losing an American ambassador would be bad enough--losing an internationally beloved movie star and her two small children would've put an international spotlight on both the kidnapping and the failure of the United States to protect their own. It would lead to copycat kidnappings and a breakdown in communications at a time when Homeland Security needed to gain much more cooperation from the Sudanese government. "That trip was a nightmare from the beginning--way too much publicity and not nearly enough protection. They didn't even bring a bodyguard with them to the embassy--a show of good faith."
"I guess they thought that the publicity would protect them," Jamie mused. "That and the peacekeepers."
He didn't answer that, still couldn't get over what the ambassador had done in leaving his family wide open like that.
Jamie pressed on. "From what I've read, your instructions were specific--you were given an exact time and place to meet the rebel soldiers and make the trade."
Except there wasn't going to be a trade. The United States didn't play that way. The trade was supposed to have been a surprise takeout of the rebels. Nothing Chris and his team hadn't done before. Working with the Joint Task Force was new, but all of the men were more than qualified to pull the mission off.
"We arrived hours earlier than the meeting," he explained. "We were on the ground waiting by 0200 and we knew something was off." In fact, all of them had gotten an instant sense of goatfuck.
That was the problem with covert missions--they were so classified, so secret that sometimes getting help to the correct areas was difficult if not near impossible.
"But you didn't leave, didn't radio anyone for clarification, correct?" she asked.
"No, we didn't. We made the decision as a group to move forward. We had the cover of night on our side."
"And by going in early, weren't you afraid of compromising the lives of the peacekeepers?"
He forced his voice to be dispassionate. "Those men had been dead for a long time, probably since the night they'd been kidnapped."
The mud-and-brick makeshift structure where the trade was to have taken place was still hot from the warmth of the day, the stench of death overpowering from the second they'd opened the door. Without even closing his eyes, he could still see the faces of the four men who'd been hanged, the blood pulled from their faces. It had taken him several long moments before he'd been able to force himself to look away.
Jamie paused for a second, the rat-tat-tat of muffled machine-gun fire echoing around the building--a near constant, most familiar sound in this part of the world. "The ambassador and his wife weren't among the dead."
"No. There wasn't anyone else there--I searched the area myself, with Cam. Mark, Rocco and Josiah cut the bodies down and prepared to carry them back down to the beach to the LZ."
But the blast of mortar fire rocked the structure, already precariously built into the mountainside, and the men scattered, looking for cover.
"Rocco was killed instantly," he said bluntly. "The firefight cut off comms on our end. When we got the bodies to the beach, we were given intel that the ambassador and his family were being held at the Sudanese embassy, which was surrounded by Darfur rebels."
"Were you wounded?" she interrupted.
"Most of my injuries occurred after the explosion."
By the time they'd arrived at the embassy--close to dawn--the place was getting rocked. There was as close to a riot as Chris had ever seen, and he and his remaining team members waited quietly by the back wall, assessing the situation.
The carnage was everywhere, victims splayed all along the main area--men, women and children indiscriminately murdered.
But there were signs of life . . . signs that none of them wanted to see or hear. More rebel soldiers than their group of four could effectively deal with.
Of course, that didn't matter--each of them was more than willing to go in, despite their injuries from the earlier skirmish.
But Josiah refused that plan. "We're not going in. It's suicide."
Mark hadn't argued at the time, but Cam had, the pain in his face evident.
Seven hours later, even as Cam and Chris escorted the ambassador and his wife onto the helo, that pain was still there, as if etched forever in the man's features.
It was the screams that had gotten to them, had most likely been what forced Mark into the building against Josiah's orders. Chris had always thought he could get lost inside his own mind, the way he did during capture-training exercises. But nothing could've prepared him for the gut-wrenching cries of the ambassador's wife.
"So Mark Kendall disobeyed a direct order from Josiah."
"Mark sacrificed himself so we could get the ambassador and his family out of there," Chris shot back.
"Did everyone agree with his decision?"
"I was the only one he told, until Josiah realized he'd gone. At that point, the three of us took a vote--Josiah still said no to going in but Cam and I disagreed. Josiah wasn't happy about that, he advised we stay put and refused to come into the embassy with Cam and me. But when I came out the back door, Josiah was there, waiting for me. Ready to give cover."
"How did things escalate from the rescue to the explosion to what happened afterward?"
What happened afterward. What a nice way to put it. Made it sound like he sat down and had tea after the entire embassy exploded instead of waking up facedown in the dirt, head pounding and ears ringing.
Even now, he still smelled the burning fire, the aftermath of the explosion, as if it was embedded in his senses. "I saw the rebel soldiers carrying Mark's body out of the embassy. The next thing I knew, the building exploded. When I woke up, most of it was down--I couldn't find any of my team members. I circled what was left of the building, looking for signs of life. Still saw none of my team and ascertained that my best course of action was heading to the LZ for backup.
"Who was at the helo when you arrived?"
"So he'd left everyone behind."
He let his gaze flick over her coolly for a few seconds, wondering if he could make her squirm at all.
Nothing. Fuck. "His job was to get the ambassador and his wife and children to safety. That was his charge--his order from Josiah."
"And what's the last thing you remember about Josiah, the last order he gave you?"
"One minute he was next to me. The next, there was no sign of him." Chris heard the small break in his own voice, blamed the dizzying combination of exhaustion, pain and grief.
"What is the last order you received from Josiah?" she persisted.
He practically shot up in bed, which startled her. "There was none, Jamie. At that point, there were no more orders."
"I think we're done here for now." Saint stood and prepared to escort Jamie out, whether she wanted to go or not.
Chris definitely had mixed feelings about that, but Jamie didn't protest.
"Yes, we're done for now. Thank you for your candor, Chief Petty Officer Waldron," she said, her voice tight as she left the room with Saint in tow.
He buried his face in the pillow and mumbled, "Call me Chris. For fuck's sake, Jamie, just call me Chris."