Celine Latimer 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.
The time and place 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 ignoring Celine.
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.
He’d sworn to 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.
Camp Eagle Claw, classified location Afghanistan…
The 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.
Even the insects were AWOL. The only creatures crawling across the sand were the death dealers – scorpions, snakes and Special Forces.
Operative 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, camp.
Up, 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.
Up, 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 kidnapped.
Up, down. Another lift. Aaron’s exhausted muscles screamed in protest, but he kept moving, ignoring the pain.
Why had he turned her away?
Because he knew what would happen if he let himself care about her – he’d lose her just like he’d lost his mother.
He yanked the weight up hard. How many people had to die before he learned his lesson?
He’d 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…
Aaron 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.
The 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.
Now they were all gone. Guilt bread and multiplied in him, taking over everything else.
“Dammit, Speirs, drop the weight before you crush your spine.” Ethan Slade, communications sergeant and Aaron’s best friend, strained under the weight of his bench press five feet away.
Aaron blinked the blinding brightness of the desert into focus, shoved the memories down and turned to Ethan with a blank expression.
Ethan racked his weight and shot upright. “Don’t give me that fucking look. I know exactly what you’re thinking.”
Aaron let the weight crash to the ground, ignored the sweat stinging his eyes and reached for the barbell again. “Giving up already?”
He had no intention of letting Ethan go at another one of his amateur counseling sessions.
Ethan ignored the barb and mopped the moisture from his face with a nearby towel. “You need to ease up, give yourself a break.”
“Celine’s not getting a break. Caroline’s not getting a break.” That dammed thought crept into his nightmares every single night.
“You drowning in guilt won’t save them either.” Ethan tossed the towel on the bench and stood.
He 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.”
Ethan 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?”
Ethan 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.
Those pictures were the ghosts that haunted him daily for his fuck up.
Ethan 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.”
His 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.
A growl built in his throat. “Drop it.”
“Stop 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 fault now.”
Aaron 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.
Just like he would always do.
He’d devoted his life to the Teams. His country. His brothers in arms.
A 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 Liberty.
He 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.
Ethan 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.”
“Not until you do.” Ethan faced off with him, hands balled into fists at his side.
Aaron straightened, for one second letting the pain show in his expression. “When Kate dies because of you, come talk to me about letting go.”
Ethan 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.”
“Not 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.
Ethan shot him a look of quiet anger. “We.”
“We will find them. You’re not the only 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.”
Aaron 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.
What about Celine? Could he share the blame of her kidnapping with them?
Hell, 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.
Ethan snorted. “You’re skull’s as thick as that metal bar.”
Aaron 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.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“You agreed with me. What’s that – like the second time since we’ve been over here?” Ethan said.
“Quit 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.
He could feel Ethan rolling his eyes. “I get it. No more talking about anything but the mission.”
“And killing Mr. J.,” Aaron finished for him.
“We’ll find them. We’ve already narrowed their location down to this area of the desert.”
“You mean this hundred-square mile radius of ISA loyalists protecting our old liaison? Mr. J wants nothing more than to make us pay.”
The 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.
Senator 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?”
Task 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.
Ethan said, “Or it was a deal Mr. J couldn’t afford to allow to go down.”
Aaron paused mid-air. “You think he wanted to stop it?”
Ethan shrugged and racked his bar. “Makes sense, why else kidnap her before the wedding could take place?”
“You talk to the commander about this?”
“Yeah. He said he’d starting kinda thinking the same thing. But without proof, the girls or J, we won’t know anything for sure.”
Aaron 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.”
“Exactly. The senator vetted his own security. He pulled us in for extra detail, that’s it,” Ethan said.
“It 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.
If he’d approached the mission with the same intensity he did all others Celine might still be here.
Up, 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.
“You’re 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.
“Not 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.
“In 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.”
“I’m 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.
“Yeah, 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.”
Oh, he did his job alright. He’d fully vetted Celine Latimer, but not as a stylist for the bride. “If you say so.”
He 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.
He’d 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.
He’d 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.
And that life creed had held him rock steady for his entire career – until Celine Latimer made him want more.
He 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.
Ethan 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.
Hell on earth.
They’d 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.
“I saw Hoyt and Jared pull in a few seconds ago. Let’s head back out. Who knows, maybe we’ll get a lead,” Ethan said.
Aaron left the barbell on the concrete pad for the next guy who needed to bend some metal. “Five minutes.”
After a quick shower and uniform 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.
“Just got a call from the rest of the team, 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.
“Looks like we weren’t expected.”
Ethan 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.
“OK,” 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 them?”
“No.” The man slammed the door in his face and Aaron forced himself to back up a step and move down the street.
No 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.
Ethan 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 knowing.”
“Me, 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.
“I’m 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.
Aaron 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?”
The 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?!”
The man threw his hands up, waving in front of his face and shouting back in Farsi, “Man nemefahmam. Man nemefahmam.”
Ethan grabbed Aaron’s shoulder, pulling him off the local. “He doesn’t know. What the hell are you doing?”
The 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?”
What was so different?
Maybe 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.
Celine Latimer was his one. The One. He wouldn’t be able to quit her after a one nighter. She was like a drug. Her kisses. Her moans. Her need for him.
And fuck all if he’d ended up killing her like his father killed his mother.
Colonel Grey walking in on them going at 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.
Aaron had tucked tail and turned away from 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.”
“And mine. And the Team. And the Secret Service.”
“No 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.”
Celine 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.
“Just let it out, brother. Get whatever is eating you alive off your chest so we can get to work.” Ethan crossed his arms.
If 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.
“Shit.” 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.
“I 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.”
“I 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.”
Ethan 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.”
Aaron 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.”
“Oh, 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 own soil.”
ISA 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.
All 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.”
Ethan 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.”
Aaron 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 legit.”
Ethan nodded, “He could order the takeover of a small country and make it look like it happened with the blessing of the United States.”
The 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.”
Aaron, 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 USA Today bestselling 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.