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CHAPTER ONE Copyright© 2003 by Suzanne Brockmann
Monday, June 16, 2003
Roger “Sam” Starrett’s cell phone vibrated, but he was wedged into the rental car so tightly that there was no way he could get the damn thing out of the front pocket of his jeans.
At least not without causing a twelve-car pileup on Route 75.
He had the air-conditioning cranked—welcome to summer in Florida—and the gas pedal floored, but the subcompact piece of shit that had been one of the last cars in the rental company’s lot was neither cool nor fast.
It was barely a car.
Feeling trapped in an uncomfortable place had been pretty much SOP for Sam ever since he rushed into marriage with Mary Lou nearly two years ago, and he waited for the familiar waves of irritation and anger to wash over him.
Instead, he felt something strangely similar to relief.
Because Sarasota was only another few minutes down the road. And the end was finally in sight.
Sam knew the town well enough—he’d hitched down here from his parents house in Fort Worth, Texas, four summers in a row, starting when he turned fifteen. It had changed a lot since then, but he had to believe that the circus school was still over by Ringling Boulevard.
Which wasn’t too far from Mary Lou’s street address.
Maybe he should make a quick stop, pick up a few more Bozos, turn this thing into a bona fide clown car.
On the other hand, one was probably enough to qualify for clown car status.
His phone finally stopped shaking.
What were the chances that it had been Mary Lou, finally calling him back?
Nah, that would be too damn easy.
Although, in theory, this should havebeen an easy trip. Pop over to Sarasota. Pick up the divorce papers that Mary Lou was supposed to have sent back to him three weeks ago. Put an end to the giant-ass mistake that was their marriage, and maybe even try to start something new. Like a real relationship with his baby daughter, Haley, who after six months probably wouldn’t even recognize him. Then pop back home to San Diego.
Fucking easy as pie.
Except this was Mary Lou he was dealing with. Yes, she was the one who’d filed for this divorce. Yes, she’d been compliant right up to this point. But Sam wouldn’t put it past her to change her mind at the zero hour.
And it was, indeed, the zero hour.
And, true to form, Mary Lou was surely messing with him.
Had to be.
Why else would she not have sent the papers back to the attorney after receiving them four weeks ago? Why else would she not return Sam’s phone calls? Why else would she not pick up the phone even when he called at oh dark hundred, when he knew she had to be there because the baby was surely sleeping?
Sam reached for the stick to downshift as he took the exit ramp for Bee Ridge Road, and came into contact with the stupidass automatic transmission.
Six months ago, this entire suckfest scenario would have made him bullshit. Everything sucked. This car sucked, the fact that he had to come all this way for something that should have cost the price of a first-class postage stamp sucked, and knowing that Haley was going to look at him as if he were some stranger really sucked.
But along with his weird feeling of relief came a sense of readiness. Maybe this wasn’t going to be easy, but that was okay. He was ready for it. He was ready for anything.
Like, Haley was probably going to cry when he tried to hold her. So he wouldn’t hold her at first. He’d take it slow.
And Mary Lou, well, she was probably going to ask him to get back together. He was ready for that, too.
“Honey, you know as well as I do that it just wasn’t working.” He tried the words aloud, glancing at himself in the rearview mirror, checking to see if he looked apologetic enough.
But, shit, he looked like roadkill. His eyes were bloodshot behind his sunglasses, and the flight out of Atlanta had been weather delayed for so damn long that he desperately needed a shower.
And he definitely shouldn’t start out by calling her honey. She had a name, and it was Mary Lou. Honey—and every other term of endearment he’d ever used, like sugar, darling, sweetheart, sweet thing—was demeaning.
He could practically hear Alyssa Locke’s voice telling him so. And God knows Alyssa Locke was the Queen of Right.
She’d hated it something fierce when he’d called her sweet thing. So he’d called her Alyssa, drawing the S’s out as he whispered her name in her perfect ear as they’d had sex that should’ve been listed in the world record books. Best Sex of All Time—Sam Starrett and Alyssa Locke, Champions of the Simultaneous Orgasm.
What was Alyssa going to think when she heard about his divorce?
Sooner or later the news was going to get out. Up to this point, his commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Tom Paoletti, and the SEAL team’s XO, Lieutenant Jazz Jacquette, were the only ones who knew that Sam and Mary Lou were finally calling it quits. He hadn’t told Nils and WildCard yet—his best friends in Team Sixteen. Shit, he hadn’t told his sister, Elaine. Or even Noah and Claire.
And he sure as hell hadn’t told Alyssa Locke.
Who was probably going to think, Thank God I’m in a committed relationship with Max so Roger Starrett doesn’t come sniffing around my door, looking for some play. Max. The fucker. Even after all this time, Sam was still insanely jealous of Max Bhagat. Despite his new sense of relief and hope, he was feeling neither when it came to thoughts of Alyssa and Max.
“How could you fuck your boss?” Sam asked.
Alyssa, because she wasn’t in the car, didn’t answer him, of course.
It wasn’t too tough of a question. Sam could come up with plenty of answers without Alyssa’s help. Because Max was handsome, powerful, brilliant, and, yes, probably great in bed.
Yeah, and who was he kidding with that probably? Max was no doubt definitely great in bed. Sam knew Alyssa, and she wasn’t about to spend more than a year of her life with someone who couldn’t keep up with her sexually.
And as far as the fact that the man was her boss . . .
She and Max were incredibly discreet. In fact, they were so discreet, there were some people in the Spec Ops community who refused to believe that they actually had an intimate relationship.
But Sam knew better. He’d gone knocking on Alyssa’s hotel room door about six months ago. And, yeah, it was a stupidass thing to do. He and Mary Lou hadn’t even separated back then. He had no business knocking on anyone’s door.
But an FBI agent matching Alyssa’s description—a woman of color, in her late twenties—had been killed that day, and until the news came down that Alyssa wasn’t on the casualty list, Sam kind of lost it.
Except who had opened that hotel room door that he’d knocked on? Well, gee, hiya, Max. Sorry I woke you, man.
And that was it. Game over. It was looking into Max’s eyes that did it. The fucker cared deeply about Alyssa—that was more than clear.
And every day since then, Sam tried—he really honestly tried—to be happy for her.
And as for his own elusive happiness . . .
Well, he was done feeling sorry for himself. And he was done letting this divorce take place on Mary Lou’s timetable, with Mary Lou running this freak show.
Sam and his expensive new lawyer had worked out a schedule of visits—dates and times that he could see Haley. He wasn’t looking for joint custody—that would be crazy. As a SEAL he went out of the country at the drop of a hat, sometimes for weeks or even months at a time.
He just wanted to be able to see his kid a couple of times a week whenever he was Stateside. Surely Mary Lou would agree to that.
To make it a no-brainer for her, Sam was prepared to give her the deed to their house back in San Diego, free and clear. He’d take care of the mortgage and continue to pay the taxes. Now that Mary Lou’s sister, Janine, had split up with her husband, Sam’s plan was to talk all three of them—Mary Lou, Janine, and Haley—into moving back to California.
Where he would be able to see Haley every other weekend and once a week on Wednesday nights—instead of some pathetic twice a year bullshit.
Surely the idea of a free place to live would appeal to Mary Lou, who, in one of the bigger surprises of a marriage filled with complete surprises, was a total miser when it came to saving money.
So, yeah, Sam was hopeful that he and Mary Lou were going to be able to work this out.
And who knows? Once he did that, the rest of his life could start to turn around, too. Maybe perfect Max had a perfect sister who was beautiful, brilliant and great in bed, too. And maybe Sam and the sister and Max and Alyssa could all double-date.
Yeah, right. Just as Max wasn’t his favorite person, Sam wasn’t Max’s. The chances of them ever socializing—by choice—were in negative numbers.
Traffic in the city was light at this time of the morning. He was literally four minutes from Mary Lou’s door.
Please be home.
Sam had tried calling his soon-to-be ex-wife from a pay phone at the airport, right after his flight had gotten in. It had occurred to him that she was screening her calls and that maybe she’d pick up if her caller ID gave her a number other than that of his cell phone.
Not a chance.
He didn’t leave a message on her machine. He was just going to head over to the house and wait. Sooner or later Mary Lou or Janine would scoop up Haley from day care and come home.
And then he’d do whatever he had to do to get Mary Lou to sign those papers and move back to San Diego.
Hell, if she didn’t want to live in that same house they’d once shared, they could sell it and she could buy another. It didn’t matter to him as long as she lived in the San Diego area. He was going to move into the BOQ on base either way.
Sure, the bachelor officers quarters were tiny, and there was no pri- vacy to speak of. But since it was highly unlikely that he was ever going to have sex again, privacy wasn’t something that he needed.
Sam laughed at himself. That sounded really pathetic—never having sex again—like he was such a loser that no woman would want him.
Truth was, women went for him in a major way. In fact, the girl at the car rental counter couldn’t have been more obvious about her interest if she’d used semaphore flags.
“Where are you staying?”
“Are you in town alone?”
“If you’re looking for a good hangout, you might want to try Barnaby’s, down by the dock. I go there all the time after work.”
She was hot, too. A strawberry blonde with a lithe, athletic body and a cute little ass. But hot wasn’t enough for him anymore. No, thank you.
Sam was finished with casual sex. He was keeping his pants zipped, which actually wasn’t as hard as it seemed, even after he’d gone for well over nine months without getting laid.
It sounded like a really pansy thing to say, but he wanted more from life than a fast fuck with an empty-headed stranger.
Because, shit, he’d been there and done that—and ended up married to an empty-headed stranger who was pregnant with his child. And hadn’t that been a fun two and a half years of his life?
He wanted sex to mean something. He wanted to be fucked for more than his blue eyes and his muscles and the fact that he was a lieutenant with the U.S. Navy SEALs.
Unless, of course, Alyssa Locke called him up and begged him to come over, get naked, and light her world on fire.
If that ever happened, all bets were off.
Alyssa was neither empty-headed nor a stranger, but during the few nights they’d spent together, way back before Sam married Mary Lou, she’d definitely thought of him as only a temporary plaything, which still stung.
Sam leaned over to look at the numbers on the houses as he turned on to Mary Lou’s street: 458, 460, 462.
Number 462 Camilia Street was a tiny little single-story Florida-style house with a carport that sat empty. There wasn’t a car in the driveway either, nor one parked out in front.
Sam pulled up and sat, air-conditioning blasting, just looking at the house. With flaking paint and shutters that hung in crooked disrepair, it was about half the size of their place in San Diego. The yard was dry, the grass and plants brown, courtesy of the drought that was turning Florida into a desert.
A tired-looking palm tree provided the only shade out front. The door was shut behind the torn screen, and the dark shades on the windows were pulled all the way down and—
What the fuck . . . ?
From the Hardcover edition.