It’s SEAL Saturday and time to spotlight one of my military heroes. Meet Sam and Cassie from Protecting Cassie. He’s an injured former SEAL dealing with injuries and bitterness. She’s hiding from the man who wants to kill her. Neither expected drug smugglers to throw them together.
Sam Alvarez stepped out onto the little front porch of the isolated cabin and inhaled a lungful of crisp, clean air. Below him, the choppy waters of the Gulf of Maine, which fed into the Atlantic Ocean, lapped vigorously at the narrow, sandy beach and wrapped its foamy lips around the harsh outcroppings of rock. He zipped up his jacket and cautiously made his way down the flight of wooden stairs to the beach. He’d discovered a stretch long enough to jog easily without getting his feet wet. After that, as he did every day, he’d finish his exercises out behind the cabin. It was painfully obvious to him that without the help of a professional physical therapist his arm wasn’t going to get better than it was. Bad news, because he wasn’t sure he could stand being around another human being right now.
So, he’d complete his routine then relax—or as much as he relaxed these days—in front of the fireplace with a mug of hot coffee. But the lungful of salt air in the beginning always stung his senses and woke them up. He needed that, or he’d spend the day curled up in the big leather chair feeling sorry for himself, and lord knows he’d done enough of that.
He made a conscious effort not to stuff his hands into his jacket pockets. The doctors had told him his left arm could end up with a permanent crook in it if he didn’t keep it mobile. At times, he wasn’t even sure he cared. The explosion of an IED had sent shards of shrapnel into the bones of both the upper and lower left arm. The three surgeries necessary to piece his arm back together had been his exit pass from the SEALs.
With a sigh, he dug a pair of gloves from one pocket and pulled them on. Thankful his legs had not been injured, he turned his face into the wind and began a slow run. The wind whipped against his cheeks, swirling in the air around him, turning the surface of the ocean into a sea of whitecaps and filling the air with salt spray.
He’d been here a week now. The first day, he’d stocked up on groceries so he wouldn’t have to make a trip too soon into the tiny little town. After that, every day was the same routine—a morning jog on the beach, sitting on the porch watching the activities on the water play out, and drinking hot coffee. In the evenings, he’d taken to reading, mostly thrillers that someone had left in the little bookcase. He hadn’t had much time for reading on active duty, and it was kind of nice now to lose himself in stories that were so much fantasy. He deliberately hadn’t bought any beer. The temptation to feel sorry for himself and ease that self-pity with large doses of alcohol was too tempting.
Most people wouldn’t like the solitude of this place. Or maybe isolation was a better word. But it was exactly what Sam wanted. The nightmares had deceased in number, but they still came, jolting him awake, heart racing, sweat pouring over his body. He could still hear and see the flash of the IED and feel the intense pain shooting from his shoulder to his hip. When that happened, he forced himself out of bed, got a glass of cold water from the kitchen, and counted backward from one hundred, a trick his therapist had taught him. He never went back to sleep, knowing the dream would just grab him again. Instead, he spent the balance of the night forcing himself to read to redirect his brain.
It wasn’t just the injury that gave him nightmares, or the injuries to his teammates. He’d been a SEAL for ten years and then, suddenly, he wasn’t. In the SEALs he had found identity and purpose. Now, he had none. He had no idea what came next in his life. He was a little too old to stay with his parents and let them fuss over him. That only underscored the loss of who he was, anyway. His sister and two brothers were busy with their own very productive lives and didn’t need him putting a damper on things. It stunned him to realize he’d lost all contact with any friends not in the Teams. But he stayed away from even those, unable to share how damaged he felt. Instead, he’d withdrawn more and more.
The only two people seemed determined enough not to be ignored. One was Tex Keenan, who had called twice to see how he was doing and how he liked the place. The other was his former SEAL teammate and close friend, Chase “Scooter” Winslow. Lately, however, he’d been letting those calls just go to voice mail. After all, what did he have to say?
Sitting around feeling sorry for himself had proven nonproductive. Apparently, the only person showing him pity besides his parents was himself. What he really needed was to get his fucking head on straight and figure out what to do with the rest of his life. He guessed he was damn lucky when their team leader, James “Wildcat” Malone, showed up at his apartment to give him a kick in the ass. He’d turned him onto John “Tex” Keenan, another former SEAL and one whose injury was far more debilitating than Sam’s. Tex had lost part of one leg, but apparently it hadn’t stopped him. He had unmatched computer skills and now provided support for his old team when they needed him as well as others. And he’d found himself a super smart, super-hot woman who thought he hung the moon.
Besides showing him that his life was far from over if he embraced that possibility, Tex had found a place for him where he could have all the isolation he wanted, yet still be close enough to civilization to take care of his needs, such as food and physical therapy, a necessity if he ever wanted to regain more use of his arm. Castile was a very small little hamlet of no more than ten thousand people tucked into the Maine coast not far from Bar Harbor and about a forty-minute drive from Bangor. The cabin he was renting sat by itself outside of town, one of six or seven dotting the coast in that stretch of highway. It was rustic but clean and certainly suited his needs. He liked being here at the back of beyond. It was a place he could try to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. So far, he hadn’t made any progress.
He ran at a slow pace along the packed sand, careful to avoid the outcroppings of rocks and the water breaking on the beach. There were few pleasure boats in the water today, and understandably so. Nobody liked battling the rough water, not if it was for fun. There was a marina about a mile down the road and, sometimes when he sat on the cabin’s front porch, he could watch them heading out towards the horizon. Sport fishermen. Whale watchers. Pleasure boaters. Kayakers, although he couldn’t imagine how anyone but frogmen would enjoy paddling a kayak in these wild waters.
The lobstermen would all be out by now, having left the harbor early in the morning, usually by five or six a.m. Sam knew lobstering was a hard job, and each boat daily tracked down every pair of its lobster traps, emptied them, and filled them with fresh bait. Although as Tex describing it, “fresh” was an oxymoron where lobster bait was concerned. Then they’d head home, getting there early enough to sell the day’s catch, clean the boat, and prepare for the next day. In less than a week, several of the boats had become familiar to him. He knew who stayed out longest, who returned the earliest.
He reached a point where the beach curved into a notch in the rocks, a place where people might picnic if not for the fact the ocean might sweep you away. He stopped for a moment, just to check out his surroundings. It wasn’t a picnic kind of day, and besides, he wasn’t good company for anyone, now or at any time. A week into his self-search program, he still had no idea what the fuck he was going to do with the rest of his life.
First, you have to get your head out of your ass.
He could hear Tex’s voice in his brain, vibrating through his body. Telling him this wasn’t the end of his life. Telling him he had a future. Wasn’t he supposed to be figuring that out? Wasn’t that why he was here?
He looked up the steep face of the cliff to the tiny overlook above the area. An SUV was parked there less than two feet behind a woman who was leaning against the railing. He’d noticed her there twice before as he jogged home but never really stopped to look. And here she was again. Well, that was weird.
He squinted up at her. It was hard to judge her height from this angle, or her build, for that matter, with the ski jacket she was wearing. But her blonde hair, like spun gold gleaming in the sun, was picked up by the wind and streamed out across her face. She tucked it behind her ears in an almost absent-minded gesture. She was staring out across the water, seemingly fixated on a lobster boat that looked as if it might not make it another hundred yards.
Sam had noticed that boat every day, sure it might either break apart in deep water or sink before it reached shore again. Unlike the other lobstermen, this one went out early in the afternoon and returned after dark. When you had nothing to do except sit on the porch freezing your nuts off, your brain registered things like that. He wondered idly who was stupid enough to go out in rough seas in a craft that looked so unsteady. And why today they were suddenly out in the water well before their usual time. Well, it was none of his business, but still, he couldn’t help wondering.
When he looked up again, the woman was still staring out at the boat. Was it someone she knew? Was she worried about them? Then he saw her shift and look down at him, jerk away from the railing, and take a couple of steps back toward her car.
He shook his head. Weird. He waited until he saw the car pull away before he resumed his jog/walk. He kept going until the came to the next cabin, perched high above the water like the one he was renting, with steps leading up to it built into the rock. Then he turned and headed back.
By now all the lobster boats were well out to sea, and the first of the pleasure crafts and sport fishing boats were cutting through the waves. He missed it, the water. Heading out in the dark toward a target in a Zodiac, or with his entire team in a Special Operations Craft-Riverine (SOC-Riverine). Swimming underwater, so silent not even sophisticated listening equipment could hear them. Operating as part of a team so synced to each other that only the barest signals were needed to communicate.
Well, shut the fuck up, Alvarez. That’s done and finished and feeling sorry for yourself gets you nothing.
He climbed up the steep flight of stairs to his cabin, but as he grabbed the rail without thinking, he felt a sharp twinge in his left arm. Damn it. Tex had warned him not to drop out of physical therapy, that he’d pay for it later. But he just hadn’t been able to get up the stones for it. After all, what was the use? He’d never be what he was.
But you can be something just as good, that damn voice whispered in his head.
And as the intensity of the pain increased, he realized he was just being stupid. He might not be a SEAL anymore, but that didn’t mean he had to settle for being a cripple. He thought about Tex, who had lost half of one leg, forging ahead and building a new life for himself, and shame washed over him.
Inside the cabin, he opened the tin box where he’d put the goodies he bought at Rolling in Dough, the town bakery the agent from the realty office recommended to him. Empty. Damn! He didn’t have a huge sweet tooth, but this place turned out pastry’s angels sang about. He knew he should get started on resuming his physical therapy, but not today. Today he was going to answer the urgings of his sweet tooth.
Tomorrow, he told himself. Tomorrow he’d dig out the number of that physical therapy place in Bangor and see about making an appointment.
Cassie Malone told herself she was crazy to keep coming here to this overlook. What did she expect to see? She was already running from one kind of trouble. Why would she look for another. For the first two weeks after she arrived in Castile, she’d hardly ventured out of the cottage at all except for necessities. Then she decided she had to create a new life for herself. She certainly couldn’t go back to her old one. Not unless the danger to her disappeared, and that didn’t feel like it was happening any time soon.
The possibility of a connection between this and the mess in Boston was so farfetched, she should just forget about it. Of course, they were close to the Canadian border. How easy it would be to bring merchandise onto the water and somehow make the exchange. God almighty. Talk about letting her imagination run away with her. It had to be a product of her overactive mind, rolling around like a loose ball since her life had blown up.
With a sigh, she climbed into her SUV and cranked the ignition. Then she sat there for a few moments, collecting her thoughts. Who on earth was the strange man jogging along that dangerous beach? Didn’t he know breakers could come in almost to the jagged rocks? Or that some of the rocks formed out so close to the water he could trip over them?
She didn’t recall seeing him in town. She knew she would have remembered. Even at this distance she could tell he was tall, and the windbreaker and jeans did little to disguise a muscular body. Her therapist hands automatically wanted to stroke over those muscles and trace the lines of his body. His thick brown hair was on the long side, and the wind picked it up and tossed it into a sexy, disheveled mess. Sexy. Sexy? With the mess her life was in, she was thinking sexy?
In any event, she didn’t recognize him. He was probably staying in one of the isolated cabins Down East Realty rented out on a regular basis. Okay, semi-regular. From May through September they were full but Ted Simmons, who ran the real estate agency, had a hard time filling them starting in October. Only hermits or isolationists wanted them during those months.
Although her own place wasn’t much better. The cottage her aunt Jennie left her sat on the other side of town, not close to any others. Her aunt had wanted it that way, and Cassie was grateful for the isolation. When she first arrived, she hadn’t wanted to talk to anyone. Now, when she came home at the end of the day, she felt the same way. For the most part.
Because, out of nowhere, she’d made a friend. She wasn’t quite sure how she and Margie Hager, owner of Rolling in Dough, had connected so fast. Maybe it was her addiction to the bakery’s famed chocolate muffins that had her coming in every morning. One day they got into a conversation, and that was it. Margie was the ideal friend. She didn’t pry, just offered friendship, support, and delicious pastries. If ever a woman could be said to be an angel, it was Margie Hager—pretty, smart, sharp, and caring. Cassie pinched herself every day at her luck in connecting the way they had. And Margie was the one who had turned her onto the physical therapist job at the new clinic in town
The cottage had been a godsend, sitting pretty much vacant since she’d inherited it a year ago. She’d been too busy then with her life and her hot boyfriend. But when she fled Boston, terrified, needing isolation, needing to be somewhere away from everything and everyone, it called to her like a magnet. And, luckily, this job she had fallen into was one where she could set her own hours.
The stranger on the beach below hadn’t moved from the spot on the sand. She’d seen him stop his run to look out to sea at the lobster boat as it went by. This was the first time this week she’d made the stop here, and there it was, just like the other days. Did he think it strange, like she did, that its time was so out of sync with the other lobstermen? Usually they were out on the water by six in the morning, hauling traps. This was right in the middle of lobstering season, the crustaceans being most plentiful from late April to late December.
Or was he somehow connected to Patrick Shore’s illegal business? Patrick. The. biggest mistake of her life. Oh no! Please, no! Chills raced over her skin as she wondered if he had an ulterior motive for being here.
She was letting her imagination run wild. Bad luck wouldn’t drop into her life twice. Would it? She was safe here. She’d made sure no one knew where she had gone. Told no one about the cottage. No one could track her.
She needed to stop thinking that way. She’d run from Boston, cursing her stupidity the entire trip. For weeks she’d ignored what her roommate and best friend had said about Patrick, as well as the warnings she’d heard from others who’d seen her with him. She was just thrilled to death that a man as rich and good looking and powerful as he was seemed to make her the focus of his world.
Then, because she was unconsciously looking for them, little things began to bother her. The nights they spent at his condo when he left her at three a.m. for a meeting.
“Restaurant. Business,” he always said.
Okay, so he owned several successful eateries. But did they really hold business meetings after the place closed and. Not in the daylight? Then there were the phone calls, coming in on a separate cell phone.
“I keep this for calls from my partners,” he told her, “so they don’t get jammed up if I’m on another call.”
She hadn’t even thought it strange the nights she’d met him for dinner at one of his places and he’d met with his partners after closing. It was the restaurant. Business, after all. Right?
As a result, she ended up turning her life upside down.
She had a short flashback to the moment she’d overheard a conversation she wasn’t meant to. It was after hours at one of the places Patrick and his partners owned. She’d met him there and was waiting to follow him to his condo. Not having to work the next day, the late hour wasn’t a problem. She had just come out of the ladies’ room when she heard them arguing, their voices w raised in a discussion including the words “drug distribution,” “larger supply,” “next delivery,” and “expand our market.”
Then someone asked Patrick something she couldn’t quite decipher, but she heard the answer as clear as if he’d been standing beside her.
“If he gives us a problem, just kill the fucker and dump him in the bay. People are used to seeing the boat go out a long distance, even at night. It would be his own fault. He shouldn’t have tried to hold us up for more money. We have to protect the shipments. All of them.”
What got to her was the almost casual tone of voice he used and shock froze her to the spot.
Yeah, she definitely should have listened when her friends warned her about Patrick, about some of the people he hung out with and the rumors they’d heard. But, idiot that she was, she’d been so mesmerized by him and so besotted she’d blown it all off. What she overheard that night had brought it all back, and she had run from the club, grateful she had her own car tonight. The sound of the back door closing behind her sounded like a cannon and, as she pulled out of the lot, she saw it open again and a man stick his head out.
Just to cover herself, she texted Patrick.
Sorry to run. You were busy. Got a call from a patient in extreme pain. Talk tomorrow.
Frightened to death, she hadn’t slept a wink that night. The next morning. she told Maxine she had to leave and swore her to secrecy.
“It’s that fucker, Patrick, right?” Max spat out. She had never liked him. “What did that arrogant asshole do? If he hit you—”
“No!” Cassie took a breath. “No, he didn’t. Please don’t ask me any questions. I’m telling my boss I was called away on a family emergency. You can tell anyone else who asks the same thing. And, Max? You’d better look for another roommate.”
Because she might never be coming back.
“What are you going to do?” Maxine asked.
“I actually have a place off the radar, but I’m not going to tell you where it is. Trust me. It’s better if you don’t know.”
Coming up with an excuse was tough because both her parents were dead and she had no siblings. Finally, she made up a cousin. Let them chase that one. At work, she told her supervisor she had a family emergency and had to leave at once. She was sorry and did not know when she’d be back. When Patrick called, she told him the same thing, using the long-lost cousin.
“Are you alright, Cassie? How is your emergency patient doing? I didn’t even know you had a cousin. You never talk about your family.”
“Much better,” she told him. “Her doctor is actually thinking she needs another surgery, so she called me.”
“And where is this emergency of yours?” he demanded.
“California.” As far from Maine as possible. “She came through for me when my parents were killed. so I feel an obligation. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone.”
“Maybe I can come and visit you. I might have a business trip out there. Text me the info.”
“I will as soon as I get there.” Not.
Maxine helped her sneak her things out of the apartment, in case Patrick or one of his friends came calling. She assured Max she’d be fine, that she’d call when she got where she was going. Leaving before dawn the next day, she shook with fear that Patrick might somehow have found her and be following her. She took as many detours as she could before finally hitting I-75 and heading north.
Cassie had called Maxine once on her cell phone when she got to Maine, as promised, just to let her know she’d arrived where she was going and was safe. Then she’d destroyed the device and activated one of the burner phones she’d bought at an electronics store when she stopped in Portland.
Patrick didn’t know about Maine or the cottage. She hadn’t been there in more than a year, since Aunt Jennie passed away and left the place to her. She’d been too wrapped up in her job, her life, and for the past few months, Patrick. She’d stopped on the way north and bought a new cell with a new number. It meant no one from Boston could call her, but that was okay. She didn’t want anyone else dragged into this or leading Patrick to her. She had to disappear.
But all of that was behind her now. She hoped. This was the next chapter in her life, as long as Patrick didn’t find her. Once a week, she drove to Bar Harbor to cash her paycheck. No bank accounts or credit cards for her. If people thought it strange she paid for everything in cash, well, a lot of people remembered her as Jennie’s niece, even though she hadn’t been there in a while, so no one said anything.
She wasn’t going to screw it up by seeing demons where there weren’t any.
She never should have started digging around on the Internet, looking for any mention of Patrick beyond what she knew, but her curiosity got the better of her. It was like a bug scratching at her.
But she knew enough to be careful. People had ways of tracking you when you did stuff like this, especially if they were on the alert for it. She’d bought a brand new laptop in Bar Harbor and set everything up under a different name, thankful for all those thrillers she’d read based around just this, her curiosity Why hadn’t she done this when her roommate and others told her there was something strange about him?
Did the DEA know about him? Was he being watched? Investigated? She searched for stories on drugs in the area, stunned to discover that many shipments arrived on private boats, the exchange with suppliers taking place way out on the water. Patrick had a boat. Had he used it for that?
Maybe that’s why the old lobster boat piqued her curiosity. Or maybe her imagination was just running wild. She’d spotted it first when she happened to be at the marina for something one day. It was so out of sync with the others that she made a habit of checking it on a regular basis. She’d stopped at the overlook one day to just air out her brain, and saw it again, chugging away at least two hours later than everyone else.
After that, coming to the overlook became a habit, although her overactive imagination was probably making something out of nothing. So the old man kept different hours, leaving later and sometimes coming home after dark. So what? No way was Patrick connected to the dilapidated lobster boat, or the old man running it. His hours probably had more to do with his age than anything else. And the likelihood of Patrick even being here at any time was a product of her overactive imagination, which seemed to be just running away from her.
Then why was she feeding her curiosity about an older lobsterman who had irregular hours? Not everyone who did that was a criminal. Just forget it, she told herself in a stern inner voice. Hadn’t she had enough stress in her life?
But, just in case, I’d better put a lid on any interest. I have enough troubles.
The smart thing to do, since she had a little extra free time, was to head for Margie’s Rolling in Dough, get a double latte and two of those chocolate croissants dusted with powdered sugar, and drown her thoughts in calories. And maybe get a hug from Margie while she was at it. Her new, wonderful friend gave better hugs than any friend she’d ever had.
Determined to keep as narrow a social circle as possible, the bakery owner was one of the few people Cassie had connected with when she moved to Castile. With almost nothing in common, they had still become very close friends.
With a sigh she put the car in gear and pulled out onto the two-lane highway. As usual, she scrutinized traffic there and on the streets as she pulled into the town proper. She was pretty sure Patrick had not found her, although she was certain it wasn’t from lack of trying. She wondered if she’d ever be able to stop looking over her shoulder.
At midmorning, there was little traffic as she headed into the village of Castile. Not, she mused, that there ever was much traffic on that road. By this time, though, everyone who worked was at their jobs, the kids were in school, and the few tourists hardy enough the brave the weather were bundled up inside in front of a fireplace.
Still, it was relatively busy in the village so she considered herself lucky to find a parking spot three doors down from Rolling in Dough. The moment she opened the door, she was embraced by the seductive aromas of cinnamon and allspice and powdered sugar. Her mouth was already watering as she walked over to the display cases, waiting in line behind three other people. The man in front of her looked a little familiar, although she didn’t know why, but before she could figure it out, Margie emerged from the back, carrying a large tray of fresh muffins for the display case. Her mouth was curved in its usual grin, and one of her many colorful barrettes held her hair back on one side.
She’d never told Margie the real reason she left Boston. She couldn’t. First, it would show how stupid she’d been to fall for someone like Patrick, and second, if he ever found her, she could put Margie in danger, too, along with Bruce, her significant other. She’d never do that. Besides, as far as Cassie was concerned, she was safely away from it—she hoped—and telling someone served no purpose.
“Hey, Cassie!” Margie set the tray down on the counter behind the display case. “Satisfying your sweet tooth?”
“You bet. I have short hours today, so I thought I’d indulge myself before heading to the clinic.”
Margie leaned over the top of the display case. “I saved one of the giant chocolate muffins back just in case.” She dropped her voice to a conspiratorial tone. “Dusted with powdered sugar and sprinkles.’”
“Oh my god,” Cassie moaned. “Bring it on. Margie, you are the best.” Then she curved her lips in a conspiratorial smile. “I don’t suppose you have any of those croissants left, do you?”
Margie laughed. “For you? Of course. Go grab that little table in the corner and I’ll bring it out with an extra-large latte.”
“Getting it. You are a goddess.”
The line had moved along, and now the man in front of her finished paying for his order. He lifted his box of pastries with his left hand, and Cassie idly noticed he held his arm at a weird angle. She turned to move to her table, accidentally nudging his arm and sending the box of goodies tumbling to the floor.
“Damn it!” he swore.
“Oh! I am so sorry. Here, let me help you.
But they both bent down at the same time, causing them to knock heads. But when she tried to straighten up, she bumped his arm again, and again he dropped the box. And, this time, the lid crumpled and coffee sloshed over the rim. He grabbed for it but missed, and the mess tumbled to the floor again.
Damn it all to hell. Nice way to call attention to herself.
“Son of a bitch.” He shook his head as he tried to scoop up the box once more. “Sorry about the language. And just so you know, I’m not usually this clumsy.”
“No, no. I wasn’t paying attention so this is totally my fault.” She stood up and made sure he had his coffee and his pastry, noticing again that he held his left arm in a strange position, as if it was injured in some way.
“I better get out of the way before I embarrass myself again.” His mouth curved in a hint of a smile, and the bluest eyes she’d ever seen mesmerized her. But was that a hint of tragedy she saw swirling in them?
What on earth?
“Since this really was my fault, how about letting me buy you a fresh cup of coffee.” She put a hand on his other arm. “I won’t take no for an answer.”
God. What was she doing? She was supposed to be keeping a very low profile, even though she didn’t think Patrick and his friends could find her here.
“That’s not necessary,” he protested.
“Margie, add another of whatever this gentleman was drinking and bring it to my table, okay? And some fresh croissants.” She looked at him. “My treat. I insist.”
“Better not argue with her,” Margie joked. “She can get downright nasty.”
He gave her that half smile again. “Then, thanks. The coffee would be great.”
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