Friday, October 17, 2014

The BlackOps Brotherhood Hijacks the Blog

     

Hey there ladies! 

 It’s me Lt Dan from Bella’s BlackOps Brotherhood Series.  I suppose you’re wondering why I’m writing this instead of Bella… Well… something happened to her email… again.  I think there was a reminder from this blog that she had a date to post right before her email all got deleted.  I know, I know, awe, poor Bella having all those computer problems.

                So…Let’s just say I’m helping her out today and writing this for her.  Master Chief, who usually gets creative with these things, has been banned because he doesn’t know how to behave around ladies.  He gets all flirty and has a REAL sailor’s mouth.  Captain gave me the go ahead to do this and – uh – help Bella out.  Since I haven’t had the-um- privilege of being the star in any of her books, I’ve decided to give you all a peek of her first chapters in all of the Black Ops Brotherhood series and her 1NS Novella.  So enjoy!  And don’t forget to check out my updates on Bella’s Watch List status



 

Rapid Dominance
 BlackOps Brotherhood 1


Web Site:  www.bellajuarez.com

Blurb: 

[Romantic Suspense, public exhibition, light bondage, spanking, food play, HEA] 

Engineering student Victoria Saenz lands a dream job as a housekeeper while she attends graduate school. Major Reese Thompson, USMC, is no ordinary master of the house. His hard body and strict military manner are male perfection.

 Reese is stuck in a loveless marriage with a hypochondriac wife. He returns from Iraq to divorce papers left with his maid. Victoria agrees to stay, to help him pick up the pieces, but Reese’s attraction to Victoria grows every day as the house seems to get smaller. The brunette beauty is there at every turn, tempting him.

 They discover a deep, sometimes dark love for one another as danger looms. The terrorist cell Reese has worked tirelessly to take down has a secret weapon in their war against Reese. Will Reese and Victoria's love withstand the storms of war, despite all the forces threatening to tear them apart?

 Chapter One

 Victoria wanted to shout with joy when she got back into her car. The job was almost perfect. It would be easy. She simply had to cook, wash, and clean for a married couple with no kids. She would have room and board and a small salary. The house wasn’t that big and the man of the house traveled a lot. At least that’s what his wife had told Victoria. The woman, she had a feeling, could be high maintenance. Maggie Thompson had just spent an hour telling Victoria how sick she was.

There was one very bizarre requirement to the job. Victoria could only speak Spanish—no English allowed, ever. Whatever. Victoria shrugged. She spoke and read fluent Spanish, and if it got her the job, so be it. This job would give her plenty of time to work on her thesis and finish up her master’s degree from George Washington University. Mrs. Thompson had told Victoria she could start tomorrow morning and move in. It was a good thing, because Victoria was running low on money and really didn’t want to dip into her savings again. She decided to get back to her efficiency, pack up her few possessions, and be ready to move in with the Thompsons by tomorrow.

Victoria had lived very sparingly and could move within a day. The lease on her small, furnished efficiency was up in a couple of weeks. This job was just in the nick of time. As she gathered her clothes into a pile on the bed, she decided on what she would take to the Thompsons and what she would give back to charity. Thrift stores had been her best friend since coming to the DC area three months ago. Things were finally beginning to turn around for the better.

* * * *
“I’ve hired a housekeeper,” Maggie informed Reese.

“Why?” Reese asked, annoyed.

“You know what my situation is, Reese. I can barely walk, and you expect me to cook and clean?” Maggie whined.

Reese had just had a really shitty day. He had just been handed orders to Iraq, again, for at least eighteen months. This would be the longest stint that he had been on in some time. General Petraeus, in all his infinite wisdom, had decided to do a “secret surge” ahead of the larger one that would be announced six months before his outfit would come back. This one would involve a giant push to gather intelligence and soften up the areas that were problematic, mainly Fallujah and Najaf.

This would be the second time the Marines were in Fallujah. It was getting bloody and would come to a head if something wasn’t done. Great idea, but it sucked for those having to carry it out. The operations planned had code names like Al-Fajr and Phantom Fury. Thanksgiving and Christmas 2004 would be spent involved in a military offensive halfway around the world. Reese would be coming home as the larger surge started.

Of course, claiming to be sick all the time, Maggie couldn’t do any cooking or cleaning, so she had to have a maid. All these supposed illnesses were getting on his nerves. This new bullshit move of Maggie’s was doing nothing for Reese’s mood. He had learned a long time ago, like most pussy-whipped husbands, not to argue. He would get nowhere, and it would just piss her off.

There was always something wrong with Maggie. She had this pain or that ache, and she was in and out of the hospital and on and off drugs for almost the entire history of their marriage. If she wasn’t suffering from a migraine then she came up with fibromyalgia. It was always one bullshit excuse after another. Which, for Reese, meant sex on a regular basis was out of the question.

All men in any sort of relationship understood the concept—the Bermuda Triangle. He thought quietly how it kept men scared, in line, and on their knees. The little Bermuda Triangle that women had between their legs was a powerful weapon, if used effectively. He often wondered how it could be used in full-scale war. Just the fear of it should be able to drive most men into submission. There was an old Gunny that once told him, “that pussy pulls trains, boy.” He was right! Reese considered with some regret just how stupid men got when it came to the Triangle. With this last move to Virginia, Maggie had decided to drop all the pretenses of a communal marriage and moved into her own bedroom. At the time, the move didn’t surprise Reese. In fact, it was a relief. He tried to compensate for the lack of attention at home by immersing himself in his career. He applied and went to every training school he could. Reese found himself taking every assignment that was passed his way. He even contemplated how lack of sex and attention was great for his career.

Reese and Maggie had drifted apart. When the intimacy faded, their communication went with it. He was alone in what had turned out to be an emotionally exhausting relationship. She seemed to take more pills and see more doctors, and he took on more dangerous assignments. He had been to Afghanistan and Iraq more times than he could count.

Reese thought about how women must have a little secret class that holds lessons on how to deal with men. His father always told him there were two direct routes to a man’s heart, his stomach and his dick. Both have to be treated equally. If you can fuck a man, feed a man, and give a man a place to sleep in relative peace, he will gladly go out and slay dragons and lay the world at his woman’s feet. With some pussy and skills in the kitchen, a woman could name what she wanted.

What the fuck! Reese raged at himself. I ain’t getting any and I ain’t going to get any, so why the hell am I keeping my mouth shut in fear of some creature that claims to be sickly all the time? Nope, not today! It was a turning point for him as he realized he had nothing left to lose. I am the one with the paycheck, I am the one who takes said paycheck and pays the bills, and I am the one leaving in four months. What the fuck!

Reese quickly decided that if Maggie decided to walk, it would be worth giving her half of everything just so he could be free to seek an occasional pleasure in another, more willing Triangle.

“Maggie, I’m not paying for a housekeeper. You need to get off your ass and do your job. You stay home all day. I expect this house clean and my meals cooked when I come through that door at night. If you want to pay a housekeeper, you go get a job and you pay them,” Reese said firmly.

“What?” Maggie whispered.

“You heard me,” Reese said, standing his ground.

It took Maggie a full minute to realize the line in the sand had been drawn and Reese was not budging. Not one inch.

“You selfish bastard! Neanderthal!” Maggie screamed.

Reese knew Maggie was not used to being denied any whim she had. She was officially pissed. And for the first time in ten years, he didn’t care. He was tired, and in his own way, started the ball rolling for things to come. He watched as the tears started and thought with disgust, what an overused trick. That was not going to work anymore. He turned and walked up the stairs, unfazed, to his bedroom, and changed for his evening run. He heard the door slam as she ran to her bedroom and began to cry in earnest. Reese figured somewhere in her mind Maggie realized her power over him had waned. Her worst fear had come to pass. He was thinking with the right head, and she needed him a hell of a lot more than he now needed her.

Reese went for his run, took a shower, and made himself something to eat. The door to Maggie’s room was still closed when he passed on his way to bed. That was the good thing about her moving to her own room, he pondered as he lay down in the middle of his king-sized bed. There would none of her bitching about moving around or touching her and how bad it hurt her. Life was good. He passed out and slept like a rock only to wake with a start in the middle of the night when someone touched him.

“What!” Reese demanded.

“Reese, I’m sorry darling, but I need to go to the emergency room,” Maggie said weakly.

Reese turned and looked at the clock. It was two in the morning. Is she serious? his sleep-addled brain screamed in protest. He didn’t need to ask that question out loud. If he refused to take her, Maggie would call an ambulance. She had him. Again. Yes, she does, he thought with despair, because he could never be sure how much was real or fake. He got up and dressed without a word.

“What’s up, Maggie? What’s wrong?” Reese asked as they drove.

“Do you really care?” Maggie asked in a weak, sulking voice.

“Maggie, please. Just tell me what’s wrong,” Reese said, defeated.

Reese saw the first toe had just stepped over his line in the sand. Damn it! This woman can play me like a fiddle. This was another one of Maggie’s sick games and he knew it.

“I’m in so much pain, Reese. I can barely lift my arms. That stupid doctor at Cherry Point misdiagnosed me. I think I have ALS,” Maggie said as she began to cry softly.

“I hope not, Maggie,” Reese said reassuringly.

Jesus Christ! Why would someone wish that on themselves? Reese was disgusted as he quietly wondered if he could fly Dr. Kevorkian down for a long weekend and end it for both of them. Maggie is sick all right, but her illness requires a quiet stay in a nice white room with lots of pillows.

Within a few weeks after moving there, she had become a regular in the ER. So they took her to the back, and he waited for them to update him on her status. Reese assumed his usual position in front of the ER television, watching CNN.

Reese started musing about Maggie and how it was when they first met and how it ended up where it was today. He was midway through the Naval Academy, and she and he had double-dated with some friends. He always thought she was pretty. Maggie was tall and thin. She had dark red hair and a face that looked pixyish. She always looked attractive and was very picky about how she dressed.

Reese mentally kicked himself because he should have seen the signs way back then. Maggie barely let him even kiss her while they were dating. She had him so frustrated after two years that he finally put a ring on her finger to get laid. What a mistake that was! As he looked back on dating her, it was always her way and never really much fun. She never wanted to be alone with him. When they finally got married, she really got off on being an officer’s wife and the whole Officers’ Wives’ Club thing.

They did a lot the first year they were married, with other people. Maggie tapered off the sex about a year into being married. Her excuse was she was sick from this, that, or the other. He was in love, or thought he was, and didn’t see the games she was playing then. If I ever get out of this and hook up with someone else, it will be different. Reese’s musings were interrupted as the doctor walked out of the emergency room and sought him out.

“Well, she’s extremely distressed and says she’s in a lot of pain. I guess I can start her on a drip for the pain, and you can pick her up later this afternoon. Do you want to go back and see her?” the doctor asked.

No, I want to go home and get some sleep, Reese wanted to say out loud but didn’t. Of course he knew how to keep his mouth shut. He was a properly whipped husband.

“Sure,” Reese said instead.

When Reese walked into the room, the first thing that hit him was how radiant Maggie looked. She was happily chatting with the nurse who was with her. She was positively beaming at the attention directed at her. She didn’t immediately notice him, so he watched her for a while. When she did notice, something striking happened. Her mood plummeted and her demeanor turned dark. Suddenly, she was deathly ill again. He saw it for himself. This time was a fake. Had she ever told the truth about anything? The nurse tending to her stopped.

“Mrs. Thompson? Are you okay?” the nurse asked.

“I’ll be all right,” Maggie said weakly.

Usually, Reese kept his revulsion to himself, but he simply could not do it this time. He shook his head openly, at first for him, and decided that he was cashing in and not playing anymore. He walked to her and gently kissed the top of her head.

“I’ll be here in the afternoon to pick you up,” Reese said.

“Thank you, darling,” Maggie said weakly.

“Good night, Maggie,” Reese said as he walked out.

When Reese got home it was almost four in the morning. He was emotionally exhausted and at the end of his rope. He didn’t undress and he lay in the middle of his bed. In another hour he would wake up no matter how much sleep he had managed. But today was different. Since Maggie’s dark cloud didn’t hang over the house, he relaxed a little too much. He didn’t wake up until he heard a distant ringing. He jumped up and looked at his watch. Shit!

It was seven forty-five in the morning. Reese had heard the doorbell. Who the fuck is it? He was fuming as he charged downstairs to the front door. He whipped the door opened and glared at the occupant of the space in front of the door.

“Señora Thompson?” she asked.
 
* * * *

Victoria took pause at the man in the doorway. He was angry, that much was clear. He was also the most beautiful creature she had ever seen in her life! Judging by the way he filled the door, he was over six feet tall. His navy blue T-shirt molded to his upper body perfectly, and his biceps filled the short sleeves to capacity. The jeans he wore hugged his long, muscular legs and narrow waist. She met his angry hazel eyes and took in his chiseled features. His face looked as if it had been sculpted in the image of Adonis himself. His dirty-blond hair was cut short and tight. By the way he carried himself he had to be an executive of some sort. She noticed he relaxed a little.

“Can I help you?” he asked in an authoritative baritone voice.

“Yes, sir, is Mrs. Thompson here?” Victoria asked in Spanish.

His beautiful face looked puzzled. “Mrs. Thompson is not here. She won’t be home until this afternoon. And you are?” he replied in perfect Spanish.

“I’m the new housekeeper, Victoria Saenz. Mr. Thompson?” Victoria asked.

“That’s right,” he said.

The entire conversation was being conducted in Spanish and he was an expert. He never missed a beat or slowed down to think about his words. Victoria was momentarily taken aback. He doesn’t look Latin or Hispanic. But he spoke better Spanish than she did.

“Come in,” Mr. Thompson said.

Mr. Thompson opened the door wider, allowing her access into the house. Victoria stepped inside and waited as he closed the door behind her.

“Come inside and sit down,” Mr. Thompson said.

Victoria followed him to the living room, the same place where she had spoken with Mrs. Thompson yesterday. He indicated for her to sit on the couch as he took a chair next to it. He paused and looked down a moment, as if trying to collect his thoughts.

“Did Mrs. Thompson explain your duties?” Mr. Thompson asked.

“Yes, sir,” Victoria said.

“Did she explain to you that she is and can get very sick?” Mr. Thompson asked.

“Yes, sir,” Victoria responded.

“Most of your job will be to take care of her. You will be taking her to the doctor, picking up her medication, and if there is an emergency, you will take her to the hospital and call me when you do. Is that clear?” Mr. Thompson asked.

“Yes, I understand.”

“I’m assuming you can drive?”

“Yes.”

“What time are you supposed to come in every day?”

“Sir?” she asked, slightly confused

“What time are you supposed to come in every day?” Mr. Thompson repeated.

“I was told I was supposed to move in. I would be in the servant’s quarters behind the kitchen,” Victoria said.

Mr. Thompson looked away and his expression surprised Victoria. He almost looked offended. Did he not know that? He nodded and turned back to face her.

“Okay. Were you supposed to start today?” Mr. Thompson questioned.

“Yes. I was,” Victoria said

“I leave for work at six thirty in the morning. I get home around six o’clock in the evening. I would like to have breakfast before I leave and I would like to have supper no later than seven. My uniforms need to be taken to the cleaners and picked up the next day. I will leave them on the table in the kitchen for you. Take my clothes to the cleaners in the strip mall as you come into the neighborhood. Is that clear?” Mr. Thompson asked.

“Yes, Mr. Thompson,” Victoria said.

“All right, I need to go to work, and then later this afternoon I will call you and let you know where to pick up Mrs. Thompson. I am sure you can figure out where everything is,” he said as he stood.

“Yes sir. Is there anything else I need to know?” she questioned.

“My mobile phone number and I need yours. If you don’t have one I will get you one,” Mr. Thompson said.

“No, sir. I have a mobile phone.”

They exchanged numbers and he informed her that Mrs. Thompson was in the hospital receiving treatment. He also informed Victoria that he would probably not be home until after seven due to his late start this morning. She nodded.

“Please make me some coffee while I get ready for work,” Mr. Thompson said as he dismissed himself.

Mr. Thompson’s tone left no question. He had not made a request—it was an order. Victoria got up and made her way to the kitchen. Thank goodness Mrs. Thompson had shown her around yesterday for a little bit. She found the coffee and set to work. She decided she would clean the house and explore the upstairs to find where everything was. If there was laundry, she would see to it. She would explore the kitchen and try to figure out supper. While that was cooking, she would set up her room.
* * * *

Reese could smell the bacon as soon as he stepped out of the shower. He was really pissed when he stepped in, but the thought of a good breakfast was helping his attitude quite a bit. He’d figured Maggie had been up to something when she didn’t let him set up his little gym in the servants’ quarters. That little room was the reason she was obsessed with this house. Now, he knew why. Maggie had been planning to hire someone all along and show off. What the hell does she think I’m made of? They didn’t really have that kind of money. Thank God when they sold the house in California they got a whole lot more than they had put into it.

Reese dressed in the uniform of the day and made his way downstairs. When he stepped into the kitchen, coffee and breakfast were ready. He looked Victoria over as he sat down to eat. Not bad…She had copper-brown hair that hung past her shoulders and brown eyes. Her round face gave her large eyes a soft doe quality. If Reese had to guess her age he would say she was in her midtwenties. She was cute, not drop-dead gorgeous, but cute. She was in blue jeans and a button-down shirt that was tucked in. She wasn’t heavy, but she wasn’t skinny, either.

Victoria was a petite woman, short, maybe a foot shorter than Reese, around five two, if that. She turned her back to reach up into the cabinet and that’s when Reese sat up and gave her his full attention. As Victoria reached up, he could see how her jeans accentuated her waist. She has nice ass, he thought. The shirt she was wearing pressed against her body, and Reese noticed she had a pair of really nice tits, too…definitely bigger than Maggie’s.

The food was perfect and the coffee was just the way Reese liked it, dark and strong. The best part of this meal, in Reese’s mind, was no bitching about having to cook it for him. This new housekeeper is working out pretty good so far. As he sat and watched her going about her work, he started to realize he was on dangerous ground.

Reese remembered his father’s axiom about the ways to a man’s heart. Victoria had quickly established route one with the meal she had made him. After checking her out, route two was coming up in a big way. He was starting to get a massive hard-on. That fucker between my legs has a mind of his own and no sense of timing. He winced as he felt his cock surge. He drank the last of his coffee and pushed himself away from the table. As he stood, she turned and he prayed she wouldn’t notice the bulge in his pants. She handed him a tumbler for the car with some more coffee. He thanked her and left as fast as he could.

It’s a bad thing for a married man to live the life of a monk. That’s not why men get married. He considered how men were like crack addicts, they needed a steady supply and when they found a reliable source they would keep and protect it. When men lost that supply, they’d try anything to remedy the situation. Like crack addicts, some men could overcome this less-than-ideal situation, and then some men get crazy and stupid. After not having any sex in at least six months, he was starting to get a little crazy. Stroking himself was not working anymore. The pork chop that doubled as his commander’s secretary had been looking like a good option for some time now.

The woman who had just moved into Reese’s house was no pork chop and an ideal option. Victoria checked all the right boxes. She was probably single and she was of age. Her best quality was her most dangerous—convenience. The servants’ quarters sat underneath the master bedroom, his room. He thought about all of this as he drove into work. He even let himself do a little fantasizing about Victoria and how good it would feel to finally fuck someone who just might be willing and grateful, instead of bitchy and demanding. That sort of thinking was a bad move.

When Reese pulled into the parking lot in front of his building, he was frustrated and hard as a railroad spike. Frustration was turning into pissed off really quick, and he was getting more and more heated by the second. He sat back and tried to calm down before he walked into the building. As he sat in his truck, another poisonous thought crept into his head. Maggie. That thought instantly deflated his painfully stiff dick.

Reese wondered if Maggie knew exactly what she was doing. Had she laid the groundwork for him to be with another woman? If he had an affair, would she leave? Nah…she’s too codependent for that to happen. If Maggie ever found out, it would be one more thing to hold over his head and keep him in hell. She was very manipulative and conniving and that would be her MO. Get him a steady supply and then bust him, putting him away for life. Evil bitch.

Reese was steeled in his resolution. Victoria was off the table and safe for now. Maggie had something up her sleeve and there was no way he was biting. He thought about all of this as he walked into work. He checked in with his guys and headed toward the workroom. His team and counterparts in the Navy were in the middle of processing some hot intel for a problem in North Korea when he was interrupted.

“Reese!” the colonel called from the doorway.

“Yes, sir,” Reese answered

“How’s Maggie?” his commanding officer asked.

“She’s okay, Colonel. Thanks for asking,” Reese said.

“Have you got an answer for me yet? Command at Pacific Fleet is going bat shit,” Colonel Winslow said, indicating the information strewn all over the table.

“We should have one in a couple hours, sir, complete with options,” Reese said.

“Do you have to leave and pick up Maggie?” the colonel asked

“No, sir,” Reese responded as he sent a silent thank-you to Victoria.

The colonel shrugged and turned away. “Get me an answer, Major, yesterday!” he said.

Reese worked for another hour when his cell phone rang, it was a little after two in the afternoon. It was the hospital and it was time to pick up Maggie. He called Victoria and gave her directions. He asked her to call as soon as she and Maggie arrived at the house. He and his team were working on the list of strategic options when Victoria called and informed him she and Maggie were home. He looked up at his watch, it was a little after five thirty. Where the hell have they been?

Reese and his team finished up for the day, complete with his briefing. He was on his way home by seven thirty. He looked at the message icon on his cell phone. Maggie had called him seven times during his briefing to his colonel and the Pacific Fleet Command at Pearl Harbor. He listened to her voicemails all the way home and thought with disgust how childish and whiny she sounded.

Maggie was pissed because Reese hadn’t taken off work, picked her up, and babied her the rest of the afternoon. Maggie is the one who wanted a live-in babysitter, so let the live-in take care of her. I have to work, for Christ’s sakes! He quickly came to the conclusion that whatever he was paying Victoria was not enough. Victoria had already proven her worth ten times just by getting him out of all Maggie’s game playing and bullshit today. He concluded he would find a way to pay Victoria.

Reese walked inside through the garage and quickly became engulfed in a heady aroma. It was nice to come home and know that his day may actually be finished. Whatever was cooking smelled great! He walked into the kitchen and watched Victoria scurrying around, preparing dinner. She turned and saw him for the first time. He had been standing there watching her for at least a couple of minutes.

“I’m sorry, sir, dinner will be ready in just a few minutes,” Victoria said, looking slightly embarrassed.

Victoria was late with dinner. She had taken the instructions Reese had given her to heart.

“It’s okay. I know you’ve been taking care of Mrs. Thompson today. How much longer do you think it’ll be?” Reese asked.

Reese had to speak to Victoria in Spanish. How in the hell are she and Maggie communicating? Maggie didn’t speak Spanish. Why couldn’t Maggie hire someone who spoke English? Reese mentally shrugged it off. It gave him some much-needed practice.

“Dinner will be another ten minutes, Mr. Thompson,” Victoria said as she turned back to the stove.

Reese could feel himself skating on thin ice. He could feel blood draining into the wrong channels, so he turned and walked out of the kitchen. He slowly made his way to Maggie’s room. She was sitting up in bed, watching TV and talking to someone on the phone. She hung up as soon as he walked in.

“Where have you been?” Maggie demanded.

“Working. I had to give a briefing to some folks in Hawaii. They didn’t get back from lunch until six our time,” Reese said.

“Why did you send the maid to pick me up? Really, Reese, it was embarrassing,” Maggie said with a pout.

“Why would it embarrass you? You hired her. You’re lucky I changed my mind and decided to keep her on. Should I send her packing?” Reese countered.

Maggie held her arms out to Reese. Obviously she’s doing much better because she can at least lift them today. He walked to her and returned her affection, sitting on her bed. She kissed him lightly.

“I feel much better today. That stay in the hospital and the new medication they gave me has made me feel like a new person!” Maggie exclaimed.

“Glad to hear it,” Reese said.

Maggie was rubbing her hands up and down Reese’s thighs. She knew how much touching him like that turned him on. Much to his amazement, it didn’t work. He could tell she was up to something again. He knew that she never got that frisky unless she wanted something. After their little tiff yesterday, he guessed she figured it was time to get him back in line, on his knees, and lost in the Triangle. Nope. Not this time. It is not going to work. He steeled himself because this was getting downright stupid. Before he could question her motives further, he heard a slight knock on Maggie’s door and Victoria walked in with dinner. What the hell is this?

“Maggie, you can’t walk downstairs and have dinner with me at the table?” Reese asked.

“I’m still a little weak, Reese. I’ll take my dinner in here,” Maggie said with a smile.

“Your dinner, ma’am,” Victoria said in Spanish as she balanced the tray on Maggie’s lap. Victoria turned to Reese and said, “Yours is ready as well, sir. Should I bring it up here to you?”

“Gracias,” Maggie said.

Reese wanted to laugh out loud. It was the worst pronunciation of the word he had ever heard. It was loud and grossly drawn out.

“De nada, Señora. Señor?” Victoria said.

“I’ll be downstairs in a minute,” Reese said dismissively.

Victoria walked out of the room. Reese glanced down to Maggie’s tray, chicken Alfredo with steamed vegetables and pasta. It smelled delicious and it looked like a pro had prepared it. He decided to make his exit and leave Maggie to her games. He was tired and hungry. He wanted to eat and pass out for the night. He stood and kissed the top of her head. She squeezed his hand and smiled. He was relieved that he wouldn’t have to jump through any more hoops tonight. She was happy, for a while.

Reese walked downstairs and dinner was waiting in the dining room. He couldn’t remember the last time that furniture had been used. He picked up his plate and drink and carried it into the kitchen. Victoria was seated at the table eating her dinner when he walked in. She stood immediately and asked if there was something wrong with the food.

“No, everything is fine. I usually eat in here. Eat your dinner,” Reese said, taking a seat.

Victoria said nothing as she went back to eating. Reese sat at the table across from her and dug in. It was a really good meal. Before either of them could finish, Maggie was ringing for Victoria. Ringing? What the fuck is this?

Victoria stood and left the kitchen. She came back downstairs struggling with Maggie’s tray and medications. Reese finished his meal and she asked if he wanted more. It was a damn good meal, and he was hungry because he had skipped lunch. He waved Victoria off and served himself as she emptied Maggie’s plates and put away her medications. He was appalled at Maggie, and if Victoria lasted a week it would be a miracle. He picked up his plate and took it to the sink.

“Good night, Victoria,” Reese said as he walked out of the kitchen.

* * * *

Victoria sat and stared at the computer screen. She had just finished watching a lecture for a fluid mechanics course. She had done some research over the last couple of days and had chosen a topic. She wanted to get busy writing her thesis statement. Her goal was one hundred words a day. She couldn’t concentrate. She was thinking about whether or not she would tell Mrs. Thompson to shove it at some point during the week. That woman was definitely high maintenance.

Mr. Thompson was the complete opposite. He would be easy. Victoria thought about the brief interaction that she had witnessed between the two of them. Mr. Thompson was not a happy man. If he had to deal with Mrs. Thompson the way she had today, Victoria knew why he was so miserable.

She closed her laptop and leaned back into the pillow. Why did all the decent, good-looking guys end up with the women who treated them like crap? Victoria shook her head. This guy had to be smart. Why was he doing this to himself? Victoria decided to take a shower and get some sleep. Tomorrow would be a busy day and it would start early.

Mr. Thompson—or how did he answer the phone earlier?—Major Thompson had made his expectations very clear. Major Thompson’s wife, however, was all over the map. Victoria stepped into the shower and let the hot water run over her. It relaxed her and she was starting to feel a little sleepy. Tomorrow would be an interesting day.

  

Hostile Home Front
BlackOps Brotherhood 2


Web Site:  www.bellajuarez.com

 Blurb
[Romantic Suspense, HEA]

Special Agent Gavin “Badass” Walsh of the FBI is sent to South Texas to investigate terrorist activities. While out on a disturbance call, Gavin encounters a mysterious seductress. Compelled to attend a local social function, Gavin is introduced to the woman who has become his growing obsession, Dr. Amy Livingston.

 As they fall in love, they deal with challenges from their damaged pasts. After twenty four years as a SEAL, Gavin is haunted by demons of war. Amy carries on the quiet life of a librarian, but the facade hides a damaged soul.

 As the pieces of a dangerous plot come together, Gavin must survive terrorists, dirty cops, and gangbangers all taking aim at him. Gavin walks a razor-thin line when terrorists decide to use Amy as bait. As Amy’s life hangs in the balance, Gavin realizes that failure is not an option to save the woman he loves.

 
Chapter 1

 1510 Blythe Road
Victoria, Texas
November 9, 2007/0030 Zulu

 Lieutenant Gavin Walsh was on the way home when he heard a call come over the portable radio lying in the passenger’s seat. He was off duty, but less than a block away. It was a domestic disturbance near his duplex. He decided to answer the call himself. Pulling over, he picked up the radio.

“Dispatch, this is Walsh. I’m less than a block away from your Ten-Fifteen, I’ll check it out,” Gavin said.

“Ten-four, Lieutenant. Do you want me to call for backup?” the dispatcher replied.

“Negative, dispatch, I’ll call if I need you,” Gavin said.

Gavin drove a little farther and pulled up to a very nice suburban house with a manicured lawn and music blaring so loud it threatened to shake the windows loose from their frames. He knew this house. He passed it every morning on his run. He frowned. This was way out of place in this neighborhood. No wonder people are calling the cops. He pulled out his service weapon and checked it. You never know.

The Mexican Mafia was a very real danger in these parts and this was just their kind of setup, a nice house, in a nice neighborhood, with some very bad people inside. Gavin got out of his truck and approached the house with caution, looking around for signs of anything unusual. He heard a slight rustle and leveled his service revolver, aiming it in the direction of the noise. A very frightened old man threw up his hands.

“Jeysus!” the man exclaimed.

Gavin breathed a sigh of relief and lowered his weapon.

“A little jumpy, ain’t ya?” the man snapped.

“I’m a police officer. Someone called in a disturbance. And you are?” Gavin asked.

“Name is Norman Harborth. I live next door. ’Bout time you people show up, called y’all twice. Once at seven, right after it started. Then again about fifteen minutes ago,” the old man complained.

It was only seven thirty, Gavin observed. “Who lives here?”

“The Livingstons. Never heard a peep out of them ’til now. We tried calling, but no one’s answering.”

“Has there been anything unusual lately?”

“A U-Haul pulled up about nine months ago. My wife tells me they got a divorce, man moved out,” the old man said, jerking his thumb in the direction of the house next door.

Great! A domestic! The most unpredictable call a police officer could get was a domestic disturbance call. The ex would go away and then come back later, usually pissed off and drunk.

“Thank you, sir. Would you please return home? I’ll make sure they turn down the volume,” Gavin said. Mr. Harborth turned to leave but hesitated. “Sir. Now.”

At six foot one and powerfully built, Lieutenant Gavin Walsh was not a man to cross. Mr. Harborth left and Gavin watched as light filled the small porch next door and faded as the door closed. He turned back to his task at hand and took the sidewalk to the house. He knew with the noise inside there was no use trying to use the doorbell, so he lifted his fist and pounded on the door. Gavin smiled at the music selection he was hearing. “Baby Got Back. He had always liked that song. He kind of liked a woman with some back. The kind of skinny groupies he usually attracted did nothing for him. He pounded on the door again as he sang along with the song in his head.

Gavin knew it was a futile effort. With that music there was no way anyone would hear him. He turned and looked toward the street. He raised his fist and started to pound again, surprised when his fist found empty air. The door had opened while he was looking away. He had to look down at the brunette who had opened it. If she had been a couple of inches taller, he would have coldcocked her.

Gavin’s jaw dropped slightly. She was dressed in a button-down shirt with only two buttons at her midriff fastened. The shirt was fitted to her curvy figure. It opened to a black lace padded push-up bra that enhanced her already full breasts. The matching black lacy boy shorts didn’t show everything, but they didn’t need to. She was sending the message just fine. Her full, luscious legs were bare. She looked like something out of the pages of Victoria’s Secret, only she wasn’t anorexic. She’s perfect! That damn song kept running through his head as he tried to concentrate on his task. They stared at each other for a moment. The lyrics playing in the background were describing her perfectly.

“Yes, officer?” she purred.

The sultry voice matched the sexy body. Gavin was hypnotized. She had given him an instant hard-on. He had been in Victoria, Texas, for almost six months and wondered where the hell this sexy thing had been hiding. He couldn’t help but compare this little hottie to that song as it kept playing along.

Gavin winced as his dick lurched at the thought that ran through his head. I want to stick it to her all right…Somewhere in the distance Gavin heard himself finally speak.

“Ma’am, I need to ask you to turn down the music. Your neighbors have called in a complaint to the police department,” he said as professionally as he could manage.

“Oh?” she said in a sultry voice.

“Yes, ma’am. Could you please turn down the music?” Gavin asked again.

“What are you planning on doing if I don’t, officer?” she countered.

Something in the way she said officer didn’t sound right. Gavin tore his stare away from the succulent plaything standing before him and glanced over to the house next door. He had to think, but it was getting very difficult at the moment because all the blood in his brain had drained to his dick in a matter of seconds. He returned his glance directly to the woman’s face. He tried not to let his eyes feast on her body.

“Ma’am, I think you might be expecting someone else. I am the real police and you need to turn down the music,” Gavin said more firmly.

“Or what? Will you handcuff me and take me…away?” she purred.

Gavin looked away and cleared his throat. He wanted to take her all right, and his cock was protesting the fact that he had a job to do first.

“Aw, baby, don’t make me do this.” Gavin reached for his badge. It was getting difficult to function. “This is a real badge. I am a real cop. And, if you don’t turn that music down, I am really arresting you for disturbing the peace. And taking you down to the real police station just like that.”

The music was silenced. A brief look of surprise crossed the hottie’s face as she turned slightly to look inside the house. Another woman came from behind and pushed the other woman from the door.

“Sorry, officer. We’ll keep it down,” she said.

“Please,” Gavin said.

“Yes, sir. I’m sorry you had to come all the way out here.”

“Have fun, ladies, just keep it down. Okay?” Gavin turned to leave.

Gavin walked back to his truck and winced as he sat down. His dick was so hard it could have cut glass. He wanted nothing more than to shove that hottie back into the house and give her exactly what she was asking for. He picked up the radio and closed out the call.

“Dispatch, this is Walsh, Ten-Fifteen was a party and it’s taken care of, close it out.”

“Roger that, Lieutenant.”

Gavin shook his head and started home. He let himself into his duplex and went through his nightly routine. He needed a shower. The workout he had put his guys through today had been particularly grueling. Lieutenant Gavin Walsh wasn’t just any police officer on the Victoria Police Force. He was the head of the SWAT Team. He was on loan from the FBI to update the tactical training of small police forces in high-risk areas.

Gavin’s rank of Lieutenant had been bestowed upon him by the Chief of the Victoria Police Department. Chief Ortiz had complained bitterly when Gavin had landed in his department. Ortiz wanted complete control over every decision Gavin made. That of course interfered with the mission the FBI had given him. He was involved not only in improving the training and tactical awareness of the small-town police department, he was also involved in an ongoing terrorist cell investigation. That ongoing investigation had led him to Victoria, Texas.

This police department needed his help badly. Along with Gavin came federal money and over twenty years of tactical experience. Today he had really ramped up his SWAT team’s close-quarters training. Gavin’s muscles ached from the tension of his day, and that little detour after work was doing nothing to relax him. He headed for the shower, grabbing a beer from the fridge on the way. He stepped from his clothes after turning on the shower. Gavin had the sinewy body of a highly skilled warrior. A good upper body and well-defined abs and chest gave him the appearance of a much younger man. The only sign of his forty-four years was his slightly graying temples in his black hair. His flint-gray eyes were like steel. He shaved a couple of times a week, giving him a rugged appearance. He had been a SEAL during his years in the military, retiring from the Navy with twenty-four years of service.

Gavin took a long sip of his beer and stepped under the spraying hot water. He closed his eyes and stuck his head fully under the impact of the falling liquid. His mind wandered to the woman he had just met. His photographic memory traced her perfectly, just as she had been, standing in that doorway. He sketched her body with his eyes, remembering the way it begged to be touched. Damn! She was the finest piece of ass he had ever seen!

Gavin sketched her full lips with his eyes. In his mind he imagined those soft lips wrapped around his cock. He knew, innately, that she would suck his cock with all her might. He could see her on her knees, head bent over his lap, her tongue sliding from between her lips, licking his cock. He would push back her long, soft, chocolate-colored hair to watch her as she pleased him. He envisioned her small hand gripping his cock, sliding slowly up and down as her big brown eyes watched him.

Involuntarily, his hand ventured to his hard cock, feeling it respond to his gentle stroking. Gavin shook his head to clear the vision and stopped. He grabbed the soap and started to lather himself, starting with his chest but once again returning his hand to his cock. Damn! He was so hard.

She knew exactly what buttons to push. She was everything he desired. Her sexy body was full and firm. Her long chocolate hair looked like silk. What had captivated Gavin were her big brown eyes. When he looked into her eyes he saw passion like he had never seen in any woman before. This woman was a very sensual creature and he wanted so much to taste what she had to offer.

How did she know how to make me so hot? And who the fuck was she waiting for looking like that? Gavin thought possessively, his hand speeding up its soapy jacking. He envisioned her meeting him like that. She would smile when she saw him, extremely glad he was home from work.

“I missed you,” she would purr in that sultry voice.

“Oh? What did you miss, baby?” he would ask, taking her into his arms.

“I missed your cock. I’ve been waiting for you to come home so you could fuck me with your hard cock. Fuck me please,” she would beg.

Gavin came hard, spraying the shower wall. The image was so strong that he could almost hear her say those words to him. He went through the motions of finishing his shower. He dried himself and walked into his bedroom, not bothering with clothes. It had been a very long time since he had given himself a hand job. He felt off center and slightly disturbed. But after that experience, he needed the release. This whole damn evening has been disturbing.

Gavin was drained from his orgasm. He had never experienced anything like what he had just experienced. It was as if the semen had literally been ripped from his body. Thank God he hadn’t touched her and he guessed he would probably never see her again.

He lay down on his bed and quickly fell into a dead sleep.

* * * *

“What just happened?” Amy asked as she whirled on Lynn when she closed the door.

“I just got a text from Jeff. He’s running late,” Lynn said, leading Amy back into the house.

It took Amy a moment to realize what her friend had just said and the implication of the words.

“W–What!” Amy whispered, terrified.

“Jeff is running a little late. He just sent me a text. He should be here around eight thirty,” Lynn said matter-of-factly.

Oh my God! That was a real cop!” Amy screamed hysterically.

“Amy, calm down.”

Are you kiddingI just let a cop see me this way! He must think I’m a prostitute! What was I thinking?” Amy ranted.

“Calm down, it didn’t seem like it was any big deal to him,” Lynn snapped.

Amy was suddenly sick. “My uncle is the chief of police! How did I let you talk me into this?”

“It’s for your own good.” Lynn flopped down on the couch.

“What?” Cheryl asked, walking back into the living room with another bottle of wine.

“Oh my God!” Amy repeated.

“What’d I miss? And who turned down the music?” Cheryl asked with a frown.

“Apparently one of the neighbors called the cops,” Lynn said.

“Uh-hum. Where is our man in blue?” Cheryl leered.

“No, really called the cops, and one showed up,” Lynn said.

“Oh shit! Did she…” Cheryl asked, pointing to Amy.

Lynn nodded grimly and then brightened. “But the one they sent would’ve worked. Damn! He was good looking—and around our age.”

“Oh my God!” Amy buried her face in a pillow.

“Yeah? Details. What did he look like?” Cheryl asked.

“Tall, dark, and smoking! He had the hardest body I’ve ever seen with clothes on. And he was taking in every inch of our girl here,” Lynn said with a grin as she high-fived Cheryl.

“Okay! That’s enough! Call your boy and tell him not to come. I’m changing back into my clothes,” Amy said as she rushed from the room.

Amy could hear Cheryl and Lynn calling her, but she shut the door and locked it behind her. She had never been so humiliated in all her life. Her face flushed with heat as she thought about the police officer she had just met. She was so embarrassed. She had come on to him!

Amy was mortified as she hurriedly threw on a baggy T-shirt and jeans to cover her exposed body. At this point she could not put on enough clothes to cover herself. She sat at the edge of her bed and stared off into space. Tim had been right. She was a useless idiot. She recalled the look on the officer’s face when she opened the door. Probably nauseated at the sight of my fat self!

Amy heard the soft knock at her bedroom door. She ignored it, focusing on her humiliation. She and her friends had been planning this night ever since Cheryl had suggested that she do something different, something sexy. They had shopped for hours, finally finding a lingerie site dedicated to curvy women. She had been skeptical about the order, but when it had arrived she was happily surprised. It had fit perfectly and gave her a feeling she hadn’t had since college. It made her feel very attractive. That little indulgence led to the ladies cleaning out Amy’s closet and making her over.

“Time to go from frump girl to hump that girl!” Cheryl had cheered when the last box had been taken to Goodwill almost two weeks ago.

This was supposed her night, her “breakup party.” Amy’s divorce from an alcoholic nightmare of a marriage was finally over and this was supposed to be the night she broke free. She had waited ten long years for this night. Nothing had changed in her life. Tonight was more of the same kind of humiliation she had endured for years.

“Amy? Open the door, please,” Amy heard Cheryl call softly.

Amy got up from the bed and opened the door. Cheryl and Lynn stepped into the bedroom. Her head was starting to hurt. Way too much wine. She sat on the edge of the bed and her friends curled around her.

“Amy…” Lynn started.

Amy held up her hands. “It’s okay. We should call it a night.”

“Are you kidding? We’re just getting started. Besides, I got Winston to watch the kids. Do you know how hard that is?” Cheryl asked as she gathered Amy in her arms.

“No way! That part of the party may be over, but we can still do something else. Let’s look online for your dress,” Lynn said.

“No, I don’t think so. Not tonight. I have to work tomorrow and I need to tie up a lot of loose ends this week for the gala. Besides, if I don’t get one Cheryl will just find something spectacular like she always does,” Amy said as she smiled at Cheryl.

“I already have the dress you’re wearing. But it never hurts to look. We may find something even more special. Damn it, Amy! I wish I could talk you into modeling for my website,” Cheryl said.

“There is no way I would model anything. You want me in all that underwear you buy for your store. No way!” Amy said.

“Amy, Tim was an asshole. I saw the way that cop was looking at you. That man was having a hard time speaking when he saw you. I don’t give a shit what you say. You’re a very beautiful woman,” Lynn said.

“Oh my God!” Amy lamented at the thought of the police officer and the visual she had given him.

“Uh-huh, that damn cop was saying the same thing only it was oh my fucking GodI’m about to get lucky! Best call he’s made in his life! I haven’t seen him around otherwise I would’ve remembered that one. Is he new?” Lynn asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen him, either,” Amy said. She closed her eyes at the recollection of what had happened. “I hope I never see him again.”

“I do. I’ll bet he arrests you but takes you to his place instead of jail,” Lynn quipped.

Amy giggled at the remark. For the next couple of hours they gathered around Amy’s desktop computer and searched for formal dresses online just to get ideas. She finally locked the door behind her friends somewhere around eleven thirty. She walked around, picking up and straightening the house before finally falling into bed. She had work tomorrow and needed to get up at six in the morning. Amy and one of her aids would be working on their annual inventory at the library.

 * * * *

Gavin woke up with a sudden start. He was lying in the middle of his bed naked. He turned over and looked at the clock. It was just after one thirty in the morning. He got up and put on the pajama bottoms lying on the edge of the bed and walked to the kitchen for a glass of water. Gavin could feel the goose bumps form on his skin. It was early November in South Texas and not cold like other places he had lived, but it was still a little chilly. He looked out the kitchen window, realizing he was fully awake in the middle of the night. He had fallen asleep way too early.

“Damn it!” Gavin cursed out loud.

Gavin walked into the small living room and turned on the TV as he sat down in his easy chair. He idly channel surfed for the next couple of hours before he could relax enough to sleep. Something was haunting him, and he realized his mind kept wandering back to the woman he had seen earlier. He turned off the TV and went back to bed, slipping under the covers this time. A car backfired somewhere in the distance as he closed his eyes and welcomed sleep.

Gavin was haunted. He could see the images of past battles coming back. He was back in a war he wanted to forget. The mission had failed to capture the drug lord they had been sent to shut down. The entire village had been massacred. His body tensed and went into survival mode because he could hear gunshots and the sound of explosives off in the distance. These bastards had taken their time with the people of the village.

Their dead bodies and screams filled his senses. Someone was close and watching him. Gavin could feel his heart start to race in panic. He couldn’t breathe because the smell of rotting flesh and gunpowder made him want to gag. He closed his eyes for a moment to get a grip on his fear. When he opened them he saw something run past him. He leveled his weapon and fired. He heard the thud of the body hit the ground.

Gavin woke with a start and wondered where he was. He tried to catch his breath as he took deep swallows of clean, precious air. He stared at the ceiling. He was covered in a thin layer of sweat and he felt nauseated. He had made the mistake of telling his doctor about the flashbacks.

Gavin’s doctor had given him pills to help relax him at times like this, but he wouldn’t take them. The doctor had suggested seeing a psychiatrist who specialized in post-traumatic stress disorder. He had refused. So he suffered, reasoning this was his punishment for all the things he had done. Every now and then he could see the faces of some of the people he had killed. Gavin sat at the edge of his bed and took a deep breath, trying to calm his racing heart. He didn’t need to look at the clock to know it was almost four thirty in the morning. He would wake up at 5:00 a.m., no matter what.

No need to try and sleep now.

Gavin got up and changed into his running clothes. As he stretched, he mapped out a slightly different route in his mind. He needed to sleep tonight. Today it was ten miles. He walked out into the chilly, dark morning and started down the street. It being Saturday, the roads wouldn’t be busy this early, so keeping his usual eight-minute-mile pace was no problem. He was indifferent this morning to the neighborhoods as they slipped by him. His run relaxed him. Rounding the corner, Gavin turned down a familiar, quiet street and neared the house where he had stopped last night.

Dawn was starting to break. The houses appeared to be dark and quiet. Gavin smiled to himself as he drew closer to the house. He wondered which of the women that had answered the door last night were sleeping inside. His heart skipped a beat when the front door opened and the chocolate-haired hottie stepped outside and picked up the paper. It is her house!

Gavin had a split second to see her as he passed. She was tousled and totally adorable. She was obviously still half-asleep, because she had not even noticed someone running down the street. He winced. He had been living here all this time and she had been down the street. Talk about missing out on the girl next door! He had to find a way to meet her and eventually get her out on a date.

This time his shower was quick and Gavin was out the door in no time. The boss had left a message on his phone to see him as soon as he walked in to the station. It would take almost no time to get to work because this was a small town. He arrived at the station and sought out his boss.

Fuck! Fucking Williams!” Gavin heard as he approached the chief’s office.

Gavin watched as Police Chief David Ortiz threw down a newspaper.

“Boss?” Gavin asked as he peeked around the corner.

“Take a look, badass. You made the paper,” Ortiz said, pointing in disgust to the paper on his desk

Oh! Shit! Gavin couldn’t recall doing anything wrong. Lately. He picked up the paper and read.

Violent crime, once mainly the purview of big urban centers, is now growing in many small and midsize cities. Even as aggressive policing in places like Boston, New York, and Los Angeles helped dramatically lower the nation’s overall crime rate in the 1990s, towns like Victoria, Texas, are now seeing a rise in murder, assaults, and other violent incidents. Some analysts, in fact, attribute the increase to criminal elements being shooed out of the larger cities.

According to preliminary FBI statistics, cities with 10,000 people or fewer saw a 15 percent increase in violent crimes from 2006 to 2007 while cities with 100,000 or less experienced a 10 percent increase. This comes at a time when the average national figures have been steadily dropping.

“The murder rate in small-city America right now is astronomical,” says a city councilman in Victoria, Texas. “It’s a small portion of the population involved in these activities, but they have a huge effect on how the community feels about itself.”

In many cases, police are doing what they can, patrolling “bad neighborhoods” and expanding contact with young people. But while overall crime is down, it’s the most violent acts, often the result of gang rivalries, which police are finding more difficult to curb. Victoria, Texas, ranked thirty-second nationally in terms of murders per 100,000 people last year and fifty-second in terms of all violent crime—ahead of big cities like Atlanta.

According to a recent RAND Corp. study, much of today’s street violence stems from rivalries between “loose associations” of minority populations ensnared in what researcher Jack Riley calls the “Lord of the Flies effect.” It involves the “nastiest” young men rising to the top of the drug and human trafficking trade, and then trying to control the streets.

All crime is local, of course, and each city has its underlying causes. As much as anything, many experts say, it’s a lack of familial and community values that are contributing to the violence.

In Victoria, Texas, a small Gulf Coast city, police in the early 1990s approached the crack trade in a big-city way, aggressively busting up drug rings and harassing troublesome parolees. But the effect has been akin to taking a bat to a wasp’s nest. The city today ranks among the top ten in the country in murders per capita. “What happened was that we busted up a ring in a neighborhood and suddenly the activity spread all around the city,” says Councilman Williams.

The US Department of Justice and Homeland Security, too, are getting involved. Last week, it announced that it has sent fifteen federal “impact teams” to help local police departments curb violent crime in cities like Victoria, Texas.

“You wanted to see me, Chief?” Gavin asked as he placed the paper back on Ortiz’s desk.

“Yes I did. Come in and take a seat,” Ortiz said.

“What’s on your mind, sir?” Gavin asked, taking the seat in front of the massive desk.

“You’re about to start earning your pay, badass,” the chief said, handing him a folder.

Gavin smiled at the barb. He took the folder and quickly scanned the contents.

“That would be your new best friend. He’s one of the major players in La M’ie around here. He’s getting released from a federal penitentiary in Beaumont, and he’s moving back home to be with Mama.”

“Jorge Rivera,” Gavin said out loud.

“Your FBI buddies sent that file down here. They want you to watch him,” Chief Ortiz said, sitting back in his chair.

“Did they say what this guy has done that requires my attention?” Gavin asked.

“It seems like he made the watch list along with some new buddies he made at Club Fed, guys with names like Abdul and Mummar,” Ortiz said.

Gavin didn’t react when he heard the names Ortiz had just mentioned. They were part of the terrorist cell that he was investigating. He looked down at the file in his lap.

“I know his kind. They’re always running through here, thinking they can hide in my town because it’s small. These folks like to fly under the radar, and since Rivera was put away for human trafficking, it’s not hard to guess what his next business venture is. He was the asshole sent up for those eighteen immigrants found dead in that semi-trailer,” Chief Ortiz said.

“You think he wants to start trying to smuggle terrorists?” Gavin asked, flipping through the folder.

“You win the prize. For every one terrorist he smuggles it’s worth ten wetbacks,” Ortiz said sarcastically.

“Boss? Should you be talking about your own people like that?” Gavin asked, looking up at Ortiz.

“In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m not a politically correct kind of guy. I call ’em the way I see ’em. I don’t give a fuck who they are,” Ortiz said.

Gavin redirected his concentration to the information in front of him. Something he read caught his attention. The associates Rivera had met in prison were terrorists who Gavin was familiar with. In fact he had sent them to federal prison. There was another more chilling recognition, a ghost he had been chasing for years. Esteban Merles. He decided not to say anything until he had a chance to go through the entire file.

“The FBI boss from the San Antonio field office called me on this one. They want the credit and so do I. The mission is to watch him. Do not make a move without consulting me, you understand? Don’t screw this up and you report to me weekly. Sooner if you have to. I don’t want a bunch of terrorists being run through here, and I sure as hell don’t want them planning their next hurrah in my town, understand? But we’re doing this my way,” Ortiz said, reaching for his cup of coffee.

There was no way in hell Gavin was about to run everything past Ortiz. He had been working this case for a long time now. He was not about to let a small town police chief with an inflated ego piss in his territory. He would consult with his FBI boss since this initially had started as a federal investigation. Gavin decided against arguing the point with Ortiz until he had looked into this situation a little further.

“Understood, sir. I’ll give this a study and start shaking some trees.” Gavin stood.

“We’ll see if you’re worth all that money the feds have been throwing at you, badass.” Ortiz smiled as he took a sip of his coffee.

“We’ll see,” Gavin said with a smile.

“By the way, dust off a suit if you have one. If not, go get one. You just got plans for next Wednesday night,” Chief Ortiz said, handing Gavin a ticket.

“For?” Gavin asked, looking at the ticket in his hand.

“My wife sits on the Library Foundation Board. The department is backing literacy in this community and the place will be full on Wednesday night, understood?” Ortiz said with a smile.

“Chief, do you really think I belong in polite society? I’m not exactly the politically correct kind either,” Gavin said.

“Quickly study Ms. Manners. The wife needs three hundred people at this gala. You get a date, come see me. I’ve got another ticket. Although, I can’t think of any woman who’d want to be seen with you.”

“I do okay for myself. But I’ll be busy,” Gavin said, holding up the folder in his hand. “Can’t I just make a fifty-dollar donation toward literacy and get out of this?” he asked hopefully.

“Nope. It’s already paid for. I bought two tables for the department. Dinner will be on me Wednesday night.” The chief grinned.

“Chief, I’ll even pay the hundred bucks for a date I don’t have if I can skip this. And, I promise to get a library card,” Gavin offered.

“Muster at the gala is at 1830. You’re dismissed, badass.” Chief Ortiz gave him an evil smile.

“Yes, sir.”

There was no way out of this. Gavin was in the upper echelon of the department and this was a gotcha clause, other duties as assigned. It was much like when he was in the military and reached Senior NCO status. Master Chief McGuire used to call it the dog-and-pony-show requirement. As much as it went against his grain, he had to play nice.

The FBI was expecting him to make some inroads into this case that he had been working on for almost three years now. There was also some intelligence that terrorists were starting to funnel into the country by coming through the border illegally. That had caught the attention of the Department of Homeland Security. So attending this gala would be a good way to look around.

Gavin left the chief’s office and went to his own tiny office in the middle of a large room where his guys surrounded him. In a small department like this, they didn’t have the luxury of just SWAT duty. Everyone pulled double duty, sometimes triple duty. Gavin operated differently. Being a former SEAL he operated under the teamwork concept. His team had been handpicked and they stayed together. So Gavin had his guys work and sit together in the same office space regardless of their duties.

Gavin had dumped the SWAT team the city had prepared and started over. It had caused a little ruffle in a department rich in traditional police structure. Chief Ortiz had taken a lot of heat over that little maneuver and as a result threw a tantrum about Gavin’s way of doing business. Ortiz could fight his little turf war with the city council and the other politicians that ran Victoria. Gavin wasn’t about to let Ortiz fuck up his mission.

“That’s why you’re in the shit you’re in and that’s why the feds sent my ass here,” Gavin recalled telling Ortiz.

The War on Terror was creating some unholy alliances between organized crime and terrorists. As Gavin flipped through the folder, he noticed that was exactly what was about to happen here. Jorge Rivera was probably hoping to make some serious cash playing underground railroad for terrorists wanting to get into the country undetected. He frowned as he saw another name in the folder. It was an operative from a cyberterrorism organization out of Panama. Mara Veintidós, or M-22.

Gavin took out his personal cell phone and made a call to Randolph Air Force Base.

“Mac? It’s Walsh,” Gavin said.

“Badass? How the hell are you, boy?” the man on the other end answered.

“Doing good. You?”

“Pretty fair. You ever get through that pansy-ass FBI school?”

“Yeah, I did. It was more like summer camp,” Gavin scoffed.

Mac started laughing. “What’s on your mind?”

“You guys still working the M-22 thing?”

“Maybe, why?”

“Talk to me about a guy by the name of Esteban Ramirez-Merles.”

“He’s a computer hacker, why?”

“Ran across his name in a case I’m working. As a matter of fact I’ve seen it a couple of times. I remembered it from that cartel thing. I worked with O’Connor and your twin over at Little Creek. Fucking Switchblade practically sent me to live down in Panama. And last year I worked a case where he used an alias. I was able to get Rock’s help with tracking the guy while he was at Dam Neck with Dixie,” Gavin said.

“Where the hell are you?”

“I’m down the road, Victoria, Texas, about an hour and a half northeast of Corpus Christi,” Gavin answered.

“No shit! That was fast!” Mac exclaimed.

“What?” Gavin asked, furrowing his eyebrows

“You pissing someone off so fast that they’ve already got you reassigned to BFE!” Mac howled as he fell out laughing.

“Fuck you, Mac. Believe it or not I actually volunteered for this duty.” Gavin chuckled.

“Yeah and I volunteered for Greenland!” Mac howled once more.

One of Gavin’s men stood at the doorway. Gavin waved him in and motioned for him to sit down. The man entered and sat.

“So? Can you tell me anything? Have you heard from him again?” Gavin asked.

“I believe Rock might have something on that one. Captain’s gone to Coronado on a TAD…” Mac started.

“Captain? Rock? What the hell? They run out of commanders to promote? Was Rock the last one left? Did they make JJ Command Master Chief?” Gavin exclaimed.

“Dixie promoted Rock about six months ago. He pinned it on after we got here. And shit for brains has to get out of the brig before they make him Command Master Chief. Anywho, about your boy, Rock should be back Thursday, want to come by then?”

“Yeah, I’ll be there early. Should be there around eight thirty. See you then, Mac.” Gavin hung up the call. “What’s up Jimmy?”

The officer in front of Gavin was a young K-9 officer. Jimmy was fresh out of the Marines and the police academy. Out of all of his hand-picked team, he had gotten lucky with Jimmy Sanchez. Officer Sanchez had been Marine Recon, the Corps version of special ops. Jimmy had been wounded in Afghanistan, and as part of his psychological and physical rehabilitation he had been given a dog for therapy. He discovered during his rehabilitation he had a knack for training dogs. While he was recovering, Jimmy requested to be given security police duties and was given a short term with the K-9 units before he got out of the Corps altogether. They had the instant bond of the special operations fraternity.

“Just to let you know, sir, I ran all the dogs and none of them will meet our requirements. Maybe one could get there, but really, we should look at getting our own dog,” Jimmy said.

“We’ll need to ramp up. I’ve got a case that may require a dog. How long will it take you to work with the dog you think might qualify?” Gavin asked as he rubbed his scruffy chin.

“At least six to eight weeks, and that’s if he lives with me. His handler isn’t too keen on giving him up to me.”

“Give me the name of the handler and I’ll see what I can do. If not, let me check on funds. I’m going to San Antonio on Thursday. Do you think the facilities at Lackland might have what we need?” Gavin asked.

“Hell, yeah! Lackland’s one of the best facilities around.”

“Let me see what I can arrange between now and Wednesday. Be prepared to go with me on Thursday,” Gavin said.

“Yes, sir,” Jimmy said as he left.

Gavin studied the folder for the better part of three hours before calling the San Antonio field office. The special agent in charge wasn’t in on Saturday but would return the call on Monday, he was told. He decided to do some snooping on his own.





Dominant Deception
BlackOps Brotherhood 3


Web Site:  www.bellajuarez.com

 Blurb
[Romantic Suspense, spanking, sex toys, HEA]

 Navy SEAL Captain Jack “Rock” O’Malley is playing a deadly computer game with a hidden enemy. Jack must look outside his SEALs to an unlikely savior. Anna Santiago keeps her head down as a quiet system administrator hiding a painful past. Anna buried her outgoing, confident personality along with her husband and daughter. Jack sees behind the glasses and is drawn to the irresistible Anna. Both fight the pull of a powerful attraction. Can Jack keep his relationship with the unwilling Anna professional?

 In fighting an enemy he can’t see, Jack drags the reluctant Anna into his Black Ops world. They are sucked into a cyber rabbit hole of dire consequences. Jack and his SEALs discover that his beloved Anna is the terrorists' next target, and he is faced with a choice that could end his military career and possibly his life. Can Jack and his SEALs keep Anna alive before the terrorists stalking him decide it's game over?

 Chapter 4


Randolph Air Force Base, Texas
Building 1534, East Runway Hangar
July 25, 2008/1205 Zulu

Anna stepped out of her car on a humid Texas morning and felt as if she could barely breathe. It was early morning in mid-July and already it was eighty degrees with ninety-five percent relative humidity. She felt as if she’d just stepped into a sauna. The powers that be had just parked her computer group in a converted hangar because of its high security. This branch of the 1427th Communications Group shared the building with a newly created Navy outfit stationed, of all places, on an Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas. Anna stepped into the newly renovated entryway as her BlackBerry buzzed. Pulling it out, she noticed she had some mail, meaning a support ticket had already been generated.

Anna groaned. She’d been on call all week and was ready to be done with all the late calls and constant interruptions. She continued reading and walking. As she made the sharp right to her office she came to an unexpected and sudden stop, her BlackBerry flew out of her hand and landed in pieces on the hard hangar floor. For a second she thought she’d run into the cinder block wall that held up the building.

Anna paused a moment as something staring at her caught her attention. It was the oddest thing she’d ever seen. It was a gold emblem of an eagle holding a trident and a gun on an anchor. She blinked and realized what she was staring at was pinned onto a very solid khaki chest. She looked up into a set of surprised emerald-green eyes and noticed something else. Eagles on his collar.

The Air Force doesn’t wear khakiBut the Navy doesStupid! Stupid! Stupid! In a humiliating split second, Anna realized she’d run into the commanding officer of the Navy unit who shared her building. The man walking next to him looked up suddenly.

“Oh! My goodness, Captain, I–I–I’m so sorry. I wasn’t paying attention to where I–I–I was going,” Anna stammered.

The captain said nothing and they stood staring at each other for a moment. His surprise gave way to what seemed like annoyance as he backed away and handed his cup to the man beside him. The captain bent to pick up the BlackBerry pieces on the floor. Anna knelt immediately as well and reached for the pieces of her phone nearest to her. He was quicker and had picked them up before she could. He handed her the phone, its pieces, and her battery.

“It’s okay, he saved the coffee.” The man holding the cup winked at her as he handed the cup back to the captain.

“Are you okay, sir? I–I–I mean, you didn’t get burned or anything…” Anna started.

“I’m fine,” the captain said.

“Are you hurt?” the other man asked, nodding at Anna.

“Nothing hurt but my pride,” Anna said with an awkward smile as she tried to clumsily assemble her phone.

The captain handed the other man his cup again and took the pieces from Anna’s hands. He quickly assembled the phone and handed it back to her. Her hands slightly shook as she took the phone and almost dropped it again. He was staring at her and it was making Anna very uncomfortable.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” the captain asked as he took his coffee cup.

“Yes, sir,” Anna said, looking down at her phone as it powered back on.

“Where do you work, ma’am?” the other man asked.

“I’m in the IT section down the hallway,” Anna answered.

“Master Chief Will McGuire, ma’am, and this brick wall is Captain J.T. O’Malley,” Master Chief said, nodding toward the captain.

“Nice to meet you, Master Chief McGuire, Captain O’Malley, sir,” Anna said.

“And you are?” the captain asked.

“Anna Santiago,” Anna replied awkwardly.

“Well, Anna, it was nice running into you. They call me Mac and they call him Rock.”

“Let’s go Mac, we’ve got a lot to do,” Captain O’Malley said.

“Excuse us. Nice to finally meet some of the neighbors, Anna,” Mac said.

Anna smiled and gladly made her exit. She continued to walk down the long, empty hallway toward her IT shop. She got to her desk and looked at her buzzing BlackBerry. Another call from Manpower. With the shock the phone had just taken, it was a miracle it even worked. She briefly thought about her encounter with the captain and master chief as she grabbed a trouble ticket sheet from the basket and returned the call that she’d received earlier.

“Hello, this is the IT trouble desk, we’re returning your call. How can I help you?” Anna asked.

The lady on the other end of the phone went on about her computer not starting up and when it finally did, she just had her antivirus program on the screen and it would not let her do anything else. It was impossible to work and some mission critical reports simply had to be out, blah, blah, blah…Anna rolled her eyes as she listened to the chronic complaining. Yeah, yeaheveryone is mission critical and everyone works for the most important organization on this base, and everyone wants their stuff working yesterday.

Anna busied herself writing up the trouble ticket and gathering other messages and assigning trouble tickets so everyone had something to do when they came in for the day. Her silence was broken when the administrative assistant came in singing.

“Hi, Ann,” the young girl said cheerily.

Anna was instantly annoyed. Anna not Annyou dingbat! “Good morning, Beth, whatta you know?” Anna asked, making small talk.

Anna regretted the question right after it was out of her mouth. It was just the entrance the nosy little gossip needed.

 “Well, do you know who has moved into the command offices in the front of the building?” Beth asked excitedly

“I know it’s a Navy outfit. But other than that I don’t know much else,” Anna replied, intentionally avoiding this morning’s encounter.

 “Do you know what they do? I heard they’re, you know, they’re not here—if you know what I mean,” Beth said with a knowing smile.

Anna rolled her eyes away from Beth. Everyone knows they’re here. They have a sign and a guy who checks them all in next to the front door!

“Well, if it’s a secret, I’m sure we shouldn’t be talking about it,” Anna said as she studied the trouble ticket she was working on. Avoid eye contact because she’ll never stop if you look at her.

Anna got up from her desk and walked to the trouble board at the back of the room and started posting and assigning calls to different personnel. Beth got up from her chair and followed Anna around the room like an annoying fly that could not be shooed away.

“They’re special ops. And you know what Navy Special Ops is right? SEALs! The rumor is that they’re a new antiterror group being established here and these guys are the teams setting stuff up,” Beth said.

Anna briefly wished she’d never agreed to take this job and said nothing as she ignored Beth, hoping she would take the hint and go away.

“The name of the group is Special Warfare Group 5. I researched it on the Internet…Did you know as of yet there is no such group? At least on the Internet there is no Special Warfare Group Five, that is. Anyway, have you seen some of those guys coming out of that office? Wow!” Beth said and then switched subjects like an ADHD puppy.

No shit? Did the big sign over the door with their group logo on it saying Special Warfare Group Five give it away? Got time for guy watching and research on the Internet, but not work? “Beth, I really haven’t noticed because I’ve been busy, doing my work.” Anna gathered her trouble ticket for the Manpower office.

“That captain coming in and out of the hangar is hot.”

Beth continued babbling so Anna tuned her out but finally interrupted the annoying noise as she started to leave.

“Beth, I’ve logged all the trouble calls and assigned the tickets, I’ve also updated the job board. Let Matt know there’s an outage at the Directorate of Maintenance’s PA office. I’m on my way to Manpower,” Anna said.

“Oh? What’s wrong?”

“I won’t know until I get there.”

Anna walked out the door and down the hall to the front entrance. She glanced through the glass doors of the new special warfare group commander’s office. The captain she’d bumped into earlier was standing next to the front desk, reading something from a folder. 
* * * *

Captain O’Malley saw Anna walk out the door through the corner of his eye. She’s such a klutzy geek!

He smiled to himself as he recalled what happened this morning. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen her but it was the first time they’d spoken. He noticed her coming and going since her group had been relocated here. She was one of the few women in this hangar. There were some younger and prettier, but he always noticed her. He could’ve been a part of the wall for all she’d known because she always seemed as if she were on a mission.

O’Malley focused, putting the whole incident aside as he shut the folder and spoke to the yeoman at the desk.

“Steve, I’m sending a classified message to Coronado, responding to that,” Captain O’Malley said.

“I could give it to JG Harman, sir.”

“Shaq is gone until Monday. I’ll answer it myself.”

“Yes, sir.”

 “I’ll get back to you. I’ve got to think about this one a minute. I’ll get you a draft, and you get it ready to send off. I want to approve it before it goes, understood?”

“Aye, Captain.” The yeoman took the folder and locked it in a special drawer in his desk.

Jack O’Malley walked into his office and sat behind his massive desk. As he looked at the computer screen, he saw ten new e-mails. Jack picked up his recently refreshed cup of coffee and looked at the small stain on his shirt. He chuckled lowly as he thought about how he got the stain. Anna Santiago. He could still smell her perfume.

Anna…

It was funny that he would remember that name. Anna was short, with brown hair that she pulled up, and large brown eyes hiding behind glasses. She was purely average and dressed to cover herself, not to be noticed. He wondered briefly if she were married. He quickly decided she wasn’t his type even though she was probably closer to him in age. Jack collected young blondes. Putting Anna out of his mind, he turned to his computer keyboard and started to bang out the message he wanted his admin to send out.

Mac and the group’s executive officer, Commander Rafe “Whiskey” Wilson, walked in and took seats. At this point it was up to Rafe to ensure the new special warfare group moved into their new home seamlessly. Rafe had a talent for logistics. Jack had worked with him on several missions and appreciated the way Rafe could organize what seemed like total chaos in just a matter of minutes.

“Have a seat, Mac, Whiskey,” Jack remarked sarcastically.

“Thank you, Captain, I think I will,” Mac replied.

“We’ve got a problem, Rock. You know that shipment we’re expecting today?” Commander Wilson asked.

Jack sat back in his chair and took a sip from his coffee cup. “Yes?”

“I’ve been told we’ll have to reroute to San Antonio International. We don’t have time for this, Rock. I got a shitload of stuff to do before the admiral gets here for inspection. So far, I’m ahead of schedule and I can’t afford to slip that schedule, Captain,” Rafe said, clearly annoyed at the potential interruption in his time table.

“I don’t understand the problem. We have an airstrip right here—right outside the door. And, I know it’s certified for C-130s because we’ve been landing them since we got here. What happened?” Jack asked.

“Now that’s exactly what I asked Colonel Spivey,” Mac said, crossing his legs getting more comfortable.

“Who?” Jack asked.

Mac and Rafe burst out laughing. Jack took a patient sip of his cooling coffee. He was tired and hated working behind a desk. Unfortunately, this was his life now. He watched as Rafe and Mac laughed themselves silly and finally let out an exasperated sigh.

“What’s the deal?” Jack snapped.

“You’ve never met the base commander, Rock?” Commander Wilson asked.

“The base commander? Is that supposed to mean something?” Jack asked.

Mac and Rafe burst out into gales of laughter once more. Jack was growing impatient with their private joke and finally snapped.

 “I’m busy here! Get to the point and tell me what in the hell is going on,” Jack barked.

“The base commander has control of the airstrip here. He said his groups are flying training missions today. He also said we didn’t clear our flight arrivals with him or base-ops. The flight schedule did not include us today, so, we can’t land here. Would you also like the message he asked me to give you?” Mac asked with a smile.

“Will it get you out of my office any quicker?”

“Well, sir, he said he was in charge here, not you. This was his airstrip, not yours. And he didn’t give a shit who put you here. He was the base commander, notyou. And if you had a problem with that you could come and see him,” Mac said.

Jack sighed and shook his head. “He really wants me to do that, huh?”

Mac and Rafe exchanged knowing smiles.

“That’s what the man said,” Mac confirmed.

“Fine.”
* * * *

They arrived at the base commander’s office in a few minutes. For ten in the morning, it was hotter than hell and humid as hell, too. It was supposed to rain again today. Jack wished briefly he was in San Diego with its mild climate. It could get hot, but at least there was a constant breeze. In this weather, Jack’s eight-mile morning run seemed to last forever and get longer every day. The temperature only added to Jack’s annoyance.

“This is a bunch of crap, Mac, I’ve better things to do than screw around with this guy.” Jack stalked up the sidewalk.

* * * *

Mac smiled. He knew his boss better than his boss knew himself. He and Jack went back a long way. He recalled the first time he’d seen Jack. They had attended BUD/S, initial training for all SEALs. Time had passed quickly after their first meeting fifteen years ago. Even then, Mac could tell this boy would be going places. He would never forget all the hell the instructors had put Jack through being the highest-ranking officer in the class. Worse yet for Jack, he was a crossover from the Marine Corps.

Rock’s strong leadership and Mac’s talent for motivating people to stretch beyond what they thought they were capable of kept the class together all the way through BUD/S—not a single man rang bell and voluntarily quit BUD/S under their leadership. It was the first class ever to graduate intact, a feat only one other class had accomplished after them.

Mac watched with some amusement as his friend threw open the glass doors in front of him. Mac smiled and shook his head. Colonel Spivey had no idea what was in store for him.

 
Tactical Error 
BlackOps Brotherhood 4


Web Site:  www.bellajuarez.com

Blurb: 
Master Chief James “JJ” Jones is at the end of a thirty-two-year Navy SEAL Career. At a chance meeting in San Diego, he meets recently widowed and retired teacher Irene Ortiz. JJ and Irene feel an undeniable attraction that pulls them together for one night. He draws passion from the lonely Irene, the likes of which she has never known.

When JJ becomes the target of a traitor, his life and his budding love for Irene are put in jeopardy. He leaves his beloved SEALs to track down the people responsible for planning his demise when he discovers a plot that could bring the United States military to its knees. JJ is recalled back to Special Warfare Group Five and sets out on a worldwide chase.
Irene decides to follow her heart, and at JJ’s side, she helps him to stop fervent terrorists from unleashing a deadly pathogen. Will JJ and Irene be able to keep the terrorists from unleashing a nightmare?

Chapter One
Resurrection Cemetery
Victoria, Texas
March 27, 2008/1648 Zulu

 Irene twitched at the sound of the first volley of the twenty-one-gun salute as it tore into the gray, chilly, overcast morning. Her niece’s fiancé, Gavin Walsh, eased his arm over her shoulder as she shuddered at the sound of the second volley that soon followed. The third volley made her heart race. She couldn’t imagine the horror her husband felt when the very same bullets honoring him now had torn through his body and killed him a few days ago. She shut her eyes and  Gavin pull her closer. She opened her eyes and smiled reassuringly at him as she pulled away. Chuck Beck, the acting chief of police, walked forward and knelt in front of her.

“On behalf of the city of Victoria and a grateful police department, please accept this flag as a token of our gratitude for Chief Ortiz’s service and dedication to the safety of the citizens of Victoria. We’re  so sorry for your loss, Irene,” Chuck said as he handed Irene a folded United States flag.


“Thank you, Chuck,” Irene said stoically.

David’s coffin had been draped with two flags. The next flag bearer came forward and solemnly knelt as well. Irene observed the young man and recognized him instantly. He’d  been one of her sixth-grade science students almost fifteen years ago. The young man had struggled in math and science and Irene encouraged him to join one of her tutoring sessions.

Irene remembered the day she was sitting in her office at Victoria High School and he walked in the door to tell her he had just graduated from college and how grateful he was for all her help. The young man had been classified as at risk because of his grades and living conditions. He was also classified because of his race, African American. Irene never believed something as silly as race or ethnicity drove a person’s decisions.

Unfortunately, even in small-town Texas, gangs were a fact of life, but this young man like so many others she’d known had risen above his surroundings and bettered himself. She remembered watching his face light up in understanding and excitement as he grasped the concept of polynomials. She recalled how proud he was when he won runner-up as an eighth grader at the school science fair. When he walked into her office at Victoria High School, she had been delighted at how proud and tall he stood. He’d  thanked her profusely and informed her that he was training to be a state trooper. Now he was a member of the elite Texas Rangers.

This was not a memory of, now, Ranger Michael Washington she wanted. She wanted to remember the innocent boy whose mind was ready to absorb all she could teach him not the man looking at her in sorrow and pity. She smiled slightly as he looked up into her eyes.

“On behalf of Governor Rick Perry and the thankful citizens of the great state of Texas, please accept this flag in appreciation for Chief Ortiz’s service in law enforcement and his ultimate sacrifice. The governor as well as Chief Ortiz’s brother officers extend our condolences to you and your family, Mrs. Ortiz,” the young Texas Ranger said as he placed the Texas State flag in her lap.

“Thank you, Michael,” Irene said.

The young man reached up and gathered Irene in his arms.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Ortiz. I really am,” Texas Ranger Michael Washington whispered as he held her close.

“I know…” Irene said, returning the embrace.

In the background Irene could hear her niece, Amy, crying quietly and Gavin, comforting her. Irene was numb. She wanted to cry, scream, anything to feel something at this loss she was experiencing. Instead she felt numb and detached. She knew the stages of grief and had been trained to deal with these sorts of situations. She knew how to help others in all sorts of things. She was a teacher and had later moved into the position of high school principal. It’s funny how nothing ever happens like they tell you. Thankfully the services finally came to an end.

Irene was led back to the limousine that carried her, Amy, and David’s family back to the church for a reception. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes, wishing for this awful day to finally come to an end. They arrived at the church and she went through the motions of her duty as the widow of Victoria’s police chief. She did so stoically and with quiet dignity and grace. It seemed as if this awful day would never end. She turned when she heard her name called.

“Irene?” Gavin asked.

“Yes?” Irene said.

“Are you sure you’ll be okay? Amy and I can stay if you like or you could come to the house…whatever you want to do,” Gavin said hesitantly.

Irene looked around her. She was home. When did I get home? She hesitated for a moment before answering.

“Irene, are you sure you’re all right?” Gavin asked, concern tracing his words.

Irene smiled weakly. Maybe I’m not all right. I don’t even remember coming home.

“Yes, Gavin. I’ll be okay. You and Amy go home. It’s been a long day. I’ll call you if I need anything.”

Irene saw confusion and concern cross Gavin’s rugged features.

“I’ll be here around ten tomorrow morning. Call me if you need anything, Irene. I mean that,” Gavin said.

“I’ll be fine. Go home. I’ll see you tomorrow,” Irene said, walking Gavin to the door.

Irene closed the door behind him and turned back into the house. It was quiet, unnaturally quiet and almost spooky. She felt as if someone were watching her every move. She went to the family room and switched on the TV. Unconsciously she sat down and stared at the screen.

 * * * *

Gavin Walsh drove to the house he shared with his fiancée, Amy Livingston. He was worried about Amy’s aunt, Irene. He smiled ironically at the thought. Irene and David had been Amy’s parents in reality. They had decided to raise Amy when her mother had abandoned her. He had met Amy’s mother for the first time today. It was clear that Amy had been much better off with Irene and David.

The woman who was Amy’s mother was unfit to take care of a dog, much less a child. Her attempt to look and act younger than her thirty-seven-year-old daughter was embarrassing. Gavin turned his thoughts back to Irene when he slipped the key into the lock of the garage door that led to the kitchen of the house. Amy was sitting at the table waiting for him.

“Well? How is she?” Amy asked.

“I’m worried about her. She didn’t remember that I had dropped you off first,” Gavin said.

Amy looked away and shook her head. They had engaged in a long conversation about Irene last night. She wasn’t grieving yet, and they were both afraid she could snap at any moment.

“Did you talk to her about grief counseling?” Gavin asked as he took a beer and a Diet Coke from the fridge. He handed Amy the Coke and took the seat next to her. “She’ll need it, honey.”

“Yes, I did. I even offered to go with her,” Amy said.

“Please tell me she’s getting some counseling,” Gavin said.

“She’s agreed to get counseling. She seems so…hollow.”

Amy and Gavin talked for a while longer at the table. He was still recovering from his own near-death experience almost eight weeks ago. He was law enforcement as well. Special Agent Gavin Walsh was an FBI agent assigned to a task force working in Victoria. He was also a United States Navy Reservist with the SEALs. This had been a very difficult few months for this small family.

Gavin and Amy tucked themselves in early after a very long and difficult day. He heard her breathing change and knew she was sleeping. He stared off into the darkness, wishing he could go back in time and make some changes in the events that had led to today. He closed his eyes and reminded himself, it’s better this way…

* * * *

JJ swung his legs over the side of the bed. He yawned as his bare feet hit the cold wood floor in his condo that overlooked the Pacific Ocean in Coronado. He grimaced in pain as he limped to the bathroom, considering that knee surgery he really needed to have. It seemed as if he couldn’t go five minutes without taking a piss nowadays. He finished up in the bathroom and slipped into his usual camouflaged uniform. He grabbed his coffee mug as he lit out for the day. He blinked at the California morning. It was a balmy fifty-eight degrees outside and 4:30 a.m. He arrived at the barracks unit on Coronado Naval Amphibious Base at exactly 4:45 a.m.

“Morning, Master Chief,” a voice in the darkness said.

“Good morning, Shark. How are the tadpoles sleeping this morning?” JJ asked.

“Peaceful as can be. They tied one on in celebration last night. Most of them got in about two hours ago,” Shark said with a wide, toothy smile that reminded JJ of a real shark.

The young trainees sleeping inside had just completed one of their required SEAL Qualification Training rotations, or SQTs as it was known in the community. In another few months most of them would be pinning on the highly coveted Trident badge of the United States Navy SEALs. They had reason to celebrate. This rotation had been a particularly brutal one. JJ shrugged it off. They had to learn to adapt, improvise, and overcome less than ideal situations. The two trainers were about to turn sweet dreams into a live nightmare for the unsuspecting trainees sleeping inside.

“No kidding?” JJ asked in mock surprise. He looked toward the west where the Pacific Ocean lay barely a mile from where he stood. “How about a swim for those little tadpoles this morning?”

The door to the barracks burst open as JJ and Shark proceeded to terrorize the sleeping trainees under their charge. JJ really didn’t have to do this anymore. He should be sitting behind a desk, pushing papers and listening to the admiral’s bullshit problems. He enjoyed this much better. He’d convinced the admiral of Headquarters Naval Special Warfare to let him have two days a week at his true passion, training new SEALs in different parts of their SQT rotations after their Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL School or BUD/S.

JJ kicked the first bunk he walked into in the dark room. Shark proceeded to turn over the place, throwing uniforms and other items he could reach all over the floor.

“Drop your cocks and grab your socks!” JJ demanded as he kicked the next bunk.

“Off your ass and on your fucking feet!” Shark yelled as he nearly turned over one of the bunks he was terrorizing.

“What the fuck, Master Chief? It’s fucking four forty-five and you said we could sleep in!” one of the trainees demanded.

“So I lied! Do you think some jihadist bastard is calling for an appointment so he can pop you a new asshole in the middle of your forehead? On your feet!” JJ loudly demanded. “You want that fucking Trident? Hit the surf in five, we’re going for a swim this morning, ladies!” He made his way around.

“We can’t get our wetsuits and hit the surf in five, Master Chief!” another of the trainees whined in the distance.

“You adapt! You improvise! You fucking overcome the unfortunate circumstances you’re in! Do you think every op is perfect and you will have all the equipment you need? The answer is no! Pussy-ass bastards!” JJ barked as he kicked opened the door to the head.

JJ and Shark exchanged smiles as they jogged behind the group making their way to the beach and the sixty-degree water. The group of trainees knew better than to complain at this point. They were hitting the cold water and afterward the two chiefs would figure out some other sadistic torture to heap upon them. What the trainees did not know was the two men behind them had been Navy SEALs before some of those kids could spell seal. They were preparing these kids for the unexpected life they were about to take on. It didn’t matter if they partied until three in the morning. When the call to duty came, they’d better be sober and ready. The enemy wasn’t about to listen to any bullshit excuses, and operations were conducted on someone else’s timetable.

It was noon when JJ walked into the command suite of Admiral Charles “Dixie” Campbell’s office. While JJ had been running his trainees to lunch, the admiral had put out a call for him. He walked into the office and smiled at Markie, the admiral’s secretary. The door was closed, so that meant Dixie was on a high-level call or there was someone inside getting their ass chewed.

“Chief…” Markie purred.

“Markie…will you marry me?” JJ asked with a sly grin.

“Depends,” Markie said with a flirty smile.

“Oh? On what?”

“On if my husband lets me. I could take you both on and curl your toes at the same time.”

“I’ll bet you could.” JJ said with a seductive chuckle.

“JJ! Quick fucking around and get in here!” Admiral Campbell barked.

“Later, Chief.” Markie waved as he turned his attention to Admiral Campbell.

JJ walked into Dixie’s office. It never ceased to amaze him how far he and Dixie had come. They’d  been SEALs long before it was sexy and glamorous. They’d  hung in there when special operations functionality and viability had been questioned and even threatened to the point of extinction in the United States military.

 It seemed as if it were only yesterday they were ducking for cover in Grenada or Africa. The SEALs had changed since they’d  been inducted some twenty-five years ago. Their mission had changed drastically since the Global War on Terror began. He recalled with some mirth their first real operation together as SEALs. It had been a disaster and one he would never forget.

The memory of that mission was why JJ drove his trainees so hard. He didn’t want them to repeat the same mistakes he’d  made. They’d  been together since BUD/S. Now Dixie was the number-one SEAL in the world, the Commanding Officer of Headquarters Navy Special Warfare. JJ was his command master chief, making him the number-one enlisted man in the SEAL community.

“JJ, did you read that message from Rock this morning?” Dixie asked.

“No. Not yet, I haven’t been to my office,” JJ said.

“It’s after lunch. Where the hell have you been all day?” Dixie demanded.

“It’s Thursday, Dixie, I was working with some of the SQT trainees this morning.”

“What the fuck, JJ? I need you in your office reviewing that shit for me. Not terrorizing a bunch of fucking tadpoles. In case you didn’t see the news this morning, we are still fighting a war!” Dixie snapped.

“I told you I didn’t want this fucking job, Dixie. I told you I was fine where I was in training. I don’t mind doing what you ask, but don’t chew my ass for something we agreed to.”

“Get back to your office and give me an evaluation on what Rock is recommending.”

“If Rock is recommending it, Dixie, I’m probably fine with it. Shit! You have the message. Give it to me and let me read it while I’m standing here. Why all the fucking hoops?” JJ demanded.

Dixie shook his head and let out a frustrated sigh. JJ knew the look. I don’t have to take this shit from you, I’m the admiral here! Dixie, however, didn’t say that to him. The admiral knew JJ, and knew JJ would’ve told the admiral to shove those stars up his ass as he walked out the door. JJ could remember when Dixie was a scared little lieutenant JG bogged down in Grenada without a clue.

Dixie dug out one of the folders sitting on his massive desk and handed it to him. JJ took the folder and sat down at the conference table that Dixie had in his office. He read the message a couple of times before looking up.

“This is bad, Dixie,” JJ said finally.

“You think?” Dixie responded sarcastically.

“Ramirez-Merles got away with the help of a dirty PD? This is some fucked-up shit. Now we need to worry about Bakri buying off police departments?” JJ asked, closing the folder. “I’m fine with Rock’s recommendation. It’s Badass I’m worried about.” He looked at Dixie with concern.

“His shooter is still out there, and we don’t know how deep the money trail goes. I’m thinking about activating Badass and moving him to Randolph. Ramirez-Merles could be the only one who could ID this bastard,” Dixie said.

“Gavin won’t go for that and neither is that fucking little weasel hacker. Gavin will fight you and may quit. Nah, he’s not stopping until he’s put this to rest for good,” JJ said looking down at the message.

“I don’t give a fuck what he goes for. He’s our inroad with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. I created a whole unit around him and put it in Rock’s group just so we could trail these fucksticks without someone screaming we’re in violation of the Constitution! I need him alive and safe until we get a better handle on this damn hydra and all the heads snapping at us. Some cocksucker almost killed him the last time,” Dixie said.

“Let me talk to Rock and Badass. We’ll come up with a plan.” JJ redirected his attention to the message he was reading. “It says the laptop they recovered the night that police chief was killed had plans of a biological and a cyberattack. Where would a hood like Rivera get that kind of information?” JJ asked.

“Good question. But it confirms all that shit that went down at Quantico and what we knew from Gavin’s investigation with the FBI. I told Rock to give Reese Thompson a ring and get updated with what’s going on at Quantico. Rock and his team just turned that laptop over to the CIA for data mining. I think Dan Gamez went over it with a fine-tooth comb before they gave it up. Rock is probably still evaluating the data. It may take a while,” Dixie said.

“Lieutenant Gamez is pretty damn good at what he does. He doesn’t miss small details. I’d venture to say the CIA won’t find half of what Dan found. I’m glad we decided to send part of that new SEAL team to that new cyber-electronic warfare school. It was worth the six months, especially for someone like Dan.” JJ stretched. His knee ached in protest at the punishment he’d put it through this morning.

“Why don’t you get that knee surgery while you can still walk?” Dixie asked as he took a sip of water.

“Maybe I will, before I retire.”

Dixie rolled his eyes, “Yeah, you and I retired. We’re going to retire all right, when they put us both in a pine fucking box!”

 * * * *

Irene listened as Dr. Adams made her usual suggestions. It had been almost five months since David had died. She’d been in therapy for the last four months. Amy was planning on getting married in February and she needed be at least coherent for the wedding. Everything seemed to be happening at once. Several life-changing events seemed to be lining up and taking over. First Amy, then David, and now the school district had just offered her an early retirement package that was hard to walk away from.

Dr. Adams suggested that Irene maybe wait a year to retire. How could I? Unfortunately the district wanted an answer before school started. She knew who they had in mind, and it was a good choice. Irene had over thirty years in education, so it was probably time to walk away. It would give her the time she needed to help Amy with the wedding.

“If you’re insistent on retiring, do something you’ve always wanted to do but maybe tucked it away because David didn’t want to or it wasn’t his thing,” Dr. Adams said.

Irene turned her head slightly. There were a few things she enjoyed that David never seemed to get into. She thought about two of them. She smiled slightly, recalling the old phrase, when one door closes another opens. Maybe the doctor was right. It was time she realized she could do things she had always wanted to but didn’t because she didn’t want to argue or make David uncomfortable. She wasn’t forgetting him, but she didn’t have to live for him anymore.

“You’re right, doctor. There are a few things I’d  like to do,” Irene said.

The session ended, and Irene felt lighter. She smiled at the epiphany she’d  just experienced. She drove the short distance to the Mexican restaurant that Amy loved. She took out her new iPhone and played with some of the features until Amy arrived a few minutes later.

“Tía! You’re early,” Amy said with a smile.

“I got out of the doctor’s office a little early,” Irene said.

They ordered quickly and Amy smiled at Irene again. Irene felt a warm spot in her as she watched Amy. She was really happy for the first time in a very long time. Gavin was good for her, and it showed.

“So what’s the latest on the wedding?” Irene asked.

“I found a wedding planner that can help us long distance. That way I’m not putting so much on you,” Amy said.

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve got all the time in the world now. I’ve decided once and for all that I’m retiring.”

“Are you sure?” Amy asked, concerned.

“Yes, I’m positive. Now you don’t need to worry about getting all this done by yourself. I want to help and it’ll keep me busy.”

“Tía, Gavin’s taking a trip to San Diego and he wants me and you to go.”

“Me? I would think he’d want to be alone with you,” Irene said, taking a drink.

“No, he’ll be working most of the time he’s there. It was his idea,” Amy said.

Irene sat back and considered a moment. Since David had died, Gavin had appointed himself her protector, and it was okay for the most part. Every now and then he would get a little overprotective. This, she suspected, was probably one of those instances. She sat back and thought about how she would turn Amy down. She was sure Amy had suggested the idea to him and he was going along with the suggestion. Irene didn’t belong in the middle of Gavin and Amy.

“…Do something you’ve always wanted to do but maybe tucked it away because David didn’t want to or it wasn’t his thing.”

Irene heard the doctor’s words echo in her memory. David didn’t like to travel. She, on the other hand, could be gone someplace new every weekend. It was something she’d  tucked away. She thought again for a moment. Since she hadn’t really ever traveled, she decided maybe this was her opportunity to see if this was something she’d missed. Maybe San Diego could be a safe way for her to see if she really wanted to travel. Irene smiled at Amy.

“Okay, I’ll go. But you need to promise me that if you and Gavin want to be alone, you’ll go and not worry about me,” Irene said.

“It’s not like that at all, Tía. Gavin has to work until Saturday and we come back Sunday. It’ll be just me and you,” Amy said.

Within a month after retiring, Irene found herself on an airplane sitting next to Amy bound for San Diego, California. She was excited, but also felt a twinge of guilt. Gavin cherished his time with Amy. Irene could see it when she would bump into them while they were out together, aloneGavin was good to Amy and it was obvious he was trying to be good to Irene because of Amy.

“Mi hija, are you sure about this? I can get another hotel, one where you and Gavin aren’t staying,” Irene said.

“Yes, I’m sure. Gavin said he’d made arrangements and we’re staying in Coronado. Tía, Gavin wouldn’t have asked me to bring you if he didn’t want you here, and for the last time it wasn’t my idea. Gavin felt like we both needed to get away. I agreed,” Amy said.

Irene smiled at Amy. There was very little Amy didn’t agree to or go along with. She was very docile. Although, since Gavin had been injured, she’d done a slight personality change. She was stronger and a little more assertive at times. Irene guessed maybe Amy felt more secure and her natural personality was starting to peek out now and again. She looked out the window of the aircraft and wondered about San Diego.

Amy and Irene were deep in conversation about the wedding when the captain came over the loud speaker and announced their descent into San Diego. Irene checked her seat belt and looked out the window at the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean as the aircraft circled its descent. She was excited and for the first time in a long time looked forward to tomorrow.

As they ate at The Fish Market in San Diego, Irene was looking out at the bay from their seats in the restaurant. She could see boats passing and knew instantly she would love San Diego. Her science teacher spirit wondered what kind of marine life swam under those boats. The microbiologist inside her questioned the tiny life that no one saw in those waters. After she was done with dinner, Gavin took a key card from his pocket and handed it to her. He informed her she would be in the room across the hallway from them.

Irene wanted to get on with tomorrow and explore this new place in depth. They drove across the long bridge that attached San Diego to Coronado. Her science persona was most interested in the harbor tour she and Amy were scheduled to take on Saturday. When they reached the hotel it was very late. Irene walked into her room and Gavin followed her inside with her bag.

“I’m right across the hall if you need anything. If you decide to go downstairs you have my number. Call me,” Gavin said as he set her suitcase down on the bed.

“Thank you, mi hijo, don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. I’ll let you know if I need anything.” Irene gave Gavin a light hug.

“Good night, Irene. Please call me if you need me,” Gavin said.

“I will. Now go spend some time with Amy,” Irene said.

Gavin smiled and walked out of the room and into the hall where Amy was waiting. Irene looked at the lavish room he’d acquired for her. It was really nice and comfortable. She set to unpacking a few things, and when she was done she looked at the clock. It was 8:00 p.m. Irene decided to go downstairs and walk around the lobby. She thought about having a drink in the hotel lounge or the wine bar that was in the hotel. What she really wanted to do was explore and spread her wings. It had been so long since she’d  been able to do whatever she wanted without explaining herself.

* * * *
JJ decided to check to see if Gavin was in the bar yet at the Hotel del Coronado. He wondered if Badass had gotten fed up with all the female company he was enduring and decided to have a drink like they used to before turning in. JJ had finally agreed to knee surgery three weeks ago and was still in physical therapy two days a week, so there would be no early run with the SQT trainees. He’d have to come up with another way to terrorize them in the morning. He got out of his vehicle and walked into the lobby, making a beeline for the bar. He figured if Badass was nowhere to be found, it was no biggie. He would drink alone and figure out something else.

As he was walking into the bar, a woman approached the door at the same time he did. He smiled at her and waved her inside. The woman returned the smile and walked ahead of him. She was maybe five three and curvy, nice and curvy. He couldn’t help but notice this woman because she was very polished. He loved someone who paid attention to detail. This woman seemed to pay attention to every little detail of her appearance. He let his eyes run down to her hips and watched as her nice ass swayed a sensual rhythm. He took a deep breath and could smell her perfume. It was oddly familiar. The lady walking ahead of him was delicious! Fuck Gavin…He was setting his sights on some other kind of entertainment tonight.

JJ watched as the woman took a seat at the far end of the bar and ordered a drink. He decided to walk to the same spot and take the seat next to her. She was well dressed and looked like a nice lady. Too nice for me. He took in the light brown hair that was highlighted and cut into a neat, layered long bob. He watched as she fidgeted with her drink. He smiled to himself. She’s uncomfortable here. Bars weren’t her scene and it was obvious that she felt out of place. He ordered his customary triple scotch and looked around. It wasn’t a big place, and he didn’t see Gavin anywhere around.

JJ observed the woman he had walked in with again. He watched her in the large mirror behind the bar. She took slow, deliberate drinks of her red wine. She smoothed her slacks, and as she crossed her legs, he noticed her toes when they peeked out. She was wearing small-heeled sandals, and his mouth almost started to water. Her toes were perfect. She kept herself well groomed and paid attention to every little detail of her appearance. She was around his age or even a little older. She was an attractive woman, even though he preferred them younger.

Like most women of JJ’s generation, she took her time to get dressed and made up every day. When she finally left the house she was dressed to the nines and made up to perfection. That was something he did appreciate about the women his age. Younger women tended to be sloppy and not take the time to look so polished. He watched as the woman looked around nervously.

She doesn’t belong here…JJ decided to break the ice. He turned and made eye contact with the woman and smiled. She returned the smile apprehensively and looked away. He glanced at her left hand and saw a wedding ring. His curiosity got the best of him.

“Waiting for your husband?” JJ asked the woman.

“I’d be waiting a long time. He passed away a few months ago,” she said with a wistful smile.

“I’m sorry,” JJ said, taking a drink. “Are you in San Diego for business or pleasure?”

 “Pleasure. I’m here with my niece. She’s upstairs. You?”

“I live here. I was hoping to meet up with a buddy of mine who’s here on business. He’s staying here at the hotel,” JJ said.

“I see.”

“James Jones,” he said, extending his hand to woman.

“Irene Ortiz,” she said, taking his hand and shaking it lightly.

“Do you work, Irene?”

“No, I just retired from teaching. You?”

“I’m active duty Navy, thirty-three years now.”

“Really? My niece’s fiancé is in the Navy, reserves, I think.”

Navy Reserves? Around Coronado there weren’t too many reservists unless they had been activated. He blinked. It was too coincidental that he could be sitting here with Badass’s mother-in-law to be! Gavin was a reservist, he was staying at the hotel, and his fiancée was raised by relatives…Nah…He took another drink and saw that Irene’s wine glass had dwindled down to a sip. He called the bartender and asked for a refill for Irene and himself and ordered some appetizers from the kitchen. He figured he might as well settle in. This was turning into an interesting evening. He wanted to find out if she was one of the women here with Gavin.

“No, I just wanted one before I turned in for the night,” Irene said as the bartender filled her glass.

“So tell me, what grade did you teach?” JJ asked, redirecting the conversation.

“I taught sixth grade science and then I was a principal at the high school…” Irene began to describe her years as a teacher and a high school principle as JJ listened and asked more questions. When she was done with her career, he noticed that her wine glass had dwindled once again. He called the bartender to refill the glass, and this time she didn’t protest. She looked at him as she took another sip of her now-full third glass of wine. “Enough about me, what do you do in the Navy?” Irene asked.

“I sail a desk,” JJ said with a smile as he thought about his current position with Dixie.

Irene giggled. JJ chuckled and slid a little closer. He could tell by her little giggle that she was feeling her wine, and by the way she was letting him into her space she was also letting down her guard. She had a cute little giggle, he observed. It was bubbly and reminded him of little champagne bubbles. He slid even closer. With a couple more glasses of wine, JJ figured he could’ve this one bent over a chair screaming for him to drive it home.

“Where’s home, Irene?” JJ asked lowly.

“Texas. Victoria, Texas,” Irene said.

Holy crap on a cracker! It was Badass’s future mother-in-law! JJ was having severe mental conflict with this new piece of information. He’d been seriously considering cutting his losses with Gavin and taking up with Irene for the night. She was attractive, and with a little more wine she’d be good to go! He sat back and considered his options.

If Gavin “Badass” Walsh ever found out that JJ had picked up and screwed his mother-in-law, he was a dead man. He wasn’t known as Badass because he was a pussy! Gavin would not even let him utter a syllable in explanation. Badass would just shoot him and anyone else who tried to stop said massacre. He considered Gavin a moment. Badass never missed, even by a little. Fuck! It was JJ who taught him how to shoot. So he decided against plan A and went to plan B. He looked at Irene and smiled. Either he was getting drunk or Irene Ortiz was getting more attractive by the second. He needed to make an exit before he did something really stupid.

“Irene, if you get bored with the company you’re with, call me. I’d be glad to show you around San Diego,” JJ said, writing his cell phone number on a napkin.

Irene smiled and took the napkin. “Thank you, Mr. Jones. I may just do that.”

“Would you like me to walk you to your room?”

“No, thank you. I don’t think that’s necessary.”

“You’re a very attractive woman, Irene. Your husband was a lucky man,” JJ said. Irene didn’t reply as she looked down at the napkin. “I’m serious. Call me if you want to ditch the kids and hang out with someone your own age. Good night, Irene. It was a pleasure to meet you.” He paid the tab for both of them.

“Good night, Mr. Jones. It was a pleasure meeting you, as well,” Irene said.

JJ stood and left. The ball was in her court. If she wanted to see him again, she would make that move. He looked back and stared at the hotel bar before walking out of the lobby. Irene Ortiz was the most interesting lady JJ had ever met and not tried to get into bed. She was everything a lady, in his mind, ought to be. He understood there was a line of propriety that she’d  silently drawn and wasn’t about to cross until they had become much better acquainted. She didn’t need to say a word. It was understood.

That line hadn’t been laid out for JJ in a very long time. He knew damn good and well he would’ve to get Irene Ortiz drunk out of her mind for her to invite him up to her room and sleep with him. He didn’t want this particular woman that way. As he turned and walked out the door he suddenly missed a time when women were raised to be ladies and proud of it.

 

Minefield
BlackOps Brotherhood 5


Web Site:  www.bellajuarez.com 

Blurb:

[Interracial, Consensual BDSM Romantic Suspense, flogging, sex toys, HEA]

 Dr. Isabel Vasquez joins Doctors Without Borders, insisting on serving in post-Taliban Afghanistan. She hates the pain and devastation caused by her country’s actions in that war-stricken land and openly protests US global militarism. While treating injured and sick Afghanis, she is captured and held prisoner by terrorists.

Navy SEAL Senior Chief Alex “Doc” Richards must find the war-protesting doctor who witnessed the effects of a deadly pathogen known to be in the hands of the same terrorists. He doesn’t count on finding a tempting dusky beauty. As a powerful attraction grows, Izzy and Alex find themselves working to stop terrorists from turning Afghanistan into a lifeless wasteland. A mysterious Turkish wanderer reveals a secret to Izzy that Alex has hidden since joining the SEALs.
Can Izzy submit to Alex’s dark desires? When Alex is faced with an impossible choice, can he save the woman he adores from terrorists who have her in their crosshairs?

Chapter 1

Pashtun Nomadic Trade Caravan
Near Kush, Afghanistan
68 km from the Pakistani Border
April 18, 2009/0233 Zulu

 
Izzy pulled the burqa around her in an attempt to ward off the hypothermia that threatened to overtake her. The wind picked up and whipped her worn and battered body. This was early April in the mountains, making it close to zero degrees Celsius right now. She was fighting to stay awake and not give in to the sleep she so desperately needed at this point. What she really needed was water. God, what I would give for some water right now. Focus, don’t give in. Because she’d tried to escape once, they wanted to weaken her so she wouldn’t be able to get far.

The Jamiat-e-Islami raiders who’d taken her knew she would fetch a high price with her unique features. She’d read about these situations but never imagined she would be living one. It was one of the reasons she was here, to help women escape the slavery they were born into. Now she was the victim of these animals. I’m not a victim. I just need the right timing and I can escape.

Izzy shuddered at the thought of her current situation. It was hard not to give in to despair. They’d taken her passport and her credentials when they raided the clinic. It was difficult to stay optimistic and focus on getting back to Kush. The burqa whipped around her again when the wind shifted. She held it down and pulled it close. She recalled how she reacted when first slipping it on. The burqa was as oppressive and heavy now as it was then. At least it offered some protection from the elements. She caught herself pitching forward. She was falling asleep. Izzy shook her head and straightened herself. She hadn’t slept in almost twenty-four hours.

Along with the humans they intended to sell, her captors carried raw opium, and weapons. Izzy’s body tensed, her senses suddenly tingling in alarm. Someone’s coming. She looked around, but the damn burqa kept her field of vision limited. Her muscles locked and fear gripped her at the apprehension she sensed. She hadn’t heard anything. She felt something. Growing up on inner-city streets gave her a keen sense of danger and awareness and she’d learned to always listen to her instincts. This is about to get really bad! She almost heard the warning in the wind as her senses shrieked that serious imminent danger was headed her way.

Get down! Izzy lay down and flattened her body against the ground. She didn’t move when she heard the hurried footsteps and shouts in Pashtun ordering people to drop weapons and get down. She flinched at the sudden burst of machine gunfire. She lay still, wishing she was anywhere but her current location. She tried to calm her racing heart and the uncontrollable shaking that seized her weakened body.

Izzy hoped this was some turf war and that her fate would remain the same. It would simply be different captors selling her off. She frantically prayed that they wouldn’t indiscriminately kill everyone in the camp. A foot at her midsection lifted her and turned her over. She heard the unmistakable click of a gun, closed her eyes, and said a short prayer. I love you, Pappie. Izzy sensed a strange peace take hold as she accepted her impending death.

“Hostage!” the man yelled in English. “Are you all right?” the man asked her in Arabic.

Izzy didn’t answer or move. Because of her physical state, she wasn’t sure if her senses were working correctly. The Coalition Forces never really bothered with this part of Afghanistan because the Federally Administered Tribal Areas were autonomous. Americans? Am I hearing right? Maybe I’m delusional from dehydration and hypothermia.

“Doc! I need you over here!” the man yelled in English.

“What’s going on, Shaq?” a deep voice answered from out of the darkness.

“I don’t know. I know she’s breathing, but I’m not sure what’s going on with her,” the man said, looking her over.

“Ma’am? Are you all right?” This time the man called Doc asked the question in Pashtun. “I need to touch you to make sure you’re not hurt. Please, I mean no disrespect. I’m a medic and I want to help you.”

The man tugged at her fabric prison and Izzy shuddered against the chilly predawn day as the burqa was lifted away from her battered body. A cold wind kicked up again and washed over her as he uncovered her face. This was the first time in over twenty-four hours it seemed as if she could finally breathe. When she opened her eyes she saw two men, a black man with a full beard and a white man also with a full beard and longer hair, and both were carrying weapons. The white man was crouched over, looking at her.

They were dressed in the customary style of the men in these parts, the perahan tunbanlong shirts with camouflaged jackets and pants with the customary Keffiyeh scarf wrapped around their necks. Only these men weren’t from here. They were Americans and the worst kind. They were American military Special Forces trained to blend in with the locals.

Doc was assessing Izzy’s vital signs as she lay still. She knew the drill but noticed a couple of added steps to his routine. Izzy knew these men would not sell her to the highest bidder, but she was in a lot of trouble if they found out who she really was.

“Shaq, cover me,” Doc said, standing and slinging back his weapon against his shoulder. Doc helped her sit up and wrapped her in the discarded burqa. Izzy overheard Doc tell the other man that from his assessment she was suffering from hypothermia. “We can’t put her in back with the others because she’s in pretty bad shape. I’ll need to carry this one back.”

Doc knelt again and picked up Izzy effortlessly. Hell no! Izzy suddenly felt a surge of energy run through her as she began to fight. He seemed to take little notice of her struggles. She realized that damn burqa had imprisoned her once more. He had wrapped her arms inside the material. He simply tightened his grip and held her firm because she tried to move her arms but couldn’t budge them. It seemed that Doc had managed to restrain her in a fashion that wouldn’t allow her fight but would allow him to transport her in relative comfort.

To Izzy, it seemed as if the small party walked forever. She drifted in and out of consciousness and had lost her sense of direction before she realized they had reached their destination. Doc annoyingly kept her wrapped inside the burqa and she hated it. When they finally sat inside a vehicle, he opened his jacket and wrapped her inside. She started to thaw from his welcomed body heat as they rode into the breaking dawn. Let me out of here! She pushed against his chest as she started to struggle once again.

“Shush, shush…It’s all right. We have a field hospital near Kush. You’ll be safe there,” Doc whispered in her ear, again in Pashtun.

Izzy stopped and looked at him. The sound of this man’s seductive deep voice reached her and made her go still for a moment. She could listen to this guy talk all day! His voice seemed to reach into her soul and she’d never heard anything like it in her life. It was a sweet call she couldn’t resist, and she couldn’t help but relax. He attempted to soothe her with his light touch running up and down her back. Izzy melted and relaxed into it.

In the breaking dawn, Izzy looked up into his face and he smiled reassuringly at her. She noticed his eyes were the color of rich sapphires. She relaxed into his body because she instinctively knew he would keep her safe. He was very sure of himself and his surroundings and that self-assurance conveyed a sense of security that eased Izzy’s confusion and panic. How many times had she seen that look on a man and been instantly turned off? She wanted to hate that smug look on his face. But for this man, it was natural and not unattractive. It was reassuring and safe.

He held her firm as they jostled down the bumpy trails back to…Kush, did he say? Izzy noticed his body was hard and unyielding when she tried to push against him. She felt the bulletproof vest he’d opened bounce against her shoulder. Something about this man was out of place because the way he held her and tried to comfort her spoke volumes about him. He was a natural caretaker. He had compassion. What’s he doing here? Carrying a gun? Izzy remembered what he really was and stiffened. He was a medic or something like that for the other animals she despised. She didn’t have the strength to fight anymore but tried anyway.

“No…” Izzy hoarsely whispered as she struggled. Her throat was so dry, she could barely speak.

Izzy saw a hand come around and give something to Doc. He frowned as he took the object from the mysterious hand. She couldn’t see what he was looking at because she was facing the wrong way. She watched the range of emotions run over his strong features, confusion, understanding, and finally anger when he looked at her again.

“You’re an American?” Doc asked Izzy in English.

Izzy weakly stared him and couldn’t answer. His tone hurt her and his body stiffened in anger. Why does it hurt so bad? She half expected him to toss her out onto the bumpy road. Izzy tried to speak. She wanted to answer and tell him to shove his attitude up his ass, but she couldn’t control her body. She glanced at the perplexed and angry look in the bluest eyes she’d ever seen as she passed out.

 * * * *
What the fuck is she doing here? When she fainted, Alex looked at the passport again and the rest of the papers Lieutenant-JG Shaq Harman handed him. Shaq was speaking into his ear from the back.

She’s the one Kashi was worried about. You know, one of the women who got snatched during that raid two days ago from that hospital in his village,” Shaq said.

Dr. Isabel Vasquez? I thought Dixie ordered all American civilians home a month ago. What the hell is she still doing here?” Alex asked over his shoulder.

“You found her, you get to keep her. Spoils of war, baby!” Shaq said, slapping Alex on the back.

“Bullshit! You found her!”

“What the hell am I supposed to do with her?”

“Why the hell didn’t you just shoot her and save us the trouble?” Alex snapped.

“This is the one we went to rescue not shoot.”

They drove along the narrow roads to Camp Echo as Senior Chief Alex “Doc” Richards pondered what hell they’d do with their new charge. The first thing, he decided, was arrange to get her self-righteousass back to the States or at the very least France where her organization was located. These Doctors Without Borders could be a real pain, especially when asked to evacuate an area. Alex fumed as he looked down at the woman in his arms and shook his head in disgust. This is turning into a real cluster fuck!

The team arrived at Camp Echo and started to unload all their confiscated plunder. The drugs and weapons would be cataloged and destroyed. The hostages, who’d been taken from the nearby village a couple of days ago, would be returned. The SEAL team who’d conducted the raid had also managed to capture a few of the men involved. They would be handed over and interrogated. Kashi had mentioned they spoke Persian. So far, Dr. Vasquez seemed to be the only one of the hostages in bad condition.

Alex had Dr. Vasquez taken to the field hospital that was set up within the small base of operations for SEAL Team 13. He immediately began her on a therapy of IV fluids and ordered lab work. He looked her over again and found no serious injuries. As he started to turn away, he noticed something on her face. He gently turned her head. Initially he’d thought it was a shadow, but looking closer he saw it was a bruise. He examined her a little closer and found a few more bruises on her arms. Alex knew by the location of the bruises on her that she’d been trying to defend herself. Fucking bastards beat her. It suddenly occurred to him that they might have raped her.

Alex left her in the charge of one of the other Navy corpsmen. He stormed out of the hospital and went looking for the men that had been captured. Fucking bastards! His anger increased with every step he took. Dr. Vasquez had been taken against her will and this was no damn game. She’d probably tried to fight and protect herself. That’s why they assaulted her. As Alex walked, he convinced himself that the possibility she’d been raped was probably correct. That’s why she is in such serious condition. Fuckers probably took turns with her. Arriving at the holding area, he ran into Kashi, Lieutenant Gamez, and Shaq. Kashi was the resident MI-6 agent who was their eyes and ears in Kush.

“Where the fuck are they?” Alex snarled.

“Who are you looking for, Doc?” Lieutenant Dan Gamez asked, concerned.

“I want to see those motherfuckers we just brought in.”

Alex stalked past Lieutenant Gamez toward the holding areas. There were cargo containers that had been converted into makeshift brigs. The holding areas were small pens outside the containers where detainees were being processed. The men and women that were brought back from the raid had been separated and were waiting to be taken home or held in the brig until the CIA arrived.

“Alex! Wait! What’s going on?” Kashi asked as he and Lieutenant Gamez held Alex back.

“That doctor we just brought in, I’m going to find out what happened to her,” Alex said, jerking himself free.

“Did she say something had happened?” Gamez asked, running to keep up with him.

“She didn’t have to,” Alex snapped.

Alex charged into the holding area where five men were waiting. He ordered the young Marines guarding the prisoners to open the gate. The men being held were sitting on the ground. He stepped into the area and looked them over. Where are you, cocksucker?

“What happened to the American woman you took?” Alex asked the men in Farsi.

A man spat on the ground in front of Alex and looked away in disgust. Found you, motherfucker. Alex walked forward and reached down and roughly picked up the man by his neck. Most of the men in this area of the world were not as large as him and several of the other SEALs. They were also not well trained in self-defense, so it was easy to fight them one-on-one. He threw the man against the outside steel wall of the container they were adjacent to. The man crumpled to the ground after crashing into the wall.

As the man rolled over, Alex delivered a swift, hard kick to the center of his body. He heard the man grunt in pain and watched as he doubled over on the ground in front of him. Before he could catch his breath, Alex reached down and grabbed a handful of his thick beard and picked him up. The man was screaming in protest.

“I asked you a question. Answer me,” Alex snarled in Farsi.

Jendeh!” the man screamed at Alex.

The man had just confirmed Alex’s suspicions by calling Dr. Vasquez a whore. A deadly calm came over him as he reached around the man’s neck and squeezed, cutting off his air supply. They locked stares. He saw panic rise in the man’s eyes as Alex increased the pressure on his neck. He watched the whites of the man’s eyes turn red from the pressure of not breathing. The man started to struggle by kicking and scratching.

Still attached to the man’s neck, Alex slammed him against the metal wall to stop his struggles. Alex watched the man’s lips turn blue. That’s right, motherfucker. You will die for what you did. His struggles became weaker and Alex knew that in another minute the man would stop breathing for good.

“Her name is Isabel and she’s a doctor helping the people here. She’s not your whore,” Alex snarled in the man’s ear.

“Doc! Stop it!” Lieutenant Gamez ordered. Alex barely heard the command in the background. Dan’s voice was getting closer. “Stand down, Senior Chief!” he ordered once again.

Alex was torn away from the man suddenly. He watched the man drop to the ground and gasp for air as he kicked his feet. Two big, powerful arms wrapped around Alex and pulled him out of the area. There was only one man in the camp capable of breaking the hold Alex had and dragging him out of area.

“Let me fucking go, Shaq!” Alex demanded as he jerked himself free again. This time Gamez, Shaq, and Chief Juan Villalobos hauled Alex out of the holding area.

The other men in the holding area were cowering away as best they could from the SEALs who had now entered the space. Alex fought to get away and get his hands back on the man that had assaulted a hostage in his possession. Alex was enraged and his reasonable thoughts were blacked out in fury at what had happened to Dr. Vasquez and possibly some of the other women they had taken.

“Lock that fucking gate and don’t let anyone else in here unless I’m with them!” Gamez ordered the young wide-eyed Marine as they pulled Alex out of the holding area.

“What the fuck is wrong with you!” Shaq demanded as he slammed Alex against the outer wall of the metal cargo container.

“Get out of my way,” Alex demanded calmly.

“Senior Chief! Come on, man, it’s not worth it,” Juan said, coming to Shaq’s aid, holding him against the outside wall. Alex lunged forward.

“Have you lost your fucking mind!” Gamez yelled as he and Shaq stopped Alex from moving. “I said stand the fuck down!” he ordered.

Alex took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He wrapped his hands around Shaq’s and Gamez’s wrists. He opened his eyes and looked at the men holding him back from certain court martial. Alex had just attacked a restrained detainee in front of several potential witnesses.

“Peace out, man,” Shaq said, looking at him, concerned. The angry adrenaline running through Alex’s body started to subside. In understanding, Alex nodded. “We cool?” Shaq asked.

“I need to get back to the hospital,” Alex said more calmly than he felt. “Juan, check over the other women that were brought back. Make sure they’re all right and nothing happened to them. Get Kashi to help you,” Alex ordered.

“Will do, Senior Chief,” the young medic said, understanding his meaning.

Alex inhaled deeply and forced himself to think clearly. He looked at Gamez. “If any of them have been hurt in any way, you better lock me in the fucking brig until those bastards are gone.”

“Go relax, Doc. Debrief is at thirteen hundred,” Gamez ordered, releasing him.

Alex took Dan’s advice and went to his quarters, relaxing with a medical journal before he went to find a meal and attend his debrief. Kashi arrived at debrief just as he was taking a seat.

“I’m glad you found our missing doctor. By the way, I talked to her. Nothing but a little rough treatment happened. I’m sure they wanted her in pristine condition when they sold her off,” Kashi said with irritating humor.

“Seriously, Kashi? Why the fuck didn’t you get her the hell out of there? You knew about the State Department’s order. Do you understand why the hell they issue those orders? Now we have to deal with this shit!” Alex said, annoyed.

“I told her to go. She refused. In all reality, Alex, she’s a good doctor. We needed her help. She’s a fine surgeon. That’s why I told you about the raid. I knew you would be interested,” Kashi said.

“Bullshit! You wanted us to do your fucking dirty work,” Alex shot back.

Kashi chuckled. “She’s American, not British. I couldn’t go after her. I must say, you’ve scored a win. The people of that village are more inclined to help now that they see you’re on their side. Especially after the women witnessed that chivalrous display of yours. I swear, Alex, you had a couple of them positively swooning,” Kashi said.

“Fuck you, Kashi! We’ve always been on their side. Why the fuck do you think we’re here?” Alex snapped.

This was bullshit in Alex’s opinion. Navy SEALs and American forces didn’t go around kidnapping and raping innocent women and children and selling them into slavery. They also didn’t take all the food the villages produced. They usually provided it.

“Yes, but they didn’t know that until now,” Kashi said quietly.

“She’s going back on the first plane I can find,” Alex said as the debriefing started.

Kashi smiled as he leaned in close to Alex. “You should get to know her, Alex. I’m sure you’ll find what she has to say quite…interesting.”
* * * *

Izzy woke as the hand that was holding her wrist released her. She turned her head and the pain made her nauseated. She understood what was happening to her and knew that if she stayed still and let the IV fluid do its work she would be fine in a few hours. The headache and nausea she was experiencing were still the effects of being dehydrated. The exposure to the elements Izzy had endured for over twenty-four hours only served to worsen her condition further. There was movement next to her bed and she opened her eyes.

“Hello, angel,” a blue-eyed man said in a seductive deep voice.

Angel? Damn! That voice! Izzy stared at him before shutting her eyes against the headache she was experiencing. He was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen in her life! He looked familiar, but she couldn’t place him at the moment. She sensed a blood pressure cup wrap around her arm and felt the squeeze as it was activated.

“What is it?” Izzy asked hoarsely.

“It’s 110 over 70. A little low. Would you like something to drink?” the man asked.

“Yes,” Izzy whispered.

When Izzy opened her eyes again, she saw the man was working at a nearby laptop. She knew he was updating her condition on the electronic medical chart contained in the laptop. Doc, that’s right, that’s who he is. She remembered why this man looked so familiar.

Doc was the man that assessed her condition during the raid…When was that raid? How long have I been here? Izzy recalled another name, Shaq. She even remembered having a conversation with Kashi at some point, or had she imagined that? She heard Doc’s footsteps return and turned her head when one side of her bed sank down with his weight as he sat.

“Do you want to try and sit up? How’s the headache?” Doc asked.

“I can sit up,” Izzy said.

Izzy lifted herself onto her elbows and squeezed her eyes shut against the pounding pain in her head. She was still weak and, by the way she was feeling, still dehydrated. Doc adjusted her bed so that her head was elevated and she could sit more easily. She knew she should drink slowly, but instinct took over her common sense as she started greedily drinking from the cup Doc was holding.

“Easy, angel. I know you’re thirsty, but you know to take it slow,” Doc reminded.

“Where am I?” Izzy asked as she lay back against the pillow.

“Camp Echo, it’s not far from Kush,” Doc said.

“So, you’re the reason I’ve been so busy,” Izzy pondered out loud.

“About that, Dr. Vasquez. Why didn’t you leave when you were ordered to by the State Department?” Doc asked.

“I had work to do. The people in this area need a doctor. If you would kindly take me back to Kush, I would appreciate it,” Izzy said.

Doc chuckled. Izzy watched his face as a smile lit up his rugged features. He was a handsome man, probably downright dangerous to a woman’s heart when he was cleaned up and groomed properly. He had the look of good aristocratic breeding and seemed out of place in this environment.

Doc belonged in Coconut Grove, in the most exclusive clubs and restaurants. He would be the type to walk right past the bouncers and not look back. He could easily be one of the beautiful people. Izzy knew his type and instantly her defenses went up. His voice was his most unnerving feature. He could probably charm a woman’s clothes off just by talking to her in that deep seductive voice of his.

“I don’t think so. We have a one-way ticket waiting for you. Back home to the States. Miami, is it? After we’ve talked for a few, you’re going home, angel,” Doc said as an annoying grin played with those totally kissable lips.

“I’m not ready to leave,” Izzy said.

“Well, the State Department says otherwise and so does my boss,” Doc informed.

“The people in Kush need a doctor. In case you hadn’t noticed, there are some really bad things going on around here. You above all people should know that! You people are the cause of most of it!” Izzy ranted weakly.

“Oh?” Doc asked in amusement.

“You’re a doctor. Why don’t you help these people instead of terrorizing them with bullets and biological weapons!” Izzy snapped.

“What was that?” Doc asked seriously.

“You know damn good and well what I’m talking about!” Izzy said angrily. She cringed in pain at the sudden flare in her head.

“Tell me, Doctor, what have you seen?” Doc asked in a quiet, neutral voice.

As Izzy looked into the cobalt pools of Doc’s eyes, fear crept into her spine. She saw a myriad of things in the look on his face and none of them gave her a good feeling. She recognized it as concern and alarm. He really doesn’t know.

“What have you seen?” Doc demanded more sternly this time.

The warmth and caring were instantly removed from his features and were replaced by a hard, icy look. The demanding edge in his tone left no question in her mind. He wanted an explanation. It was clear that this highborn playboy could back up any threat he made by kicking someone’s ass in more ways than one, and silence or dancing around the question wasn’t an option. When this man asked a question, people answered. She backed away slightly.

“You should know,” Izzy said, turning away.

“I don’t know, Isabel. You need to tell me exactly what you’ve seen,” Doc said.

* * * *

Biological weapons? What the fuck did she know about biological weapons? Even though Kashi has sent them after her, how the hell did she know what they’d been dealing with? What exactly had she seen? Alex stared at the woman and had to fight the urge to reach out and shake the answers he wanted from her. British Intelligence had identified some really weird shit in this sleepy valley and Headquarters Navy Special Warfare Command had dug up information regarding Soviet activities here during their little stay in Afghanistan in the eighties. That information was the very reason SEAL Team 13 had been sent to Afghanistan and in particular the isolated area of Kush, some one hundred and sixty clicks from the Khyber Pass to Pakistan.

This tribal area was known for its dangerous porous border that terrorists used to go back and forth from Afghanistan to Pakistan. These terrorists were foreign nationals. Rarely were they indigenous Afghani people. They would slip over the border and then disappear into Iran or wherever they had come from.

Dr. Vasquez’s big hazel eyes looked back at Alex. He had to almost shake his head from getting lost in her stare. His dick came to attention the minute he’d touched her this morning and the drive back to the camp with her in his lap was difficult at best. Never had a woman affected him so instantaneously, especially when he was rendering aid. Usually he could stay focused and didn’t notice an attraction until the crisis was over. His past experiences had made him extremely cautious with any attraction to a woman. He waited to see where it went before he made a move.

Alex understood instantly why the Jamiat-e-Islami raiders had taken her. Dr. Vasquez’s hazel eyes were a sharp contrast to her mocha skin and long black hair. Her sleek, athletic body was lean and graceful. When they finally auctioned her off, the Jamiat-e-Islami would have had enough money to fund themselves for a very long time. Even as messed up and dirty as she was, Dr. Isabel Vasquez was a very beautiful woman. Until she opens her mouth, Alex reminded himself with some disgust. He could see why the raiders had attempted to weaken and had even beaten her because she’d probably put up one hell of a fight when they took her.

“Isabel, I need to know what you’ve seen,” Alex said.

“I’m not sure what it is,” Dr. Vasquez answered quietly.

“This is really important. What did it look like?” Alex asked a little more gently.

Dr. Vasquez looked at Alex with uncertainty. He must’ve conveyed the importance of what she had to say to him and convinced her that he was telling the truth.

“I don’t know…I’ve never seen anything like it. Raiders started coming through about a month ago. It wasn’t a big deal at the time. They tossed a couple of grenades and took off. Four people in the village had shrapnel fragment injuries. It killed my patients in less than two days with high fever and organ failure. None of the antibiotics I tried worked. Even cutting away the infected tissue didn’t help. I cultured some of the infected tissue and the only thing I could identify was that it was bacterial and not viral. I’ve never seen this strain and I couldn’t find a record of it. The only good thing about it was it only infected the people who were wounded,” Dr. Vasquez explained.

A chill ran through Alex. He’d seen exactly what she was describing. Dr. Isabel Vasquez had just confirmed what he and his group were looking for. This was the doctor they had needed to find.

Kashi had to know Dr. Vasquez probably wouldn’t come with them willingly and answer all their questions. Or, Kashi may have not been cleared by his British Intelligence bosses yet and was giving them a heads-up. Whatever the reason, it was clear that SEAL Team 13 had just struck intelligence gold. The downside, Dr. Vasquez would not be getting that free ride home yet. She would probably be their guest until they understood exactly what the hell was going on and how much she knew.

“It wasn’t you guys?” Dr. Vasquez questioned.

“No, it wasn’t. We just got here three weeks ago. You should rest, angel,” he said as he stood.

After doing a quick background check on Dr. Vasquez, Alex walked out of the field hospital and found Shaq and Lieutenant Dan Gamez. They gathered in a secure briefing room and Alex informed them of his conversation with Dr. Vasquez.

“Well, let me send Rock a message and see what he wants us to do,” Lieutenant Gamez said.

“We need to order that antibiotic I used before. It’s the only thing I’ve seen that will stop this infection. If it’s here, then a little nick will kill whoever gets it,” Alex said.

“I’ll get on it. I can sign for it. Get me the information as soon as you can,” Shaq said.

“What are we doing about Dr. Vasquez?” Alex asked.

“She’s not moving until I hear from Rock,” Lieutenant Gamez said.

“When’s Cobra scheduled to arrive?” Shaq asked.

“Next week. Till then, I’m it. So what’s the feel for her? Should I send her back with Kashi as soon as Rock clears it?” Lieutenant Gamez asked.

Alex shrugged. He didn’t want Dr. Vasquez going anywhere other than to his quarters. He did, however, have to fill in Lieutenant Gamez on what he’d discovered in his brief background check on her.

“She’s might be a real pain in the ass, or she might be helpful after what happened,” Alex said.

“Why’s that?” Shaq asked.

“She’s one of those antiwar freaks. I just finished a short background check on her and found out she’s an active member of Code Pink. Her Facebook page and her e-mail are full of all kinds of subscriptions to antiwar groups. I don’t think she likes us,” Alex said.

Alex considered all the devious ways he could get her to change her mind.

“What else did you find out?” Gamez asked.

“She and her dad are refugees from Cuba. They came over when she was two. She’s been practicing medicine for four years now. According to her professional records, she’s a hell of a trauma surgeon. She left Ryder Medical Center in Miami when Doctors Without Borders picked her up. Ryder is still holding her position,” Alex informed.

“What’s Dad like?” Shaq asked.

“Keeps his head down and works at a private hospital in Miami in the logistics department. You should see his Facebook page. I don’t think they talk politics,” Alex said with a smile.

The three men chuckled in understanding. The meeting broke and Alex returned to the field hospital. They were still waiting for the Navy to send the physicians that Camp Echo needed. Most of the medics here had more trauma medicine experience than any physician the Navy could send, but a doctor was still a handy thing to have around.

Alex went to his tiny office and started looking through charts and his e-mail. He filled out the request forms needed for the antibiotic he wanted to have on hand in case of an outbreak. For now, he was the chief of staff. It was slow, so making rounds wouldn’t be difficult because there was only one patient for now, Dr. Vasquez. The rest of the men here had only minor injuries and would float in and out to be checked on.

Alex went to check on Dr. Vasquez late in the evening and found her sleeping when he walked behind the curtained partition. He called up her chart on the laptop he’d left in her space and saw that Juan had seen to meals and a pitcher of water. She’d asked Juan to release her and he’d told her he needed to talk with Alex. He smiled to himself. Juan hadn’t mentioned it yet. According to her lab work, she was still weak and needed another round of electrolyte fluids. As he was documenting her therapy, Dr. Vasquez stirred.

“Good evening, angel,” Alex said.

“I’m not your damn angel and I want to leave,” Dr. Vasquez snapped.

Alex smiled. Oh! How I could fix that attitude of yours, Doctor. He suppressed the thought. He found it interesting that she could stir feelings in him that he seemed to have successfully repressed. Instinctively, she seemed to be able to draw buried urges out of him after so many years without any effort.

“I’m glad to see you’re feeling better, Doctor. And you’re not ready to leave. I’ve ordered you another round of electrolytes. You’ll be here at least another twenty-four hours,” he said.

Dr. Vasquez started to argue, “I’m fine. It’s nothing I can’t fix with an oral supplement and—”

Alex cut her off with a look. Dr. Vasquez looked away, but he could see she was itching to continue and wanted to fight him. He looked back at the laptop screen.

“You’re my patient and you’ll be here at least another twenty-four hours,” Alex answered. His tone left no room for questions or arguments.

“We have a difference of opinion, Doctor, because I know my symptoms have improved and I want to leave.”

Rein it in. Alex curbed the urges he was feeling because he knew he could be powerful and intimidating with just his body language.

“Would you like to take a shower?” Alex asked, ignoring her last statement.

“Yes. I would. In my own quarters. Back where I came from,” Dr. Vasquez snapped.

“Okay, I’ll get one of my medics to help you,” Alex said, overlooking her tone and her statement.

“Did you hear anything I just said?” Dr. Vasquez demanded.

“If you want to take a shower in the facilities we have here, I can help you with that. If you want to stay like you are, you can do that, too. You won’t be released until I feel that it’s in your best interest,” he said, looking squarely at Dr. Vasquez.

Alex called Juan to help Dr. Vasquez to the shower facilities. He removed the empty IV bag and covered the hep-lock it was attached to so it wouldn’t get too wet when she bathed. He asked for assistance with her linens and instructed the young SEAL medic to help her to their facilities so she could clean up.

 * * * *

Izzy had to get the hell out of here. She was surrounded by the very worst sort of people and she sure as hell didn’t buy for one second that Doc didn’t know what she was talking about when she mentioned the effects of their grenade on its victims. The medic walking with her to the bathroom was a sweet man, Juan. He was too young to be here and he was throwing away a medical career to fight a war. She hated the global militarism her country was engaged in even more when she looked at the young people that were coming in and out of this hospital.

“How long has that guy been a doctor in the military?” Izzy asked.

“We don’t have a physician assigned to us yet, ma’am. Senior Chief Richards is the senior medic on staff. He’ll run the hospital until we get one,” Juan said.

“Really? Why do they call him Doc?” Izzy asked as she narrowed her eyes.

“We’re combat medics. They call us all Doc,” Juan said with a smile.

Izzy bathed slowly, letting the hot water run over her battered and very dirty body. Despite her mood, it felt good to take a hot shower in relative peace. She scrubbed her body and washed her hair a couple of times. When she stepped out, she saw the towels and blinked when she noticed her shower kit sitting on top.

Izzy ran her brush through her damp hair and was glad she’d relaxed it before she left home. It had been the best advice La’Rett had given her, when she started talking to Izzy again. Not everyone at home was happy about her decision to come to Afghanistan and do this kind of work. Her best friend was at the top of that list. Izzy put on the scrubs and socks that were set aside for her. She was grateful they didn’t give her a hospital gown. She opened the door and saw Senior Chief Richards with his arms folded, leaning up against the wall, waiting. The better she felt the more she hated him and his smug-ass ways.

“Feel better?” Chief Richards asked.

“I want to leave,” Izzy said.

“You’re not ready to go,” Chief Richards said.

“You’re not qualified to make that decision. You’re not a physician,” Izzy said, folding her arms.

“It doesn’t matter. There isn’t a physician in the Navy that would argue with my diagnosis and recommended therapy,” Chief Richards said as he walked toward Izzy.

Izzy was five foot seven and had to look up at Chief Richards, putting him, by her estimations, at well over six feet. About six three, she guessed. He was in scrubs with a gun strapped to his leg and looked intimidating with his beard and long hair. Dressed as one of the locals, he could walk right past them without a second glance. The only thing that might have given him away was his sapphire eyes. If he couldn’t scare them, he’d charm them with that voice. He was a big man physically and knew how to psychologically intimidate someone. Even so, Izzy didn’t shrink back. In fact, it pissed her off that he was attempting to bully her.

“I want to see my labs, or did you even think about running labs? And I want to see my supposed prognosis,” Izzy demanded.

“Labs have been run, Doctor, and you can see your chart when we get back to your space,” Chief Richards said, taking her arm firmly as he led her back to her area.

Izzy shivered at his touch. It wasn’t soothing and gentle like before. It was firm and unyielding. She’d been fighting an attraction to this man she couldn’t explain. As they walked through the corridors of the small hospital, she briefly forgot her attraction and looked around. She was fascinated with the organization of the small field hospital. She noticed a self-contained mini medical facility right down to a pharmacy and had to fight the urge to ask questions. It seemed to be a very efficiently run operation.

They arrived at Izzy’s space and Chief Richards logged into the laptop sitting next to her bed. With a couple clicks of the mouse he was at her latest lab report. She swallowed hard because his diagnosis was right on and another round of electrolytes with the added stay would have been something she herself would have recommended.

“Any more questions, Doctor?” Chief Richards asked as an arrogant smile played around the corners of his mouth.

Izzy was angry again. She wanted to reach up and slap the damn arrogance off his handsome face.

“It’s not that bad,” she grumbled as she slid between the sheets.

“I need to take your vitals, unless in your professional opinion you think I’m unqualified to that, too, Doctor?” Chief Richards asked.

Izzy gave Chief Richards a withering look as she held out her arm for the blood pressure cup. Now he was really pissing her off because he was laughing at her. He went through his routine and gave her the stats as he read them.

“What’s your name?”

Not that she was truly interested. Izzy only asked because when she finally lost it, she wanted to call him a bastard properly and his name would be necessary.

“Senior Chief Alex Richards,” he said as he updated her chart on the laptop.

“Why are you here? You’re obviously a talented paramedic. Why aren’t you helping people who really need you? I’ll bet medical school would be a snap for you.”

“You’re too late to save me, angel, and I am helping people who need me. More so then you’ll ever know.”

“No, not like this. You’re just patching these kids up so they can go out and die. This is wrong. As a medical professional, you know it’s wrong,” Izzy said passionately.

“Did it ever occur to you that these men want to be here? And they believe in what they’re doing? The United States military is a volunteer force. No one is holding us hostage, angel.”

This guy was a challenge. They had brainwashed him thoroughly.

“Most of these kids didn’t have much of a choice, especially minority kids,” Izzy pointed out.

“You’d be amazed at what some of us have walked away from to be here,” Chief Richards said quietly as he walked out of the area.

The place seemed unnaturally quiet when Chief Richards walked out. Izzy briefly scolded herself for being such a bitch with him. She was bored and still a little apprehensive. Her mind was working again. She heard artillery shelling outside and shivered. This was a constant noise here, and she could never seem to get used it because it never stopped. She was too nervous to relax, so Izzy sat and stared at the wall. She needed to move around and do something to drown out the sounds of war. Even though she hated everything the United States military stood for, it was an efficient organization and she recognized she could learn something from this place. She wanted to explore this small hospital and see its inner workings, thinking maybe it would ease the restlessness and fear she was experiencing.

Standing and walking, Izzy paced back and forth in the tiny area. She went as far as she could and looked down the empty ward. She’d been responsible for setting up the small clinic that she ran in Kush. It was crude and the organization invested enough money for her to get the critical supplies she needed. In reality it was still very rudimentary and basic. She went back to bed and laid her head back. She must’ve dozed because Juan, the young medic, was back when she opened her eyes.

“Ma’am, are you comfortable? Is there anything I can get you?” Juan asked.

“A book, if there’s one around,” Izzy said jokingly.

Juan smiled as he checked her water pitcher. “Senior Chief thought you’d want to read something. He told me to give you this,” he said, handing her a binder. “He said to enjoy.”

Juan left and Izzy opened the binder, reading the title page. “A Clinical Study in Bulgura neritina Bacterium by Senior Chief Alex Richards, USNSPECWG 5She dove into the paper and forgot her fear for a while. She was fascinated at the detailed study and depth of research that had gone into it. It detailed the diagnosis and the treatment of a woman who was injured and wound up with an unidentifiable bacterial infection.

The documentation read like a published medical journal. There were clinical lab findings, pictures of stains, and detailed chemistries in the study. Izzy sucked in a startled breath when she saw the picture of the bacteria stain in the paper. It was the same one she’d seen in the four patients that had died after the grenade attack.

“You should be sleeping. It’s four in the morning,” Chief Richards said from the small partitioned entry.

Izzy twitched and brought her head up sharply at the sound of his voice. Where the hell did he come from?

“You’ve seen this infection. The antibiotic, I’ve never seen this combination of chemicals. I’ve never heard of it, moxifloxacin-n. Is it new?” Izzy asked.

“Brand new. In fact it was experimental when I used it on the patient in that study,” Chief Richards said.

“What was the prognosis? I haven’t gotten that far,” Izzy questioned.

“The patient survived and so far there’ve been no adverse side effects. She gets checked with labs every three months,” he said with a grin. Izzy smiled slightly at the jab and looked down at the binder in her lap. “The first couple of labs are in the appendix,” Chief Richards said.

Izzy flipped to the back of the appendices and found the first sets of lab results. She nodded in satisfaction. It was a very thorough lab. She found it hard to believe that the man who wrote this paper was not a physician. He writes like an experienced physician. She thought back to the brief glimpse she got of the hospital.

“You look like you have questions. Do you?” Chief Richards asked.

There were so many questions Izzy had. She didn’t know where to start. Most of her questions were personal questions. Why isn’t he a licensed physician instead of a paramedic? Chief Richards knew more about medicine than some of the doctors she’d studied and worked under.

Hell, by this study and what she’d seen, he knew more than she did. How long had he been involved in medicine? What other kinds of diseases had he seen and treated? Did he know any unique methods for trauma injuries? What kind of training had he been through? How did he manage to set this hospital up and how did he organize it? Was he married? Whoa! Where the hell did that come from? Izzy almost shook her head. She needed to remind herself she didn’t like Chief Richards.

“Can I see the hospital?” Izzy asked.

Chief Richards said as he worked to unhook the IV that she was connected to, “I was wondering when you would ask.”



 
Hanging by a Moment
Knights of RED HORSE 


Web Site:  www.bellajuarez.com

Blurb

[Novella, Consensual BDSM, spanking, HFN]

 Widower and Air Force reservist, Tom Ryan fills the empty spaces in his life by building dream homes for others. When he’s invited to a client’s party, he meets the owner’s sister-in-law, a tempestuous artist, and discovers that maybe there is a wrong time to meet the right person…

 Free-spirited Emily Sanchez is known for pushing the envelope in art, but meeting dependable, and down-to-earth Tom challenges her. The man has submissive written all over him, and she thinks she might be just the woman to peel back the layers and release the brilliant passion inside.

 But when they are paired by Madame Eve, Tom turns the tables on Emily, because he’s always been curious about the lifestyle and if the chaotic artist is willing to surrender, they may discover their deepest desire…

 


Chapter One

 Tom Ryan approached the large inviting doors to one of the most beautiful houses in Fair Oaks. The owners, Phil and Beth Rodriguez, had asked every effort be made to make it fit in with the beautiful Texas Hill Country. So much had changed in the last five years.

A home builder getting started in the South Texas area, Phil’s budding business venture included creating a showplace in Fair Oaks, a small community nestled in between Boerne and San Antonio. Tom’s work in the months it took to complete the venture had kept him sane and from falling into despair after watching his beloved wife die.

 When he finished the Rodriguez house, Tom headed out on deployment to Afghanistan. On his return, he contracted Phil to build him a custom home in Fair Oaks as well. Its design had been another labor of love. Such personal projects let his artistic side run free.  The door swung open.

 “Tom! You decided to come after all!” Beth threw her arms around him and greeted him like family. “I’m so glad you changed your mind.”
 
Her warm welcome shoved aside his doubts about coming to a ten year old’s birthday party.

He’d been politely declining invitations to Rodriguez family events since he met the couple. Today was different because after seven long months he’d received a response from 1Night Stand. The reclusive Madame Eve assured him she’d found a match and would be in touch with more information.

So many of the women he asked out on his own were either psychotic or neurotic, and at forty-six years old he couldn’t deal with the drama. So, he’d all but given up on connecting with anyone as he once had with his Karen. The dating service idea had been his daughter’s, and she’d given him the gift certificate at Christmas. Reluctant to disappoint her, he’d made a halfhearted effort to see if the magical Madame Eve could send him a second soul mate, even for one night. The email he’d received this morning eased a tension he hadn’t realized he had. He felt a lighter, more positive general outlook on life.

“My man!” Phil slapped him on the back.

 Tom fell into conversation with a group of men gathered around Phil. Most of them he knew from the neighborhood. He joked and laughed as kids played in the natural rock pool. When he designed the pool, he’d wanted to create the illusion a natural spring had appeared in the Rodriguez’s back yard and they’d built around it. The details he’d labored over had paid off. The treated limestone from a nearby Texas Hill Country quarry, the native plants surrounding the pool, and the waterfall running down the tiered flagstones fit the semi-arid landscape.

 “So, I understand you’re a reservist?” Jim Bando asked.

 He took a swallow of his cold beer before answering. “Yes, I am. I’m with the RED HORSE combat engineering outfit at Lackland Air Force Base.”

“RED HORSE? I was with them. I’m a civil engineer, couldn’t find a job when I got my degree, so I joined the Air Force and served for four years,” Stan Hopkins said.

“Yeah, I got out when they opened up a bunch of slots for reservist and went weekend warrior instead of full time.” Tom said.

 “Have you been over?” Jim asked.

 “I went to Iraq a couple of times and Afghanistan once.”

 “Wow! As busy as you guys are at the firm, that must screw with your job. It took Aaron almost two weeks to let me know whether or not he would take me on as a client,” Phil said.

 “Do you guys do a lot of government contracts?” Jim asked.

“No mostly private work, with businesses like Phil’s.” Tom said.

 “So what do you do in the reserves?” Jim asked.

 “I do the same job but with less artistic license. Most of the things we do involve reclamation, rebuilding, and reconstruction.” Tom answered.

 "Yeah but we have to go in when bullets are still flying. We have to build the damn runways where there aren’t any,” Stan added.

 “Damn!” Jim said. “So you see some action? And the firm holds your position?”

 “Yes, of course they do. Aaron’s in the same unit, and he owns the firm,” Tom replied.

 "So have you had to shoot any terrorists?”

 “Excuse me.” Tom turned away.

The stupidity and insensitivity of some people when it came to this war never cease to amaze him. Yes, he’d killed someone, more than one. But he never shared it with anyone because he didn’t want to relive the moment over and over again. He’d fired in self-defense. The enemy would have killed him if he hadn’t fought back. He’d always thought Karen had paid for his sins while he’d watched cancer eat away at her bit by bit. He’d taken someone’s brother or father, and his wife of twenty-two years had been taken from him, deliberately and painfully.

 Tom stalked to the guest bathroom behind the kitchen. He had to get a grip before he tried to return to the party. He slammed the door shut behind him and paced the spacious room. When he stopped, he leaned against the wall and threw back his head as he closed his eyes. Fucking bastard! Why did people always assume he’d tagged and bagged someone? What a mistake to accept this invitation. Ready to make a quick escape, he opened the door and glanced left and right, but none of the partygoers seemed to notice. Thank goodness everyone had gathered outside. It would make his get-away easier. He strode into the kitchen and came to a sudden stop at a sharp jolt to the center of his chest. A pan clattered to the tile floor and he stared into a set of big dark brown eyes.

 “Shit!” a sultry feminine voice swore.

 Tom took a step back and surveyed the damage he’d caused. The woman’s white T-shirt was covered with barbecue sauce. The dropped pan held only half its original contents. Shit! The woman glared at him and shook her head as she grabbed a towel lying on the counter. She knelt and started picking up ruined brisket. He should’ve never come here. He’d made a mess of everything. He joined her and tried to assist.

 “It’s okay. I can handle it.” She gave him an angry frown.

 “I-I’m so sorry. I-I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.”

 “Forget it. Beth’s going to be pissed when she sees this, though. She’s an OCD neat freak from hell.”

 Tom lifted the pan, set it on the counter, and returned with an empty pan. They worked together to clean up the meat and sauce from the once-immaculate tile floor.

 When they’d returned it to its former condition, she stood and his eyes traced up her body. She stood around Beth’s height, five-foot-three or four, with a fuller figure. Her hourglass shape took his breath away. It was a powerful, instant attraction to a woman like he’d never known. As she placed the pan on the counter behind her, he noticed how her shorts shaped around her ass perfectly. He could picture himself taking her nicely rounded ass in his hands and squeezing while banging the woman from behind.

 What the hell’s wrong with me? He shook his head at the thoughts running through his mind. For the first time in a long time, his cock was as hard as a steel pipe and ready for some serious action. Maybe it was the news he’d received this morning and the prospect of a one-night stand was starting to work its magic. It didn’t matter; he needed to get a grip on himself.

 Tom noticed the nervous glance she gave him, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away. She favored Beth. In fact if it weren’t for the longer black hair and more shapely body, the two could be twins. As she walked back, he admired how her T-shirt wrapped around her full breasts. His mouth started to water; he wanted nothing more than to lick that damn barbecue sauce off every inch of her. When was the last time a woman had managed this sort of reaction in him?

 She handed him a damp towel, brushing his fingers with hers. “Could you get the stuff off the cabinet next to you?” she asked in her soft, sexy voice.

 Tom cleared his throat. “S-Sure.” Thank God she’d given him something to do requiring he focus elsewhere. He concentrated on wiping sauce and meat from the polished wood.

 When they’d finished clearing up the mess, she finally smiled. “I guess that’s no way to meet. I’m Emily, Beth’s sister.” She extended her hand.

 Tom’s pulse quickened and he swallowed a groan. An exotic beauty, she belonged on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. The deep glow of her olive skin made her darker than Beth. “Tom Ryan.” He closed his fingers over hers. Bad move. This temptress was doing a number on his mind and body. He jerked as if he’d touched a live wire. Her hand twitched. Does she feel it too? Or had she reacted to his nervousness.

“Nice to meet you, Tom Ryan.” Emily looked down at herself and grimaced. “I need to change. Would you do me a favor?”

I’d crawl across broken glass, honey, as long as I got to touch you at the end. He cleared his throat. Where did this sudden impulse to lay this woman flat and fuck her silly come from? As if she were able to read his dirty mind, she grinned slyly.

 “Would you take the meat we managed to save and put it on the table on the patio with the rest of the food while I clean up?”

 “Of course, it’s the least I can do,” he said.

 "Tom?”

 “Yes?”

"Let go.” Her eyes danced with laughter. Following her pointed look, he saw her hand still in his. He let go with a sheepish grin. “Thanks for taking it out for me.”

 Emily passed him and disappeared into the guest room behind the kitchen. Tom grabbed the tray of meat and went outside.

 


 

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