Cover Design: Kari March Designs
operative, Aaron Spears treated relationships like Tangos. He’d seen the
wreckage of his Task Force brothers’ attempts and had no desire to put any
woman through the hardship. He had one purpose – serve his country and protect
his teammates. Then Celine Latimer walked into his life and turned his world
thought she’d hit the jackpot when hunky SF operative Aaron Spears asked her to
accompany him to the high-profile wedding of Senator Cotter’s daughter. They’d
get to spend two weeks together while Aaron pulled guard duty for Caroline
Cotter and Celine intended to use every spare minute, seducing the man she’d
had a crush on for over a year.
proved to be more of a barrier than either of them realized. With his commander
watching his every move, Aaron couldn’t afford to show any weakness. That meant
Rejected and hurt,
Celine packed to leave only to be caught in a kidnapping plot against the
Senator. Here she sat, in a hut in the Middle East, waiting on a rescue that
may never come.
protect and he’d failed. Now Aaron lived for one purpose- to rescue the woman
he lost before she’s sold into slavery and spend the rest of his life making
her see how much he loves her.
Afghanistan desert would have made the devil himself sweat, not that the devil
was brave enough to set up headquarters in this godforsaken land. Only the
United States Special Forces would be sick enough to pick the meanest valley in
the Middle East as its home away from home.
the insects were AWOL. The only creatures crawling across the sand were the
death dealers – scorpions, snakes and Special Forces.
Aaron Speirs, assistant medical sergeant and weapons expert, bent over and
gripped the metal bar in front of him, working on his fourth set of dead lifts
in the spotted shade provided by the camo net over Task Force Scorpions, TF-S,
down. Three hundred ninety-five pounds, nearly twice his bodyweight an extreme
amount guaranteed to give him arthritis by retirement but he wasn’t worried
about that since most men in the Teams didn’t live to see their fiftieth
birthday. Sweat ran in rivulets down his shirtless chest, dropped to the
scorched earth with a sizzle and evaporated instantly.
down. One more round of lifts and he might fall out from weariness, which was
exactly what he intended. He couldn’t stop thinking about Celine Latimer with
her perfect platinum hair and soulful eyes. He couldn’t forget the taste of her
strawberry flavored lip gloss or the fact that it was his fault she’d been
down. Another lift. Aaron’s exhausted muscles screamed in protest, but he kept
moving, ignoring the pain.
had he turned her away?
would happen if he let himself care about her – he’d lose her just like he’d
lost his mother.
yanked the weight up hard. How many people had to die before he learned his
buried his mom ten years ago, someone else had dug the grave but he’d put her
there. The memories crashed into him. Her blank stare when he’d found her on
the bathroom floor, blood flooding from her wrists. Dammit, how could have been
so blind? If only he’d been paying closer attention…
ground his teeth together and held the ungodly weight high, fighting the cold
seeping into his chest. But no matter how hard he tried to resist another image
flashed. Shane falling to his death in that ambush, his scream cut off when he
hit the ground.
hurt in her eyes when he’d cold shouldered her…all because he couldn’t face the
fact he’d been unable to hold his vow to never do to a woman what his father
did to his mother.
they were all gone. Guilt bread and multiplied in him, taking over everything
crush your spine.” Ethan Slade,
communications sergeant and Aaron’s best friend, strained under the weight of
his bench press five feet away.
blinked the blinding brightness of the desert into focus, shoved the memories
down and turned to Ethan with a blank expression.
racked his weight and shot upright. “Don’t give me that fucking look. I know
exactly what you’re thinking.”
let the weight crash to the ground, ignored the sweat stinging his eyes and
reached for the barbell again. “Giving up already?”
had no intention of letting Ethan go at another one of his amateur counseling
ignored the barb and mopped the moisture from his face with a nearby towel.
“You need to ease up, give yourself a break.”
not getting a break. Caroline’s not getting a break.” That dammed thought crept into his nightmares every single night.
drowning in guilt won’t save them either.” Ethan tossed the towel on the bench
stood, pulling the bar up with him. “Who said anything about guilt? I’m out for
revenge. Cold and simple. Guilt hasn’t got anything to do with it.”
strode to Aaron’s gym back and yanked out Aaron’s BDU jacket. “Really?” He
ripped open the front pocket and pulled out two photos. “Then why do you carry
their pictures over your heart?”
held the pictures up right in Aaron’s line of vision. His mom’s sad smile
mocked him. The one screen shot he’d taken with Celine taunted him.
pictures were the ghosts that haunted him daily for his fuck up.
didn’t relent, instead he shoved their faces closer. “You couldn’t have done
anything to stop it, bro. She wanted to go after you dad left.”
dad didn’t leave. He died. He took his thousandth fucking mission, ground his
mother’s heart into their gravel driveway and never came home.
growl built in his throat. “Drop it.”
blaming yourself.” Ethan’s voice dropped and he let the photo’s fall into
Aaron’s bag. “Your mother wasn’t your fault back then and Celine’s not your
slowly lowered the weight this time, allowing his comment to pass without
reaction. His teammate was wrong on both counts. He’d seen the clues in his
mom. She’d started with the drinking first and then the anti-depressants. And
then he’d gone and done exactly what his dad had done before he was killed in
action, he’d left.
like he would always do.
devoted his life to the Teams. His country. His brothers in arms.
life in the special forces was not life for a relationship. His firsthand
experience with the disaster of his parents failed attempt was enough to keep
him forever away from giving his heart to any woman other than the Statue of
was man enough to admit that he’d been week with Celine. She’d been the first
woman who’d ever tempted him from his duties. He’d actually thought about more
than a one night stand with her – he’d envisioned a future together. And
because he’d given into that weakness, she’d been taken by the one man who
could do the most damage.
would never understand, he had his woman. Kate was safe and sound, waiting on
him to return home. At least until she wasn’t. “Let it go.”
until you do.” Ethan faced off with him, hands balled into fists at his side.
straightened, for one second letting the pain show in his expression. “When
Kate dies because of you, come talk to me about letting go.”
threw his hands up in the air and stomped over the weight bench. “Your mom’s
gone, man. Celine’s not. You’ve still got a chance.”
if I don’t find her.” Not even then. He hadn’t learned before but he had now.
Fate had given him one chance – she wouldn’t allow another one. He’d find
Celine, deliver her safely home and walk the hell away before he did more
damage than he’d already done.
shot him a look of quiet anger. “We.”
one on this team. We were all there when Celine and Caroline were kidnapped, in
case you’ve forgotten.” Ethan fell back on the bench and lifted the barbell
straight over his chest with a grunt. “If you aren’t willing to let go of the
guilt, at least realize you don’t have the corner market on it.”
stared at him, testing his friend’s words, allowing them to roll around in his
mind. Maybe with Shane, their teammate, he wasn’t alone in the feeling. They’d
all fell for the ambush – set up by their very own CIA liaison. TF-S had moved
in without question to motivation and still hadn’t realized they’d snuck right
into a trap until they were right in the middle of a shit storm of combatants.
about Celine? Could he share the blame of her kidnapping with them?
no he couldn’t. He hadn’t told Ethan about sleeping with her or about the fact
he’d left his post because he couldn’t stay away from her. Only their
commander, Colonel Grey, knew that he’d given in to the insurmountable
temptation of Celine Latimer. He’d broken his vow to his mother that he’d never
put a woman through her hell in one scorching night of passion that had
permanently seared his soul.
snorted. “You’re skull’s as thick as that metal bar.”
grunted gratefully at Ethan’s change in conversation. His limit for talking
about his failures had been reached a week ago. “Can’t argue that.”
can’t believe it.”
agreed with me. What’s that – like the second time since we’ve been over here?”
with the chick talk and start talking about how we are going to gut J and I’ll talk all day.” Aaron emphasized the
we just for Ethan’s benefit.
could feel Ethan rolling his eyes. “I get it. No more talking about anything
but the mission.”
killing Mr. J.,” Aaron finished for him.
find them. We’ve already narrowed their location down to this area of the
mean this hundred-square mile radius of ISA loyalists protecting our old
liaison? Mr. J wants nothing more than to make us pay.”
Islamic State of Afghanistan, the lead terrorist organization in the world,
along with the help of Mr. J, was responsible for kidnapping Caroline Cotter
during her high-profile wedding to General Rainer. A relationship crafted in
the hallways of JSOC themselves and a bargain struck between the senator in
command of JSOC and his four-star General. It was a match made in Department of
Defense, DOD, heaven.
Cotter would take complete control of JSOC with the General at his side,
carrying out his tasks. “You get the feeling the whole wedding was orchestrated
by Mr. J?”
Force Scorpion’s former CIA liaison turned traitor. Caroline Cotter had been
the bait to seal the deal and Celine Latimer had been collateral damage.
afford to allow to go down.”
paused mid-air. “You think he wanted to stop it?”
shrugged and racked his bar. “Makes sense, why else kidnap her before the
wedding could take place?”
talk to the commander about this?”
He said he’d starting kinda thinking the same thing. But without proof, the
girls or J, we won’t know anything for sure.”
grabbed his towel and wiped his face. He’d been so focused on his failure he’s
never stopped to consider that J wasn’t pulling the strings, but trying to cut
them. “It should never have gone down like that.”
The senator vetted his own security. He pulled us in for extra detail, that’s
it,” Ethan said.
was a cake mission. How hard could it be to pull security at Caroline’s
wedding?” He’d gotten complacent. He should never have taken Senator Cotter’s
word that he’d fully vetted his own staff. Aaron grabbed the bar, needing the
physical exertion to tame the internal battle.
he’d approached the mission with the same intensity he did all others Celine
might still be here.
down. The barbell bowed under the heavyweights stacked onto the ends every time
he lifted. He was going to make Celine’s kidnapper bend like that, right before
he snapped the bastard in half.
right, we knew better, but we both trusted the Senator. It was his fuck up,
too, and his daughter that was kidnapped because of it,” Ethan said.
just Caroline. Celine was kidnapped, too. Don’t forget her,” Aaron ground out,
jaw clenched under the pressure of holding up the extreme weight and guilt.
case I need to remind you, my girlfriend, Kate, was almost taken. Don’t talk
like I don’t understand, man. We nearly lost all of them.”
not, I just- I was the reason Celine was there in the first place,” Aaron said,
careful to keep his emotions on the back burner.
so what? You invited her because you you’d vetted her and we needed a makeup
artist and stylist we could trust. Someone who could be close to Caroline that
we wouldn’t have to worry about. You were just doing your job.”
he did his job alright. He’d fully vetted Celine Latimer, but not as a stylist
for the bride. “If you say so.”
wanted her. He’d wanted her for nearly a year. He’d wanted her so bad he’d
forgotten the cardinal rule – no relationships in the special forces. Not that
he enjoyed one-night stands, but he wasn’t about to put a girl through the shit
of being in a relationship with a man who was never there, or one who may never
come home from a mission.
seen the toll it took on his mother. Each and every time his dad left on a
mission, Aaron would watch another batch of light in his mother’s eyes dim.
Then the painful forced reunions with a man none of them knew anymore. Hell,
his father didn’t know his wife and kids either and how could Aaron blame him
for just doing his duty. He couldn’t fault his father for signing his life over
to the military, but he could sure as hell make sure he never put a woman
through that kind of pain. His dad didn’t come back from his last assignment.
His mother lost it, broke apart into a million pieces. The one woman Aaron had
loved above all others slipped right through his hands and took her own life.
thought about blaming the military – but how could he? He blamed his father for
falling in love and committing to a relationship he could never hold. No matter
what, Aaron had vowed to never do that to a woman. Either they understood that
they came to his bed for one night only or they didn’t come at all.
that life creed had held him rock steady for his entire career – until Celine
Latimer made him want more.
wasn’t in the mood to talk about it anymore. Aaron dropped the heavy metal bar
with a satisfying clank onto the concrete at his feet.
wiped the sweat from his face and dropped the soaked hand towel on a nearby
metal chair. Their workout facility had the necessities. Water enough so they
wouldn’t pass out from dehydration. Weights heavy enough to work off the steam.
All the outdoor circulation the desert could provide.
been stationed there for two weeks, searching and pulling recon non-stop.
They’d tapped all their contacts in the area, searched satellite photographs
and even done some door-to-door searches only to come up with nothing. Not even
a blip. It was as if the two women had vanished.
ago. Let’s head back out. Who knows, maybe we’ll get a lead,” Ethan said.
concrete pad for the next guy who needed to bend some metal. “Five minutes.”
change, the two checked in with the commander and then headed out on their
knock and talk mission, which was a complete waste of time, but it was also
their only hope for a lead right now.
they’ll be here in the next hour. Top has some new intel he wants to show us.”
Ethan pulled the Humvee to a stop at the end of Mississippi Street, in
Shorawak, a medium sized town near the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Square
built white stone buildings lined the dirt road, some with metal doors and
other with burlap covering the opening. Kids kicked soccer balls down the end,
but stopped the second they got out of their Humvee.
like we weren’t expected.”
snorted. “We were expected, not welcomed.”. Mississippi was one of the safer
streets to patrol, and one that they hadn’t covered yet in their door-to-door
search for Caroline and Celine.
Aaron got out of the Humvee, heading to the first door on the street. He banged
hard, waited a sec and knocked again. A man answered, his gaunt face haggard
with deprivation and dirt. Aaron held up the headshots of the girls. “You see
The man slammed the door in his face and Aaron forced himself to back up a step
and move down the street.
had been the standard response from those who had any English vocabulary. Most
of the time, they just got angry retorts in Farsi, followed by a door slam.
trailed behind, guarding Aaron’s back as he stopped at every single door on the
street. They questioned twenty households on Mississippi and then moved on to
Arkansas Street. When they reached the end of that, about fifty doors of no new
news of the girls later, Aaron reached the end of his patience. “I hate not
too, brother. Maybe the new intel will be something we can actually use,” Ethan
scanned the now deserted street behind them, keeping his rifle at the ready.
letting you take the next one.” Aaron knocked on the beaten up green metal
door. “I swear, if another asshole slams the door in my face, I’m gonna kick it
down.” A man in a white tunic and pants answered, his gaze raking over Aaron a
second before the man spit on Aaron’s boot.
gritted his teeth and held up the worn photos of the girls. His boots had been
through worse shit than this. “Have you seen them?”
man cursed and made to shut the door. Rage rode through Aaron on wings. He
slammed a hand to the door and yanked the man out, pinning him to the wall.
“You hear me? I asked you a question. Where are the girls?!”
man threw his hands up, waving in front of his face and shouting back in Farsi,
“Man nemefahmam. Man nemefahmam.”
grabbed Aaron’s shoulder, pulling him off the local. “He doesn’t know. What the
hell are you doing?”
man ran inside and locked the door. Ethan grabbed Aaron and threw him against
the wall where the villager had been. “What’s going on, man? I know you, and
this isn’t like you. And don’t give me another line of shit about how you feel
guilty for screwing up the mission, because we all screwed that one up and you
know it. We’ve all failed missions before and moved on. What’s eating you alive
over this one?”
it was the fact that he’d cornered Celine in her bedroom and tried to devour
her whole. Or maybe that she’d returned the favor full force in an explosion of
passion neither of them had been prepared for. Or maybe, just maybe, it was the
fact that Aaron had thrown out his training and experience on pure instinct and
lust. He’d known the digs of getting involved with Celine, or at least he’d
thought he had. But once he’d had her, the moment he buried himself between her
sweet, honey drenched thighs, he’d realized his mistake.
wouldn’t be able to quit her after a one nighter. She was like a drug. Her
kisses. Her moans. Her need for him.
like his father killed his mother.
it like two teenagers in the back of his father’s car when Aaron should have
been on patrol, was just the steel shovel to bury the relationship coffin.
Celine, pointedly ignoring her for the rest of the week despite the wounded
expression she shot him whenever they were in each other’s vicinity. “I should
have paid better attention. It was my job to protect them.”
mine. And the Team. And the Secret Service.”
buts.” Ethan kept him pinned. “You’ve been on edge since we got here and I’ve
tried to stay out of it, but I’m not gonna sit back and watch you lose it.
You’ve been taking chances lately; chances you never used to take.”
was at the mercy of a murderer and in a den of monsters who treated women worse
than dogs. They wouldn’t hesitate to hurt her. Bile clawed its way up his
throat at the thought of another man’s hands on her body.
let it out, brother. Get whatever is eating you alive off your chest so we can
get to work.” Ethan crossed his arms.
he’d pushed harder, tried to pick him apart, Aaron might have clamped down, but
the obvious concern in Ethan’s voice broke through Aaron’s wall of anger;
straight through to his fear.
Aaron shoved a hand through his thick sweaty hair. “I’m trying, you know. I
can’t get her out of my mind long enough to concentrate. Every time I think
about someone hurting her…” He wanted to punch something. To break something.
To kill someone.
get it. You know I get it. But you got to find a way back to zero, brother.
This edge you’re riding puts us all at risk.”
know you understand, but that doesn’t stop the fact that Mr. J has them. We
know that. He’s already tried to murder our team twice. If he can find a way to
use the girls against us, you know he will. We have to find them before it
comes to that.”
put a hand on Aaron’s shoulder. “We both know what Mr. J is capable of. Just
like we both know that if you don’t get your center back, Mr. J will win.
Again. Your greatest weapon is your training. Take that rage filling up your
insides right now and compress it into cold hard hate. You figure out a way to
get it under control and we will find Mr. J and Celine. But you keep letting
the anger rule your decisions instead of logic and you’ll get us all killed.”
blew out a long sigh, knowing Ethan was right, but at a complete loss as to how
to tame the raging beast inside him. “I know that’s what I need to do. I just
don’t know if I can.”
you can, brother. Trust me. Just think about how good it’s going to feel to put
a bullet in Mr. J’s skull. If it hadn’t been for Mr. J, Shane might still be
alive, and ISA sure as shit wouldn’t have had the resources to attack us on our
made the Taliban look like amateurs. They had ambushed Task Force Scorpion’s
headquarters, nearly killing the entire team and their families. They’d turned
Shane Carter, TF-S’s first sniper, against his own team, resulting in Merc
having to put a bullet in his teammate.
that, and now Senator Cotter’s daughter. “This is going to sound corny, but my
instincts are telling me he’s up to something else, something so twisted, we
can’t even imagine it, but, dammit, I don’t know if that’s really my instincts
or the fact that I’m scared to death he’s going to hurt Celine.”
went silent. Finally, he took a step back and gave Aaron a look of dawning
horror. “That’s it. This was not a random kidnapping – Caroline Cotter’s father
is head of Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC. The general she was supposed
to marry was in charge of the Special Forces. If Mr. J can get control of those
men, he’ll be able to manipulate United States SF to do his bidding and the
forces would think they were just following orders.”
froze, the truth of Ethan’s words way too possible. “If Senator Cotter puts in
orders to deploy an attack and the general signs off, it will look totally
nodded, “He could order the takeover of a small country and make it look like
it happened with the blessing of the United States.”
words sunk deep and heavy in Aaron’s gut, pulling the plug on his fury as a
heavy dread settled over him. “If Cotter really worships his daughter above all
else, he’ll do whatever Mr. J demands to ensure her safety.”
on the other hand, was the only one who worshipped Celine Latimer.
Unfortunately for her, the desires of an expendable Special Forces agent didn’t
bear a whole lotta weight when it came to striking a deal with the devil.
Lindsay Cross is the award-winning author of the Men of
Mercy series. She is the fun loving mom of two beautiful daughters and one
precocious Great Dane. Lindsay is happily married to the man of her dreams – a
soldier and veteran. During one of her husband’s deployments from home, writing
became her escape and motivation.