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Three months later
"Are absolutely certain this is what you want to do?" Colonel Carl Garrett asked, his tone as grave as his expression.
Seated in an uncomfortable chair in front of the colonel's desk, Huck nodded. "Yes, sir."
"You could still be an asset to the military, Major Finn. Just because you're no longer physically able to meet the demands of an active Ranger doesn't mean that you are no longer of value to your country. You have other talents as well," he said, carefully perusing the documents on his gleaming mahogany desk. "You could be very useful in an instructional capacity if you"
Huck bit back a blistering curse. "With all due respect, sir, I didn't join the military to teach. I joined to defend."
And he couldn't do that anymore. Would never be able to do that again.
He swallowed, pushed back the despair, anger and absolute fury roiling in his gut. How could he have been so stupid? Have made such a rookie mistake? His knee twinged, remembering, and his fist involuntarily tightened around his cane. "I know that there are lots of other men who've made the transition that you're talking about, Colonel, and I respect their decision. However, it's not the path for me. I'm a man of action, sir, and since I'm no longer capable of acting, I know that leaving the military is the best route."
For him, it was the only route.
Because Huck had never considered a life outside of serving Uncle Sam, he'd never recognized the need to draw up a contingency plan. Lots of fellow soldiers had made inquiries as to his plans once he'd decided to leave, but he could hardly tell them when he didn't know himself. Allhe knew at this point was that he had to get out. That being here, being wounded, being unable to perform his job, was slowly eating away at the few tangled shreds of sanity he had left.
No matter what Garrett said, he was useless now. Dead weight. A liability to his unit.
And just like when a lady always knew when to leavethe kind he made it a point to datea has-been Ranger knew to heed the exit cue as well.
Where would he go? Hell, who knew? At this point he didn't even care. He just wanted to get away from here. Thankfully he had enough money in the bank to coast for a while until he could figure out the next chapter in his life. He could always go home, he knew. Home being Red Rock, Georgia, a little town that sat right outside Savannah. Close enough for his mother to drive in every day to clean and cater to the city's upper crust, but far enough away to always remember his place, Huck thought bitterly.
And God knows he never forgot.
Between the snotty rich kids he sometimes crossed paths with while his mother was working and the efficient grapevine of a small town, Huck had never had a problem forgetting he was a bastard child born to a young unwed mother, one he grimly suspected had been taken advantage of by one of the smug, entitled bastards she'd cleaned up after. Had his mother ever told him this? No. But he'd caught enough snippets of conversation between his mother and grandmother while he'd been growing up to rouse his suspicions.
Following her lead, Huck had never asked about his father. He'd been loved enough without a fatherit had seemed to be her personal goal, a guilt she'd carried and couldn't shakeand he'd instinctively known that asking about someone who clearly hadn't given a damn about either of them would cause her undue grief.
And that, of course, had been unacceptable.
His mother would welcome him back with open arms, but somehow burdening her with his new problems when he'd joined the military to free her of them to start withseemed particularly counterproductive.
After years of cleaning up after the idle rich, Beth Finn had finally saved enough money to start her own business and no one was prouder of her than Huck. A firm believer in the power of sugarof the perfect cookie, specifi-callyhis mother had opened a cookie bakery. Snickerdoodles specialized in its namesake, of course, as well as beautiful iced cookies that were packaged as cookie bouquets. Her online business, in particular, had taken off. He inwardly smiled. He received a care package from her every Friday like clockwork.
Keeping her in the dark after his injury had been particularly hard, but Huck simply hadn't been able to tell her and had forbid anyone else from sharing the information with her as well. She would have put everything on holdincluding the brand-new business that needed herin order to come to Fort Benning and take care of him. He'd let her help take care of him until he'd turned eighteen, then he'd earned an ROTC scholarship, joined the program at the University of AlabamaRoll Tide!and the rest, as they say, was history.
At fourteen he'd watched her tiredly sit at the kitchen tablethe familiar scent of bleach and starch clinging to her small hands and curly hairand wryly debate the merit of buying him new shoes to replace the ones he'd outgrown within a month or pay the phone bill. "The phone's a nuisance, anyway," she'd said, ruffling his hair while he'd burned with shame, mad at his feet for having the audacity to grow and put another burden on her slim shoulders. To be so small, she'd always been a remarkably strong woman.
The next day after school he'd gone down to the local co-op and hung around, pestering the farmers until he had enough work lined up to cover the phone bill and then some. Initially she'd protested, had told him to save his money, that she'd take care of them, but Huck had insisted. He was young and strong, perfectly capable of mucking stalls and hauling hay, all of which he'd done. There'd been a sense of pride along with the accomplishment, a measure of satisfaction in knowing that he could contribute.
And he still contributed, unbeknownst to her.
Despite the fact that he no longer lived at home, he'd set up a retirement account for his mother and had been making monthly deposits for the past ten years.
As for the mystery surrounding his father, he found it highly ironic that his preoccupation with the man had ultimately cost him his career. It was funny, Huck thought now. He'd never really given the man a second thought until a fellow trooper had lost his father and then Huck had suddenly been consumed with curiosity. What sort of man got a girl pregnant and just walked away? Had he married? Had children? Had he ever spared a thought for him and his mother?
No matter how much he tried to tell himself none of it mattered he couldn't quite put it to rest. He hated himself for it, but couldn't deny it all the same. That's why he'd ultimately hired an investigator. He had to know. And now, thanks to his accident, he'd get to find out who the bastard was and hopefully administer a belated payback. He warmed with purpose, felt the first stirrings of adrenaline hit his bloodstream. God, how he'd missed it. Could it rival jumping headfirst out of a plane at twenty thousand feet? No. But it would do.
It had to.
Garrett stared at him for a full five seconds longer, waiting for more of an explanation, Huck supposed.
But one he wouldn't get. "You're set on this?"
"And I can't change your mind?"
Huck looked him dead in the eye. "No, sir."
"In that case" he scrawled his signature across Huck's release papers "might I make a suggestion?"
An old warhorse with a voice seasoned with piss and gravel, Colonel Carl Garrett was a legendary figure at Fort Benning. Despite having more than thirty years under his belt, he clearly had no plan to retire at any point in the near future. Huck envied him so much in that moment it hurt. Garrett had purpose, knew his place, had been able to adapt from strapping young soldier to mature commander seemingly with ease.
Furthermore and most importantly, if the man wanted to make a suggestion regarding his future, Huck would be a fool not to listen.
"I knew the moment I'd heard of your unfortunate injury that we'd lost you, Major Finn. As you so aptly put it, you're a man of action." Garrett smiled. "Men of action don't typically do well chained to a desk or tethered to a classroom." His gaze drifted over the cane across Huck's knees. "It's our loss, of course, because despite knowing what I know, I still think our up-and-comers could benefit from your expertise."
Be that as it may, Huck thought, he wasn't changing his mind.
"Nonetheless, when I heard that you'd been injured, I knew you were on your way out. As such, I took the liberty of forwarding your information to some friends of mine. They're former Rangers like yourself, based in AtlantaRanger Security," he said, quirking a bushy brow. "You might have heard of it."
Every sense went on point. As a matter of fact, he had heard of it. Jamie Flanagan, Brian Payne and Guy McCann were legendary at Fort Benning, and their success in the security business post military was equally famous amid his counterparts on base. Come to think of it, he'd actually gone through a special ops training class with Brian Payne and Danny Levinson, a fallen comrade who paid the ultimate price for Uncle Sam. Levinson had been a good friend of all three men and their exit out of the military was rumored to be somehow related to Danny's death.
Though he'd never actually considered contacting them, something about the idea of working with them with men from his worldmade his gut clench with hope and his spine prickle with anticipation.
He cast a glance at his ruined knee and mentally watched the idea disintegrate. Hell, who was he kidding? Sure, he could walkhad forced himself to run as well though it hurt like a son of a bitchbut even a security specialist would have to pass certain physical assessment tests and he knew damn well he'd never make the cut.
"They're aware of your injuries, Finn," Garrett said, using that uncanny ability to read his mind. "They're still interested. You have a job waiting for you should you wish to accept it."
Huck blinked, stunned. "Waiting for me? Without an interview? Without assessing my physical ability to do the job?"
Garrett merely smiled. "Your record combined with my recommendation is more than enough."
"But what about my knee? I can't"
"The only thing you can't do, Major Finn, is jump out of airplanes anymore. You are more than physically capable of joining Ranger Security and taking on the cases you'll be assigned."
Ah So that was the lay of it. His gaze hardened. "I won't be anyone's pity project, Colonel, regardless of"
"Only a fool would pity you, Major," Garrett interrupted. "I merely hate to see your talent and training squandered. I thought it would be a good fit, sent your file along with my own comments regarding your character, which has not been injured." He shrugged. "The rest is up to you. Take it or don't, the choice is yours. It's a plan, at any rate, and I'm guessing that when you came in here today, short of getting me to sign your release papers, you didn't have one."
At that, Huck had to grin. Garrett more than likely had more enemies than friends, but the old bastard sure as hell knew how to read a man. What else could he see? Huck wondered, shooting him an uneasy look.
"Nothing firm, sir," he finally admitted.
"Give it some thought then," Garrett told him. "What have you got to lose?"
At this point nothing, Huck realized, releasing a pent-up breath. His career was blown right along with his knee. In fact, right now the only thing he was at risk of losing was his mind.
"YOU CAN'T BE SERIOUS," Sapphira Stravos breathed, staring at her father. Trixie, her Maltese and perpetual companion, shivered in her lap, evidently feeling the chill in the air despite the balmy ninety-degree heat they were enjoying out by her father's pool in Atlanta's elite Buckhead area.
"I'm dead serious. I've received two threats on your life. To ignore another would imply that I am foolish or don't care about your welfare, neither of which is accurate."
Not if you asked her, Sapphira thought with a mental eyeroll. Did Mathias Stravos care for her? Sure. He cared for her in the same way he cared for his prized Thoroughbred horses, his vintage Bentley, the prime piece of real estate they currently sat on.
She was a possession, not a daughter.
Sapphira swallowed and ran her hand over Trixie's slim back. She hadn't been a daughter since the moment her older brother, Nicholas, had committed suicide four years ago. Rather than risk the emotional upheaval of losing another child, her father had recompartmentalized her role.
He'd moved her out of the column of "family" and inserted her into "belongings."
No doubt the same fate would have awaited her mother, but she'd left the minute the funeral was over and Saphhira rarely heard from her. "Sapphira's as good as dead, too," she'd heard her mother tell him. "You'll kill her the same way you murdered my Nicky."
Not true, Sapphira knew, but she wasn't so certain her father did. Had her father pushed Nicky? Expected a lot out of him as the heir apparent to the Stravos fortune? Certainly. But that hadn't been what had driven her troubled brother over the edge. Though Sapphira had her suspicions, Nicky had taken that secret to the grave with him.
And, God, how she missed him
Funny how life could change in the blink of an eye. She'd been one week away from graduation, had already accepted a positionone that she knew she'd earned though she knew there would have been rumblings to the contrary at Stravos Industrieswhen Nicky had taken enough tranquilizers to drop an elephant. In one fell swoop she'd lost her brother, mother and fatherher entire familyand any future she had of making a genuine career for herself.
Convinced that he'd driven Nicky over the edge, her father had promptly killed the jobdespite her railing and her tearsthen had made it clear that he would professionally annihilate anyone who hired herand he had the clout to do it. He'd immediately put her on salary, though she had no title and no particular job. The only thing that had saved her was her charity work, and she'd had to keep that as low profile as possible or risk his wrath.