Navy Seal's Deadly Secret
Now why on earth did she go and say that? She wanted nothing to do with men at all, let alone a good-looking one capable of hair-trigger violence and who made her belly flutter in ways it had no business whatsoever fluttering.
Chapter 2 (#u7af247a9-950a-5d0e-bb40-35d2bc41d8e4)
Brett sank carefully into a crappy recliner that had been crappy thirty years ago, swearing under his breath at the knives of pain jabbing his side. The punk had punched him right over the spot where he’d broken a bunch of ribs in the explosion that ended his military career and erased his memory of the last hour of said career. An hour he would give anything—anything—to recover.
Dangling a bottle of beer in his fingers over the edge of the armrest, he closed his eyes. Immediately, the events in the diner started running through his mind. Oh, sure. He could remember every single second in the diner. But could he remember a damned thing about that mountain pass with his men? Hell, no.
He didn’t even want to remember acting like a crazy man in Pittypat’s. He’d decided not to intervene in the robbery. Truly. But then the strangest look had come across that waitress’s face—certainty that she was going to die. Acceptance that her life was over. She was way too young to be killed. Just like his men had been. He hadn’t been able to stop himself from trying to save her. He’d leaped to his feet and had to be some kind of hero. Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn.
Damn his old man for making him go to town. For making him interact with human beings at least once a month as the condition for letting Brett hole up in this old hunting cabin on the family ranch. This was what came of it. He ended up busting up some kid.
Hell, the kid was lucky Brett hadn’t killed him. Lord knew, he’d been tempted. When he saw that punk slam the pretty waitress into the counter, something had snapped inside his head. The same something that was preventing him from remembering what happened on his last mission. It was that exact something that made him a menace to society and had sent him up here into the mountains to an isolated cabin to drink away his memories or die trying.
A furry head bumped his free hand, sliding under his palm until it rested on a soft back. “Hey, Reggie,” Brett muttered.
The black Lab took another slow step forward, bringing Brett’s hand to rest at the base of his tail. Brett obligingly scratched the dog’s back over the spot where the dog’s pelvis had been broken and subsequently repaired, leaving him with a permanent limp. They made a perfect pair. Both broken. Both alone in the world.
“You’re a good boy, aren’t you?” The dog’s tail thumped against the side of the recliner.
“At least I don’t have to go back to town for another month,” he told the dog. “Until then, it’s you and me, buddy. The rest of the world can go straight to hell.”
Brett took a long slug from his beer, not particularly enjoying the taste. But a man could drink only so much whiskey before he needed a change of pace. Beer didn’t provide as fast or sharp an escape from reality as hard liquor, but it got the job done eventually.
He’d downed the rest of his beer and must have dozed off because he jolted awake to a short, sharp bark of warning from Reggie.
Brett bolted from the chair and into the shadows beside the front window, hiding behind the cream-and-brown plaid curtains. His palm itched to feel the cold steel of a weapon. But his father—wisely—had removed all firearms from the cabin. Not that he needed a gun to be lethal, of course. Hell, he didn’t even need a knife. His bare hands would do the trick. Brett peered through the filthy window, his gaze predatory, seeking the slightest movement of an incoming threat.
There. A vehicle was coming slowly up the gravel switchback trail that served as a road to this place. It was one of those prissy little hybrid cars, all ecological self-righteousness and no muscle. Who in the hell was driving one of those up here? Nobody with a lick of sense came up into the high mountains without four-wheel drive and a set of chains in the back of their vehicle. The weather was unpredictable as hell, and snow was known to fall up here on the Fourth of July.
It might be sunny now, but in ten minutes, a line of storms could blow in over the mountain peaks at his back and drop a deluge of rain that turned the road into a sheet of slick mud or blow in a blizzard that made the mountain entirely impassable for days or weeks.
Apparently, his would-be visitor knew none of that because the little car continued chugging up the track toward him. More irritated than interested, he waited to see who would climb out of the car. The vehicle stopped beside his muddy pickup truck and the door opened.
The waitress from Pittypat’s? He hadn’t seen that one coming. What the hell did she want? To spill another drink on him?
Which was, of course, an uncharitable thought. He had long experience with women being flummoxed by his good looks, and she was far from the first waitress to dump a drink on him. At least she hadn’t insisted on mopping his lap for him like most of the others had.
She marched determinedly on the steppingstones across the patch of wildflowers and moss that served as a front yard and up the porch steps. Her feet hardly echoed on the old wood, though. Tiny little thing, she was.
Should he pretend not to be home? He’d already done his minimum human interaction for this month. He didn’t have to talk with her. No. He wouldn’t answer the door.
She knocked on the aged-wood panel hesitantly.
She didn’t want to be here either, huh? Then what brought her all the way out here in the middle of nowhere?
Maybe he should find out. He didn’t have to let her in, after all. He moved over to the door and opened it just as she raised her hand to knock again. Her hand fell forward awkwardly into thin air, and she looked startled. Her big brown eyes were wide and wary, like a doe’s, as she stared at him.
“Um, hi,” she said breathlessly. Was that the eight-thousand-foot altitude or his stealing her breath away? Not that he cared, of course.
“Can I help you?” he asked gruffly. Lord. When was the last time he talked with a woman? Before his last tour in Afghanistan. That would make it almost two years. He was out of practice.
“I wanted to thank you for saving me from that guy earlier.” She sounded like she’d rehearsed that line all the way up here.
His first impulse was to shrug it away. He ought to be thanking her for not freaking out completely while he pounded the punk into hamburger. But he could hear his mother threatening to tan his hide if he wasn’t polite in response to his visitor. And nobody messed with Miranda Morgan. He ended up mumbling, “No problem.”
“I think you dropped something during the fight. I found this when I was cleaning up afterward.” She fumbled in her pocket and pulled out a pile of gold chain and his Saint George’s medal. “Is this yours?”
He nodded tersely. “A gift. From my mother.”
She smiled, and her pretty face transformed in an instant to fantastically beautiful. He stared, stunned. Her smile burned as bright as the sun. Hell, he could feel its warmth on his skin. It didn’t last long, though, and was quickly replaced by a tiny frown between her gently curving brows. She murmured, back to being shy and uncomfortable, “The ring holding the chain to the clasp broke, but I fixed it for you.”
Startled, he mumbled his thanks without meeting her cinnamon gaze.
She held it out to him and he took it, his fingertips brushing against hers. The girl froze, her face turning into a careful mask. But her eyes. Good grief, her eyes. He’d seen that haunted look in the eyes of women in the worst war zones on Earth. Women who’d seen more suffering and lost more loved ones than any human soul could bear without breaking. He shook off the memory of the horrors that had made those women into ghastly specters of their former selves in time to see the waitress shiver like a dead man had just touched her. Da hell? He studied her more closely.
He’d checked her out in the diner, of course. After all, he wasn’t dead yet. He’d registered the gold-streaked chestnut hair, light brown eyes and great legs encased in tight denim. She looked athletic, rather than skinny, although she barely topped five foot four. He could imagine those juicy legs wrapped around his hips—
Ix-nay on the exy-say thoughts.
He slipped the necklace over his head and tucked the medal inside the collar of his shirt. He was surprised by the sigh of relief that slipped out of him. That medal had been to hell and back with him. It had protected him through four combat tours and brought him home in one piece, if not exactly unharmed.
“Is your side okay?” she blurted awkwardly. “That kid didn’t hurt you did he?”
He snorted in disdain. “Not hardly. It would take a hell of lot more skilled fighter than that to challenge me.” He hadn’t been a forward operator in the U.S. Army Rangers for nothing. Hell, he’d gone hand to hand against Taliban fighters who were whipcord hard and fighting for their lives. Now they were a challenge.
“Glad to hear it,” she murmured. Yet another awkward silence fell between them, and he wasn’t inclined in the least to help out his visitor. The sooner she caught a clue and went away, the better.
“My name’s Anna, by the way. Anna Larkin.”
The name was familiar. She’d been a year behind him in high school. Hadn’t she run away from home right after graduation senior year to pursue an acting career in Hollywood or something? “Did you ever go to California?” he shocked himself by asking.
The strangest thing happened. Her entire demeanor changed, and she folded in on herself, literally hugging her waist with her arms and doubling over a little as if he’d kicked her in the gut. All the light went out of her eyes, and lines of grief etched themselves around her eyes. Geez oh Pete! What did he say?
“Yeah,” she mumbled. “I made it to California.”
But she was back here, now. From that, he assumed the Hollywood dream hadn’t gone as she’d hoped. Too bad. She seemed like a nice person. He asked, “Didn’t Eddie Billingham go with you?” Eddie had been in his class in high school, and Brett had always found him arrogant and self-centered. Of course, it hadn’t helped keep Eddie’s ego in check that every girl in school seemed willing to sleep with him at the snap of his fingers.
Anna shook her head, not as if to say no, but as if to ward off the question. Huh. Bad blood between her and Eddie, maybe?
“Well, thanks for fixing my necklace and coming all the way out here to return it,” he tried, hoping she would catch the hint and vamoose.
She nodded and took a step back from him. She backed away from him quickly, her hands up defensively. What in the hell had he said to flip her out like that?
“Watch out!” he cried hoarsely. But too late. She stepped backward off the edge of the porch, missing the step with her foot and tumbling backward, arms flailing.
He lunged forward and made a grab at her, but missed. She went down, rolling heels over head and landing in a crumpled heap at the foot of the porch steps. He raced after her, dropping to his knees beside her.
Explosion. Screaming. Blood. His guys. Oh, God. His guys. Death. Loss. Agony.