Had he found her again only to lose her to a stalker?
Slade Donovan and Kari Malone shared one anonymous night of hot sex. Five years later unexpected circumstances throw them together again and what’s between them burns hotter than ever. But as a member of Delta Force, Slade is wary of relationships, drawn to Kari on the one hand and hesitant on the other.Kari has her own demons, the stalker she moved to escape who seems to track her everywhere. As the unknown stalker ramps up his game, it will take the Delta Force team to rescue her, and the danger to show them both that what they have is electric, erotic and real.
I’m getting too old for the mindless shit on R and R.
The thought had been running through Lt. Slade Donovan’s mind off and on for weeks now. Just thinking about it exhausted him. He was tired, a soul-weary, bone-deep fatigue that was as much mental as it was physical and it worried him. He was also worried about his men, a crack Delta Force team that had been together for a lot of years and a lot of missions.
Raking his hands through thick brown hair that he knew was long past due for a trim, he let his gaze travel over the other three men, sprawled out on the well-worn furniture in his makeshift quarters. They looked rode hard and put away wet, as the saying went in Texas. Just yesterday they had come down out of the Hindu Kush Mountains tired, dirty and spent, although eminently satisfied. This had been one more successful mission, one more terrorist cell destroyed, one more maniac blown to hell. And the troops fighting for the people of Afghanistan had one less bad guy—and his followers—to worry about.
This was what they did, he reminded himself, he and the men who made up his team. Delta Force, this super-secret division of the Army, had counterterrorism as its main focus. This included the capture and elimination of terrorist forces, as well as the gathering of intelligence on terrorist threats, and, finally, hostage rescue. Although they’d completed yet another successful mission, as always, it had drained them. In the helicopter that extracted them they did little more than rehydrate themselves and try to let their brains unkink. Back at the base they’d all gone through debriefing, badly needed showers, a hot meal and fourteen hours of sleep.
He and these men had been together for ten of his fifteen years in Delta Force. After all that time he’d lost count of the number of their missions. Lately he’d been taking a good hard look at his life and wondered if he was getting too old for this shit. Same went for his men. After three intense missions in a row, they were looking at downtime and he was concerned about how they’d spend it. It was one thing to burn off steam with an excess of sexual activity. But it left who they were untouched and he worried they were losing a core part of themselves.
“I’ll tell you,” Beau Williams said, stretching. “I’m damn sure we’ve got this leave coming up. Three missions in a row about did me in.” He gave a rough laugh. “I hate to think I might be getting old.”
“Ten days of wild women and smooth whiskey ought to fix you up fine,” Trey McIntyre, their spotter, joked. “Usually does it for you, Surfer.”
With his sun-streaked light brown hair and green eyes the name fit Beau to a tee, even if he did chafe at it now and then. Nothing could be further from the truth. Beau was their sniper, a job that required incredible focus and discipline, but could rob a person of humanity if he wasn’t careful. Slade had seen how easily he was able to shut down every emotion lately and worried about him. And his ten wild days had become the norm for him.
“You been spying on me?” Beau joked. “Maybe you could take some lessons.”
“Maybe I could give some lessons,” Trey growled.
“Cool it,” Slade told them, and turned to Marc Blanchard. “How about you, Marc?” Slade looked at the team’s recon man, who was still recovering from a disastrous marriage.
“How about me what?”
“What are your plans?”
When Marc didn’t answer him, Slade swallowed a sigh. “We’ve been a team for ten years now, right?”
They all nodded, staring at him, obviously wondering where this was going.
“Maybe it’s time we took a good look at where we are? There is life after Delta.”
“Speak for yourself.” Bitterness edged Marc tone of voice. For the most part he was very private about his downtime and his personal life. The first day of every leave he silently disappeared then reappeared when it was time to reassemble as if he had a built-in signal telling him when he was needed. Slade knew Marc had never given himself a chance to heal.
And none of them were getting any younger. They all needed to start thinking about the future. And relearning who they were. Life after war. Even Marc, if he’d let all that bitterness out. Not that Slade didn’t like sex as much as the next man. He had a healthy appetite for it and loved to get down and dirty. But these were good men, all in their late thirties like him, and he wanted them to find something solid in their lives. Something to provide an anchor. They needed it whether they realized it or not. Running off someplace to wash away the tension of what they did with strange women and whatever else they got into was long past doing the trick.
In the past few months he’d begun to wonder just how much longer he could do this. The fight and the missions, the wear and tear on his mind and his body were beginning to take their toll. He wanted—no, needed—to make some changes in his life. He wanted to think about his future.
It wasn’t an overnight revelation, by any means. It had been creeping up on him, this under the surface desire to settle down. He wanted a woman who was strong enough to weather his long absences and would build a home with him for when he retired from Delta…which, at thirty-eight, he didn’t expect to be all that much longer. He’d seen others do it and lately had become just a little envious. He could always stay in the Army, of course, and do something else. He’d had plenty of things suggested to him.
And being downright honest (which he always tried to be), he’d have to admit that ever since one memorable night five years earlier, that thought had been needling around in his brain on a regular basis. Lately the memory had grown stronger, more frequent, becoming the catalyst for all this. A memory he’d been trying to suppress without much luck. A memory that took him back to a night indelibly etched on his brain, on his senses.
He had been visiting friends who insisted on dragging him to a party he really had no desire to attend. But he’d been polite and put on his game face…and been rewarded. He still couldn’t forget the very warm, very sexy woman with the silky auburn hair, emerald green eyes and a body that made his mouth water. But that wasn’t what had turned him on. It was the whole package. Her perfume that tickled his senses, her low musical laugh, the satiny feel of her skin.
He sensed she’d been looking for something just as he had, a night and nothing more. He’d wanted to wash away the devastation of his most recent mission and she had wanted—whatever she wanted. They hadn’t spent a lot of time discussing it. When she came back to his hotel room with him they’d torn each other’s clothes off in their haste to get naked. That first coming together was hot and frantic and blew his mind. He felt like a teenager on his first hot date. Something about this woman just did it for him.
To say that night had been unforgettable was like saying black is a dark color. Every moment of it still haunted him. She was a warm, sexy, giving partner, as eager to taste and try everything as he was. The best sex of his life, ever, hands down. But more than that, something he’d been too stupid to recognize at the time. A connection he’d dismissed as just a byproduct of the outstanding sex.
Worn out and replete, he vaguely remembered falling asleep with her in his arms. But when he awoke in the morning she was gone. He asked his friend about her, but all the man knew was that she came with some other people he’d invited. Fucking damn. The memory of her was still with him, even after all this time. He couldn’t forget her plump breasts tipped with rosy nipples, or the wet heat of her sex and the way it clenched around him when she came. He swore he could still feel the satiny feel of her skin as she lay pressed against him or the silken fall of her hair brushing his chest—and other parts of his body.
His cock swelled and hardened every time he remembered that night. No other woman had been able to erase her from his mind, although he’d done his best to make that happen. He was arrogant enough to wonder if she thought of him after all this time but pragmatic enough to know the chances they’d ever cross paths again were slim to none. He could, of course, call his friends in Chicago, but then he’d have to tell them why he wanted to know and let them know he was such an asshole he hadn’t even asked her name. It sure didn’t help when he tried to find her after that.
In recent months the memory of her and that intense, erotic night became more frequent, more vivid. She appeared in his dreams, as if taunting him. Telling him he needed a change of direction. Or to find a direction. So did his men. Despite what they might say, he was beginning to see the signs of strain on their faces and in their eyes. This work they did could suck the soul out of you. Too much more and he worried they’d lose who they were altogether.
That’s where his plan came in. Maybe they could realize there was more to life than a procession of strange women and unlimited booze. And maybe he could stop looking for the face he dreamed about every time he closed his eyes. Now he just had to force feed it to them.
He cleared his throat and everyone looked at him with expectation on their faces. Wary expectation.
“So I was thinking,” he said.
“Uh oh,” Trey McIntyre, their spotter, joked. “That’s dangerous. Better duck and run, guys.”
“Okay, okay.” Slade flapped a hand at them. “Mock me if you will. But it seems every time we have leave we go off on our own, get drunk, get laid, come back and go on the next mission.”
Trey chuckled. “And that’s bad because?”
Slade looked at each of them. “Because we are fucking getting older and we need to think about the future. About settling down. And about having focus so we don’t burn out.”
No one said anything for a long moment, just stared at him. He wasn’t sure if they agreed with him or thought he’d gone completely off his rocker.
“So exactly what did you have in mind, O Wise One?” Beau asked.
Slade worried about that one a lot. Being a sniper required a mental discipline that only a few could deal with. Over time he’d managed to lock down his emotions so completely that Slade worried he’d never get back his human side—the side that related to people.
“I thought maybe we’d hang together for a change,” he said in a slow voice.
“You mean like go somewhere together?” Trey asked, frowning.
Slade knew they each values their time alone.
“Southern California,” Beau offered. “Someplace flat and hot with miles of beaches and women in bikinis.”
Marc snorted. “Why don’t you just lie down on the sand with a sign that says come and get me? Anyway, no offense, Slade, but I’m not in the mood for everyone’s fun and games.”
“Not suggesting it. I thought maybe y’all would like to spend some time at my ranch for a while.”
A few years ago he’d bought a ten thousand acre spread south of San Antonio at an unbelievable bargain price. It had become his refuge, a place to heal each time and reconnect with humanity. He ran a small herd of cattle and kept horses he could ride fast enough and far enough to clear his mind.
“And do what?” Trey asked. “Hang out with the horses?”
“Some of the time,” Slade nodded. “I know you all ride, but there are plenty of other things to do. And I have friends who’d like to meet you.” He chuckled. “Although I can’t imagine why.”
“Are there mysterious, appropriate, available women among those friends?” Trey joked.
“As a matter of fact, a couple of my friends are having a party a couple of days after we get there. I’m sure there’ll be one or two.” He shrugged. “If nothing else, for ten days you’ll get to eat good food, soak up some sun and not have to do a damn fucking thing.”
He waited while they chewed it over, reminding himself this had come out of left field.
“You really think this would be such a good idea?” Trey rubbed his beard-stubbled face, unconsciously tracing the thin scar that ran from his eyebrow to his chin. It was the reminder of an unfortunate incident with a knife in a bar fight years ago. “You don’t think we’d get on each other’s nerves?”
“I think it might not be a bad idea at all,” Beau said. “If we haven’t killed each other by now it’s not likely to happen.”
Slade swallowed a chuckle. If anyone heard them discussing opportunities for male bonding they’d have to turn in their man cards and join a women’s club.
Finally Trey nodded. “Might be nice for a change. I think I’m with Beau. I need something new because dark bars and strange women don’t do it for me any more.”
Slade looked around the room. “You all up for it?” He grinned. “No pun intended.”
They all looked at each other then nodded. Even Marc.
“Okay. Let’s make some plane reservations. We’ll fly into San Antonio where I’ll have the ranch chopper pick us up.”
“Ranch chopper?”‘ Beau’s eyebrows lifted almost to his hairline. “Just exactly how much money do you have, cowboy?”
Slade shrugged. “Enough to run the ranch operation and have a little left over. I’m not rolling in it but we do all right. And we use the chopper at roundup.” He pulled his cell from his sweatpants pocket. “So shall we check on flights?”
In less than twelve hours they were on their out of Helmand Province, making a stop in Madrid to pick up a commercial flight to the states. Long hours after that they finally landed at
San Antonio International Airport where Slade hustled them out of the door and down a long walkway to the private plane terminal. A gleaming black helo awaited them, a familiar figure leaning against it, arms folded across his chest, white teeth gleaming in a smile contrasting with his sun-darkened skin.
“Glad you’re home, bro,” he said, slapping Slade on the shoulder.
“Me, too.” He turned to his men. “Guys, meet Teobaldo Rivera. Call him Teo. His father, Luis, has been the ranch foreman forever.”
Teo nodded. “Nice to meet you all. Let’s get loaded up. The beer’s chilling in the fridge and the steaks are thawing.”
It was a tight fit for five oversized males, but Slade figured they could handle it for the short hop to the ranch. As soon as the chopper landed they were out of the cabin. Slade shoved his hands in his pockets, inhaling the familiar scent of horses and hay and Texas sunshine. He let his gaze travel from the chopper to the barn and the paddock next to it to the rambling ranch house off to his right and the endless rolling pastures meeting the horizon of the blue Texas sky.
Almost at once the tension riding him began to ease. He’d made the right decision in doing this. The ranch was a perfect place for them to regenerate, to deal with the stress they’d all been under. He’d make sure they hung out in places where they could meet some women, but a different kind than they usually hooked up with on R and R. He didn’t want to sound like anyone’s nursemaid, but the same song kept playing in his head. At their age it was time they thought about the future. And Marc? Well, maybe the ranch would help to ease his tortured soul.
While Teo went through his shutdown routine Slade and his men unloaded their duffels.
“Hey, not bad.” Beau looked around. “Not bad at all.”
Slade laughed. “I can hardly stand the great praise. But thanks. Okay, let me get all of you inside and situated. Then we can crack open some cold ones.”
The large ranch house had four guest rooms plus the master suite. With each of them having their own rooms they’d have the privacy he knew they would need. They all dumped their gear and followed him out to the back patio where he made sure each had a frosty cold beer in hand.
The air was still sun-warmed, even though the sun itself was dipping below the horizon, but a soft breeze added a cooling element. The air was redolent with the aromas of hay and horseflesh and cattle, a mixture Slade loved more than any perfume. The ranch was his haven, the place where he could put all the blackness of his missions behind him and feel like a normal person. Again his mind wandered to his desire to find the right woman. Whoever he found would have to love it as much as he did.
“You know.” Tray leaned back in the lounger he’d appropriated, staring off toward the horizon. “I can see why you like this place, Big Boss.”
When Slade had been put in charge of tis team and met these men for the first time, the decided he should have a new code name. Beau was the one who jokingly called him Big Boss but the name had stuck.
“Yeah?” He raised an eyebrow.
“I thought the peace and quiet would drive me nuts in five minutes.” He shrugged. “And maybe it will after a couple of days.” But right now? Yeah, it sure beats dark bars and faceless women. May we are getting old.”
“I actually think I might agree with him, shocking as that is.” Beau took a long swallow of his beer and let his gaze travel lazily over the surroundings. “So what’s on the agenda now, Big Boss? Riding horses or riding women.”
Slade looked at each of them—lean, tanned, hardened men—and wondered how much of what they said was real and how much was talk to cover up the same growing need that he was feeling.
“I’m thinking we should just hang out here tonight, try to get back to what passes for normal for us. Kick back. Drink some beer. We’re invited to a party tomorrow night, so you may need all that time to clean up good.”
“Who’s giving this party, anyway?” Trey wanted to know. He grinned. “And how clean do we have to get?”
“Clean enough to pass muster. And John Hennessy, an old friend of mine.”
Slade chuckled. “Pretty old. We grew up together in San Antonio.”
“Was he Delta?” Beau asked. Slade knew to him the Army consisted of Delta Force and everyone else.
“In the beginning. We were on the same team, as a matter of fact.”
“So what happened?”
“When he and his wife had a baby on the way he decided he’d do better with a less dangerous assignment. He had his law degree, applied for Judge Advocate Group and he’s been with them ever since. Dumb luck for him he got assigned to Lackland here in San Antonio and he’s been here ever since.” Slade looked had at each of them. “And he’s done a damn fine job. He puts his ass on the line every day in a different way.”
“Okay, okay.” Beau held up his hands. “I didn’t mean anything by it. Any friend of yours and all that.”
Trey took a sip of his cold beer. “Is this party for something special?”
“No. They just like to entertain. When he found out I’d be home for it he insisted I come.”
Beau lifted an eyebrow. “And us, too?”
“Hard as it is to believe anyone would want your company,” Slade teased. “But yes, he said to bring all you assholes. Just make sure you cleaned up good.”
Marc, who hadn’t said a word up until now, shook his head. “I think I’ll pass.”
Slade leaned forward. “That’s not an option. Even if you sit in the corner all night and glower at everyone, I’m getting your ass there, so just accept it.” He unwound his tall body from the lounge chair. “Meanwhile, I think we could all use a shower. Then I’ll throw those steaks on the grill. I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve been waiting a long time for a decent meal. See you in an hour.”