two months later
Isabelle Markham knocked lightly on the heavy metal door, heard the sharp What? come from the other side and thought briefly about turning away.
“The SEALs who rescued you are stationed here. I’m sure you’ll run into them at some point. Will that be a problem for you?” The admiral—and the man she knew simply as Uncle Cal—eyed her sharply across the desk, his words a final test.
“That’s not a problem,” she said, right before she signed the final papers that declared her commitment to the U.S. Navy as a civilian consultant for the next three months.
She’d meant it. It was not a problem. She needed closure on this situation. She’d start working on base tomorrow and didn’t want any surprises to throw her off the finely honed balance she’d fought for over the past two months.
She pushed her way inside the office and found herself face-to-face with the man who’d saved her life.
Jake Hansen stood well over six feet tall, dressed in full jungle camouflage BDUs. In Africa, his hair had been completely covered by a dark green bandanna. His whole face, except for his eyes, which were somewhere between the color of steel and smoke, had been camouflaged with paint—most of which had begun to fade. As the hours had worn on, she’d been able to get glimpses of what lay behind the SEAL’s mask.
She remembered the medic wiping the greasepaint off her own face during the transport to the hospital.
His hair was longer, blonder than she’d have guessed, but the rest of her instinct had served correct. He was one of the most handsome men she’d ever seen—rugged good looks really, made even better by the way he didn’t seem to notice it.
He just stared at her, like if he looked at her hard enough, she might disappear.
“Lieutenant . . . Jake . . . I’m Isabelle Markham.” Her voice seemed to echo in the small room and she forced herself to breathe.
“I know who you are,” he said, and she tried to hold back a smile at hearing his voice again. The tone was low, rough, just like she’d remembered, a voice that had forced its way into her dreams.
When she’d been stuck in the hospital, right after the rescue, she’d wake up in the middle of the night reaching for his hand, sure he was right there next to her.
She still found herself seeking out his touch, but now it was from the comfort of her own bed.
“I really wanted to see you—to thank you. For saving my life,” she said. She wondered how such an important sentiment could sound so completely lame, but it was nothing less than the truth.
He walked toward her and for a second she wondered if he was going to . . . hug her or something. But he only shut the door behind her.
“How did you find me?” he asked, and no, it wasn’t exactly the type of reunion she’d been hoping for.
“I . . . Admiral Callahan told me where you might be. He knows my mother,” she said, and maybe she could sound more like she was in high school. Jake didn’t make her feel any better, because he just sighed, shook his head and mumbled stuff under his breath.
He’d done that a lot in Africa. She’d found it comforting then. Now, not so much.
“I don’t remember much about the rescue,” she said quickly, because she saw the partial horror in his eyes. Obviously sharing secrets in the dark when their lives were in danger was one thing, but the cold stark reality of daylight was a different story entirely. “I mean, they told me what had happened to me—what you did for me, but I was really out of it. It’s all one big blur.”
He relaxed slightly, but his guard was still up.
When the FBI and CIA questioned her, she’d just kept thinking about Jake, focusing on his gray eyes, pretended she was telling him the story. Because he was the only one who knew the truth—her truth—the only person besides her who ever would.
And he’d understood. If he hadn’t, he never would’ve bared his soul to her. She hadn’t been sure if he’d topped her story, but she had to admit they were neck and neck.
“You shouldn’t have come here,” he said finally.
“You’re welcome would’ve sufficed and been a much nicer response.”
“If you’re looking for nice, you really did come to the wrong place. I don’t need thanks for doing my job. And besides, it wasn’t a one-man mission,” he said.
“But you stayed with me. Stayed behind when you didn’t have to.”
“That’s my job,” he said tightly and she wondered if he was going to ask her to leave his office.
“I know. But it still meant a lot to me,” she said quietly. He stuck his hands in his pockets and looked up at the ceiling for a second, as though the sentiment caught him off guard. She knew that didn’t happen often.
“Do you want some coffee or something?” he asked finally.
“Coffee would be great.”
“I’ll be right back.” He motioned for her to sit in one of the chairs that flanked his desk, which was piled impossibly high with files.
She heard the door close behind her and she sat in the hard wooden chair and tried to take in as much as she could of his office, as though this room could give her more of a glimpse into the soul and psyche of a man who routinely risked his own life to save people he didn’t even know, and most likely would never see again.
He really seemed to prefer that last part.
A recruiting poster for the Navy hung to the left of the desk and, she discovered on further inspection, covered a large hole in the wall. A broken chair, the likely culprit for the hole, lay in pieces underneath the poster.
On his desk, on top of the piles was a book on policy and procedure, an iPod and an empty box of donuts. A uniform hung from a dart in the wall behind the desk—dress whites with an impossible array of medals across the chest.
It was the space of a man who wasn’t around much to care about what his office looked like.
The door opened behind her sooner than she’d expected, and Jake handed her a Styrofoam cup of steaming liquid. He hadn’t asked how she liked her coffee and she took a tentative sip. It was light and sweet, just the way she liked.
“How did you know how I take my coffee?” she asked.
He sat across from her and gave a small shrug. “Because that’s how I take mine.”
“So everyone who drinks coffee with you has to take it the way you do?”
“Yes,” he said simply. He sat behind his desk, stretched his legs out so his feet rested near hers.
“Are you all right?” he asked finally.
“Yes. I’m fine,” she said firmly, and for a second she swore she saw the hint of a smile on his mouth. “What?”
“You’ve answered that question a lot. Too much, probably.”
“You’re right but—”
“You’re fine, right?”
“I’m not arguing.”
“I want to go back there. To Africa,” she said.
“I’m sure I’ll be back there too,” he said. “And don’t take this the wrong way, but I really hope I don’t see you there again.”
“You think I’d be putting myself at risk unnecessarily.”
“What I think at this point doesn’t matter. Shouldn’t.”
“Why can’t you have an opinion on my life? Everyone else does,” she muttered.
“That’s exactly why I don’t.”
He was just the way she’d remembered—the way she’d figured he’d be in an everyday, normal situation. He was not handling her with kid gloves, didn’t look at her like she was a victim, and she knew she wanted to do more than just thank him.
“I’d like to see you again,” she said before she could stop herself. These days, more so than before, it was all about taking chances, about really living and not letting fear win. She’d come out of this stronger. She was just having a problem finding someone who could deal with her strength, who could see through to her softer side.
“Are you asking me out? Because I’m more than capable of asking you out if I wanted to.”
Yeah, she hadn’t wanted to be treated with kid gloves. “So you’re saying you don’t want to?”
“I didn’t say that, Isabelle.” He leaned forward on his elbows, his strong hands flexing on the desk between them. “It’s just that I don’t like doctors. I mean, as a general rule.”
God, those eyes . . . they could be a weapon all on their own, and she was sure she wasn’t the first woman to fall for him.
And he wanted nothing to do with her.
Dr. Isabelle Markham was thirty-one years old, had been to Brown undergrad and Harvard Medical. Top of her class. Area of specialty—reconstructive plastic surgery. She could’ve gone anywhere.
She’d chosen to volunteer with Doctors Without Borders, aka Médecins Sans Frontières, and she’d been doing stints four months at a time for three years. Working in local clinics on her off time. There had never been any trouble until her mother ran for the Senate last year—and won. The threats started soon after.
In Africa, she’d been betrayed by her own bodyguard, an ex–Special Forces soldier who’d been kicked out of the Army years earlier, turned merc and, finally, turned on his own country. Jake just couldn’t figure out why and the FBI agents who’d debriefed him hadn’t been interested in sharing.
And Jake had visited her every chance he’d gotten those first two weeks she’d been in the hospital. It was three hours away from base and he’d arrive at three in the morning or later, watch her for a bit while she slept and slip out before anyone noticed him. He watched her bruises fade and the machinery and tubes removed, saw all the signs of progress, including her deep, easy sleep.
He saw the way she sometimes reached out for something with her hand, tighten a fist around empty air, and he’d tighten his own fist at his side and tell himself that this was all so fucking ridiculous. And then he’d been called away and spent the last month in the mountains of Afghanistan, gathering intel and getting shot on his way out of the country, which seemed to be his MO these days.
He’d come in late last night, gotten stitched, thought about calling around and gathering some intel of his own about Isabelle and figured that she had to be back into the normal routine of her life.
Before he’d left the States, he’d discovered that she was engaged.
But she sat across from him now, her dark hair long and loose down her back. She looked beautiful and carefree, like she’d recently made the best decision of her life. And her left hand was bare.
He’d never really been scared of anyone or anything in his life, but this woman, the possibilities she held out to him, shook him in a way he’d never been prepared for.
“What do you have against doctors?” she asked.
“They ask a lot of questions.”
She stood up, dropped her empty coffee cup in the garbage can. “Why don’t you think about it.”
He willed his beeper to go off, the phone to ring, a small war to break out—anything—and wondered why he suddenly needed saving from a woman.
He couldn’t do this—not with her.
She says she doesn’t remember anything.
An odd sense of disappointment settled over him, even though there was no way to deny the palpable connection between them. If she didn’t know what had happened, she knew something had.
Kissing her like that—touching her—had not been professional. He’d let his guard down completely. Like he hadn’t already learned how bad the consequences of doing something like that could be.
“Are you used to getting what you want?” he asked.
“Aren’t you?” She smiled before she walked out of his office, shutting the door quietly behind her.
He didn’t even have time to wonder what the hell he was going to do now before his cell phone rang. He glanced at the number, flipped it open and said, “I’m fine.”
“Shot is not fine,” Kenneth Waldron, the only man Jake ever thought of as Dad, shouted across the line.
“Is that what your tarot cards told you?”
“I don’t need any cards. I told you last month, something big is barreling down on you.”
“Yeah, well, it missed me. Mostly.”
“Jake . . .”
“I’m fine,” Jake repeated, his hand automatically passing over his right side, still heavily bandaged. “Flesh wound. I’m just getting ready to run some drills.”
“I wasn’t necessarily talking about gunfire, by the way. And put your brother on the phone.”
He didn’t even bother to say, They’re not here. Instead, he waited a beat, and Nick and Chris burst through the door of his office, arguing as usual.
Sometimes having a father who was psychic was a real drag. “Which one?”
“Whichever one won’t lie to me!” his father roared.
Jake looked between Chris and Nick and figured it was a draw. He tossed the phone to Chris while Nick took the rest of his coffee and drank it in one gulp.
“He’s fine, Dad,” Chris said. “Why would I lie?” He paused to listen. “Well, yeah, you’ve got a point there.”
Kenneth Waldron was known as Twist to his earliest friends, cher to his wife, who’d died twelve years earlier, and Dad to his three grown boys. At work, they called him Kenny to his face and Crazy behind his back, and tonight, during a meeting with his newest group of wannabe rock stars who spent more time pissing out the windows of moving cars and smashing bottles onstage than actually singing, the boys in the band began to call him Boss. “Your pitch is off. Stop holding back and open up your voice. And I want to hear you play the shit out of that bass!” he yelled over the din.
He’d become some sort of legend in the music business, managing the most unmanageable of rock bands, taking them on when every other manager in town with a lick of sense dumped them on their asses and left them crying in the street. And he made them. Kept track of them. Fathered them and brought them to the top of their game.
Everyone always wondered how he did it. Why he did it. Hell, it was the easiest thing going compared to what he’d reared. Was still rearing, as his three sons continued to raise hell and heaven and everything in between.
He was young for the business, just turned forty-three, with a biological son who was twenty-six, and two adopted sons about the same age. He’d married Maggie when they were both just seventeen to escape his family, moved in with hers along the swamps of the Bayou, St. Charles Parish, and got her pregnant within the month. By then, he’d already been managing some local bands, and by nineteen, he and Maggie started their own company and signed with a city label to recruit the new talent.
They’d moved to New York to be near the city when Christopher had been thirteen. Already six feet, six inches tall, he would put on another three quarters of an inch before he finally stopped growing. He’d been used to being homeschooled back in Louisiana, but in actuality, he’d been used to running wild and doing pretty much whatever he’d wanted. He’d grown up rock and roll, had the talent and the voice to forge his own career in music but had never seemed all that interested in that kind of life. Which was why he’d gotten suspended on his very first day of private school in New York for lighting up a cigarette in the middle of the cafeteria.
When he’d been dragged to the principal’s office, cursing anyone within earshot in Cajun French, Nick and Jake were already there. For what, Kenny couldn’t remember clearly, although it was most probably for skipping school, which the two of them had had a tendency to do on a regular basis. They’d both been on the verge of expulsion.
Maggie had gone in to collect Chris and came home with the two other boys as well. They’d each gotten suspended for two weeks, because they’d all started fighting—with one another—right outside the principal’s office, for no other reason than there was nothing better to do. Or at least that was the explanation Jake gave to him later on that same afternoon, when Kenny had bandaged a cut on his neck and discovered an even bigger problem.
To this day, Kenny couldn’t remember when the boys officially moved in, but it seemed as though after that first day they’d never left.
It had seemed right, he mused as he lit another cigarette and waited for the band to get their shit together onstage. He’d corralled them in a strip joint earlier that afternoon, attempting to get drunk and stupid, and he’d dragged them out and babysat them until they were ready to go on.
The band members thought they’d been caught because someone turned them in, but in reality, it was because Kenny had what the Cajuns called the sight. Chris had it too, something Maggie’s mother had pronounced immediately upon seeing Chris seconds after he was born with one blue eye and one green.
What they dubbed the psychic Cajun bullshit drove Nick and Jake crazy, although Chris had pretty much refused to use his after Maggie died. And if anyone could fight a mental force of nature, it would be Chris.
Kenny disappeared, both mentally and physically, from the boys for a year after Maggie’s death—there on the surface, with phone calls and brief visits in between his band’s tours, but grief had taken its toll on him. In that year, his already fragile and wild sons had gone out of control, and he hadn’t been sure if he could bring them back.
Some days, he wasn’t sure if he ever had. And recently he’d been up half the night, pacing holes in the floor and worrying about all three of them. Because something just wasn’t right.
“I think you need to stop worrying about us now,” Chris had announced not that long ago over dinner, as Kenny fought not to ask about the cast on Nick’s leg, or the two on Jake’s forearms or the heavy bandage on the side of Chris’s neck.
“I think you need to get a hobby,” Nick said, and Kenny had wisely not brought up the fact that Nick had spent the better part of an hour turning the answering machine into some kind of detonating time bomb because he’d been bored.
“I think you need to get laid,” Jake told him, his gray eyes steady and serious. Kenny had laughed and silently agreed that Jake was probably right.
But still, he worried. Worried when Nick caught a cold or his voice rasped more than usual, worried when he noticed that Jake wasn’t sleeping well or that Chris needed to eat more and smoke less.
He wondered if they’d ever settle down, but as each year passed and they climbed to new heights of crazy rather than calming down with age, he’d begun to think that there weren’t women born yet who could handle his boys for longer than a night. If that.
He’d talk to them more tomorrow night. For now, he lit another cigarette and prepared to storm the damned stage to get the current group of boys who stood in front of him under control.
From the Paperback edition.