Four Months Later Lieutenant Commander Joel Hogan grabbed her ass. Right in the McDonald’s on base. Right in front of . . . A roomful of people who weren’t paying either of them the slightest bit of attention.
Lt. (jg) Teri Howe didn’t know whether to be bitterly disappointed or intensely relieved. She took her tray and moved away from Joel, purposefully ignoring him. She headed swiftly to the other side of the room. Evade and conceal. Run and hide. Do not engage the enemy at this time. Don’t create a scene.
She sat at a small table already occupied by a female lieutenant who was deeply engrossed in a book. She glanced up quizzically at all of the other empty tables and then at Teri.
“Ass grabber on my six,” Teri explained. “I’ll be quiet, I promise. You don’t have to stop reading.”
The lieutenant smiled, sympathetic understanding in her eyes. “Some of these guys can be relentless in their pursuit. New here?”
“Reserves,” Teri said. “I’m in between civilian jobs, so I took a short-term active duty assignment.” A hundred and twenty days, with a hundred and fourteen to go, dodging Joel Hogan’s wandering hands. God. It seemed like a long time, but at least there was an end in sight. It was pathetic, when all she wanted to do was fly. “I’m Teri Howe.”
“Kate Takamoto.” The lieutenant nodded, returning to her book, leaving Teri to her lunch.
Teri opened the wrapper of her sandwich, lifted the bun, and stared at the chicken, her appetite gone. No surprise there. She’d been on the Joel Hogan diet for a week now. It was remarkably effective—the mere thought of the man turned the taste of food in her mouth into something unmentionable let alone palatable.
Teri glanced up, saw that Joel had been waylaid by several other officers. He smiled, laughed, his straight white teeth gleaming against the tan of his too-handsome face. His smarmy, smirking, God’s-gift-to-all-women face.
There was a time when she’d actually found him attractive. It seemed impossible now, but it was true. There was a time she’d actually lusted after the King of Repugnancy. And her youth and stupidity were coming back now to bite her on the butt. Big time.
Don’t touch me. She’d already said that to him too many times to count. Don’t talk to me, don’t look at me, don’t even think about me. She hadn’t said that. It was a far less reasonable request, considering they were going to work in the same area for the next 114 days.
God, it made her stomach hurt just to think about it.
She had to stay out of his way.
It was the smartest thing to do. She was going to have to stay on her toes, make sure there was always space be- tween them.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Joel stand up, and she tensed. But he was only going to get milk for his coffee. She forced herself to take another bite of her sandwich and found herself looking straight into Senior Chief Stan Wolchonok’s eyes.
He was sitting with Lieutenant Paoletti and a bunch of the other SEALs from Team Sixteen’s Troubleshooter squad, both officers and enlisted. She’d worked with them before, and after ferrying them back and forth from a training op out in the desert this past week, she knew all of their nicknames.
Nilsson was Nils or Johnny. Starrett was called Sam. Jenkins was Jenk, Jacquette was Jazz, and Karmody was known as WildCard. Even the team’s commanding officer, Lt. Paoletti, had his name shortened to L.T.
Everyone had a nickname but Stan Wolchonok, who was never called anything but “Senior Chief” or “Senior,” and was always addressed in a most respectful and sometimes even reverent tone.
He was a scary looking man, not terribly tall but muscular—completely ripped, in fact—with a face that looked as if he’d spent a few years in a boxing ring. His broad cheekbones, big forehead, and heavy brow seemed made for the permanent glower he’d perfected. His jawline and chin were pugnacious and his nose listed very slightly to the left—broken one too many times, no doubt. His eyes were dark and capable of being cuttingly intense or soullessly flat and dead. His hair had lately outgrown his usual no frills crew cut and was thick and wavy and surprisingly blond. His skin was fair—too fair—and he was nearly always sun- or wind-burned, with ruddy cheeks and a peeling nose.
But the respect shown to him by his men and the officers in his SEAL team wasn’t because he looked like someone you wouldn’t necessarily want to meet in a dark alley. No, he was respected because his men knew that he would fight to the death for them, if it came down to that. No, he would even fight from beyond death for them, because not even death could stop mighty Senior Chief Wolchonok.
The man was a problem solver. A miracle worker, who expected as much—more—from himself than he did from his men.
And as she sat there, Teri found herself staring back at him. His scowling gaze flickered across the restaurant, landing briefly on Joel Hogan.
Oh, shoot, she’d been wrong. She forced herself to look down at her sandwich, feeling her cheeks heat. Someone had seen Joel cop a feel in the food line. Stan Wolchonok had seen.
God, how humiliating.
She choked down several more tasteless bites of her sandwich and finished her soda. Gathering up her trash, she said another quick thanks to Kate and headed outside, out of the building and toward the water, hoping that the fresh ocean air would help her regain her steadiness and calm.
But she heard the door open, as if someone were following her. Please don’t let it be the senior chief. Please don’t let it be—
“Hey, Teri, where you going in such a hurry?”
Well, that was a lesson in “be careful what you wish for.” It wasn’t Stan Wolchonok. It was Joel.
Evade and conceal.
Keep distance between them.
Teri put her head down, pretending she hadn’t heard him, and kept on walking.
The April morning should have been glorious. Crisp and clean with a bright blue sky and a breeze that proclaimed spring was finally here.
Helga Rosen awakened early with the strange sound of airplanes buzzing overhead. Lots and lots of airplanes.
She lingered in her room until eight, and then, like every other day, she went downstairs for a bowl of Fru Inger Gunvald’s porridge, ready to curl up in a warm corner of the kitchen to enjoy her breakfast with a book. If she was lucky, she could get in at least an hour and a half of reading before she had to leave for school.
And if she was really lucky, Fru Gunvald would have brought her daughter Marte with her and they’d play one of Marte’s marvelous make-believe games out in the yard.
Two years older, Marte was Helga’s best friend in all the world.
But this morning Fru Gunvald was late. The kitchen hearth was cold, the room was empty.
Poppi was still home at this hour, arguing with Hershel.
Hershel! Helga ran to him. “What are you doing here?”
Her brother gave her a swift hug. “We’ve been invaded, mouse. The Germans are in Copenhagen. Classes are canceled.”
“Invaded!” she gasped.
“Don’t scare the child,” her father scolded.
“Someone besides me ought to be frightened.” Hershel turned back to her. “It happened in less than two hours, Helga. German soldiers came in on a coal ship before dawn. They’re everywhere in the city now and the king surrendered with hardly a fight. It’s bad news for all Danes.” He grimly looked up at their father. “Worse for Danish Jews.”
“Helga, go upstairs to your mother.” Poppi’s face was turning pink as he glared at Hershel. “Don’t talk like that in front of her.”
The sound of a wagon clattering out in the yard made them all jump. Helga’s heart pounded. She’d read accounts of the roundups of Jews in Germany and Poland from underground newspapers Hershel had gotten at university and passed on to her, whispering to hide them from Poppi.
She ran to the window, but it wasn’t Nazis in the yard. It was only Herr Gunvald. Marte’s father.
He leapt down from his wagon, a big, broad-shouldered man, much taller than Dr. Rosen. He was a laborer, using his back to build houses—a profession that had always impressed Helga far more than her parents.
“Helga needs to know what’s going on,” Hershel said to their father, “what’s happening in Germany—and all over Europe.”
“That can’t happen here,” Poppi insisted. “This is Denmark. Rabbi Melchior says we must stay calm.”
Herr Gunvald hammered on their door as if the hounds of hell were after him.
Helga opened it.
“Herr Rosen, have you heard?” he asked, talking to her father over her head. “We’re part of Germany now.”
“We’ve heard,” Hershel said tightly.
“Where’s Fru Gunvald?” Helga asked. There was no one else in the wagon.
“She’s at home,” Herr Gunvald told her. “Until we find out what’s going on, I thought it best Inger and Marte stay there.”
“Helga, go upstairs.” Her father’s pink face was turning red. Never a good sign.
Still, she didn’t move.
“Helga, are you listening?”
“I’m going into Copenhagen to find Annebet—make sure she’s all right,” Herr Gunvald continued.
“Annebet!” Helga couldn’t keep from exclaiming. Marte’s sister, Annebet, was in Copenhagen, still at university, with all those German soldiers. “Please bring her home!”
“I will. Inger asked me to stop here on my way into the city, let you know she wouldn’t be in today.” He bent down to speak directly to Helga. “Would you like to come to our house to play with Marte this morning?” He glanced up at her father. “You’re all welcome to come if you’re at all nervous about—”
“My father says this is Denmark,” Hershel said. “Despite the fact that German soldiers are in our streets, we must stay calm.”
“Helga. Hello? Are you listening to me?”
“I’m trying to listen to Hershel, Poppi!”
“Okay, earth to Helga. Come back to me, woman. You’ve called me a lot of names through the years, some of them obscene, but Poppi?”
“Desmond Nyland.” His familiar face was right in front of her, dark brown eyes studying her with concern. He looked as tired as she felt, lines of strain making him seem much older than she knew him to be.
“That’s me, homegirl. You back with me?”
She nodded, shaken. Gone was Denmark. Gone were Poppi and Herr Gunvald. Gone was Hershel. Gone for so long, just yesterday she realized she could no longer recall his face. There were no photographs—not of him. Refugees usually didn’t manage to have too many family photographs, and she had more than most.
“So where’d you go to?” Des sat down across from her desk, crossed his long legs. “Denmark?”
“Yeah,” she admitted. She had been seven years old when the Germans invaded. “I must’ve fallen asleep.”
“I don’t think you were sleeping. Your eyes were open and you were talking to me.”
She looked at her desk, her office. There were pictures on the desk of her husband, Avi, and her two tall sons. Her seven grandchildren. A picture of Desmond and his wife, Rachel, and their adopted daughter, Sara—black, white, and Asian. They were quite the diverse family. Yes, Helga had plenty of photographs now, and a nice home—the same home for over forty years.
Not bad for a former refugee.
“Now, I know who Marte and Annebet Gunvald are,” Des said. “Their family helped you hide from the Nazis. I’ve heard that story plenty of times. But who’s Hershel? He’s a new one to me.”
Never forget. She’d lived her entire life making sure that the people she came into contact with knew that she was a Holocaust survivor. She’d told her story too many times to count. But Hershel she never spoke about. Nearly sixty years later, and it still hurt too much.
“You want to talk about this now or later?” Des asked, his voice gentle.
God, she was tired. Old and tired, with bones that hurt and a brain that had recently started time traveling. No, she didn’t want to talk about this at all. “Later.”
She frowned down at her desk, at her files there, at the page of notes she had written—in Danish. About . . . moving to Israel? Notes about safeguarding Mutti’s furniture, some of which miraculously had been kept in perfect condition by neighbors while they’d been—
She pulled another file on top of it, and Des stood up. As her personal assistant for years, he knew enough not to press. “All right. Let me know if you need anything.”
“I do need something. I need to find Marte Gunvald.” Helga looked at him. “I’ve tried before, but now . . .” Maybe if she located Marte, found out about Annebet, made some kind of physical connection with the part of her past that she’d avoided for so long, she’d stop being haunted by these vivid memories that sucked her back in time and disoriented her so. “Can you help me find her? I know you still have some intelligence connections.”
That was putting it mildly.
A former member of a U.S. Air Force elite rescue squad, Desmond had come to Israel in the early 1980s after marrying an Israeli woman and converting to Judaism. Those first few years, he’d worked with the unrivaled Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad. When he’d been appointed as her personal assistant several years later, Helga had suspected he’d been given the assignment because, with her, he could do things—go places and observe people—he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do, standing out rather visibly as a black man in a predominantly white world.
In all the years they’d been together, Helga had never asked Des a favor like this. She’d never played the intelligence card.
It had never been this important.
He nodded. Got out the little leather-bound notepad he always carried in his inside jacket pocket. “Marte Gunvald,” he said as he wrote. “I’ll get right on it.”
“Thank you,” she said as he went out the door. “Give Rachel my love.”
Des stopped. “Rachel’s been dead for two years.”
Merde. “I’m sorry. I’m—”
“Tired,” he said. “Yeah, I know. I’m tired, too.”
Stan watched Joel Hogan follow Teri Howe out of the fast food restaurant, swung his legs clear of the booth, and stood up.
“Excuse me, sir,” he said, briefly meeting Tom Paoletti’s eyes. Nodding to the other officers at the table, he headed for the same door through which both Howe and Hogan had exited.
Hogan was married, but men and women on the base sometimes had extramarital affairs, same as in the civilian world. And it was possible that what he’d just seen was some kind of kinky game Teri Howe was playing with the movie-star handsome lieutenant commander.
If that was the case, he’d find them in some closet, with Hogan’s tongue in her mouth and his hand down her pants, breaking every rule in the book on appropriate behavior for an officer and a gentleman while on base.
That was if he found them at all.
But on the other hand, the tension he’d seen on Teri’s face and in her shoulders and in the way she clutched her tray sure didn’t look as if it came from playing some sex game. When she’d pulled away from Hogan back in the Mickey D’s, every fiber of her being had been shouting for him to get his fucking hands offa her.
Of course, maybe that was just what Stan himself had felt like shouting.
God damn, the woman deserved a little respect. She was one of the best helo pilots he’d ever worked with, and he’d worked with plenty. But Howe was beyond solid. She was reliable. Efficient. Self-confident. Unshakable. Fearless in the air.
He’d seen her take her helo down and hover nearly motionless within yards of the radio tower on an oceanographic research vessel, a ship called the SS Freedom, out in the middle of the Pacific.
When the call from the Freedom had come in, she’d been transporting the Troubleshooter Squad home from a training op. They’d just spent three weeks aboard an aircraft carrier and were eager to get back to shore. Teri had been their taxi driver, so to speak.
But the distress call had come in, asking for any available assistance. Three teenaged students participating in some Jacques Cousteau–type onboard oceanography school had had a diving accident and were developing severe cases of the bends. The Freedom had a portable recompression chamber, but it had malfunctioned. The Coast Guard and even the Air Force pararescue jumpers were raring to come to their aid, but the ship was a good two-hour flight out—a four-hour round trip back to San Diego.
By sheer luck the SEALs were within minutes of the Freedom’s location. They could get the kids and bring them to the hospital in the shortest possible time.
The ship was too small for the helo to set down on the deck, but Teri Howe had brought them pretty damn close. They’d taken aboard the three students as if it were the easiest thing in the world to lift hospital baskets off a small ship being buffeted by healthy four-foot swells and gale force winds from a helo hovering overhead. Throughout, Teri’s voice had come through Stan’s headset, calm and composed and completely in control.
She’d gotten them all on board and flown them back to San Diego in record time, staying low to the water all the way in. It was a wild ride, and when they’d landed on the hospital grounds, as the medical team was unloading the kids, he’d gone forward in the helo to thank her face-to-face for a job well done. He’d been one of the men down on the deck of that ship, clipping the baskets to the line from the helo, and he knew firsthand that her skill as a pilot had helped save those kids’ lives.
“Good job, ma’am.” It was a simple compliment, yet she’d looked at him as if he’d given her a million dollars. With her cheeks flushed and her brown eyes sparkling, she’d looked so heart-stoppingly pretty, he’d quickly backed away.
“That’s the way I like to fly,” he’d heard her say. Fast as hell, apparently, and with lives at stake. She was tough, she was strong, she was capable.
So why the hell hadn’t she broken Hogan’s kneecap back there in the McDonald’s when he’d grabbed her ass?
The air outside was cool and wet and smelled like the ocean—like salt and fish and great expectations.
Stan moved quietly around the corner of the building and toward the far parking lot, guessing by process of elimination that they’d headed that way. It was a pretty public location for a lovers’ tryst, but if he did come upon them in a compromising position, he’d simply back quietly away.
He’d be disappointed, sure, but he wouldn’t let it affect his opinion of Howe’s skills as a pilot and as part of his team’s support staff. He knew plenty of men who had excellent judgment when it came to their professions, but who were complete boneheads when dealing with their personal lives.
He could maybe even count himself among their number.
And then there they were. Teri Howe and Lieutenant Commander Hogan. In the parking lot. Standing much too close.
Except Teri was turned away from Hogan, as if she were trying to unlock the door of her truck.
Trying to get away.
Hogan leaned closer, his voice too low for Stan to make out the words.
Teri’s answer was easier to hear. “I said, back off.”
Stan moved toward them, picking up his pace. He wasn’t sure if he was rushing to her rescue or merely moving closer to get a better view for when she kneed the asshole in the balls.
She’d managed to get the door unlocked, but she couldn’t open it. Not without pressing up against Hogan. He was pinning her in place, one hand on either side of her, against the roof of the car.
“I told you before I’m not interested,” Stan heard her say. “What part of that don’t you understand?”
Hogan laughed, as if she’d made some kind of joke.
“The ice princess thing is a nice touch as far as your career goes, but come on, Teri. This is me you’re talking to. We both know the real truth. How about I come over to your place tonight?” Hogan asked. “How about we—”
Hogan was laughing, the asshole, like this was some kind of game. “You know you want me.”
Her voice shook with anger. “What I want is for you to take your little pencil of a penis and keep it far away from me.”
Stan wanted to laugh out loud, but the truth was, Teri Howe had made a serious mistake. When it came to assholes like Joel Hogan, you didn’t insult their manhood, and you certainly didn’t use the word little when talking about their personal package. She’d given him a direct invitation to prove her wrong.
And the bastard did. Or at least he tried to.
“You must be confusing me with someone else.” From his angle Stan couldn’t quite see everything, but he knew from the look on Teri’s face that Hogan was touching her. Not with his hands—they were still on the car. But the son of a bitch had leaned even closer and was rubbing himself up against her.
And now he was going to die. She was going to elbow him in the ribs, maybe scrape the heel of her boot down his shin. Either way, it was going to hurt. Stan crossed his arms, settling in to watch.
But Teri didn’t move, and Stan realized with a jolt of shock that she was frozen. That hadn’t been anger making her voice shake. That had been fear. Damn, for some reason—and he didn’t want to think why, the possibilities were too unpleasant—she was unable to move away or defend herself from this asshole.
Stan didn’t hear what Hogan said to her, didn’t hear what she said in reply, because he’d gone back around the corner, completely out of their sight.
“Excuse me, Lieutenant Howe,” he called out, even before they could see him, pretending he’d just arrived.
And Hogan instantly backed off.
The look on Teri’s face was one Stan would remember for the rest of his life. For the briefest instant, she looked at him as if he’d saved her, her eyes filled with relief, with echoes of fear and pure dread. But then she hid it all behind an almost expressionless perfunctory smile.
Hogan wasn’t so smooth. Anger glittered in his eyes. He was pissed at Teri, and pissed at Stan, too, for interrupting them.
Although really, what was there left to say to a woman after she used those particular words to describe you?
Stan would’ve simply walked away, secure in his knowledge that she was misinformed. But maybe Hogan wasn’t quite as emotionally well-endowed.
Stan kept his face as expressionless as Teri’s, his own eyes devoid of emotion. He was just the enlisted messenger. The officers’ servant. He knew that in Hogan’s eyes, as a senior chief he was one step up from the butler. “Lieutenant Paoletti wanted me to go over a few points with you before this afternoon’s training exercise,” he said to Teri.
“We’ll finish this conversation later,” Hogan said.
Oh, yeah? How would he bring it up? Say, Teri, about that pencil of a penis thing . . .
“No need to bother,” she told Hogan politely, in a voice that still wobbled a little. “I think we’ve covered all the ground necessary, sir.”
“No,” Hogan said. “I’ll call you. At home.” He turned his back on her protests and walked swiftly toward the administration building, nodding curtly to Stan as he passed.
“I know this is supposed to be your lunch break, ma’am,” Stan told Teri, “so if you have some errands to run downtown, we could meet in my office at 1300.”
“Oh,” she said. “Yeah. That . . . That’s a good idea.” He knew she was far more shaken up than she was willing to let on. She was wearing a jacket, but she held her arms as if she were cold. Or as if her hands were shaking and she didn’t want him to see. “Thank you, Senior Chief.”
“Teri, I lied,” Stan told her bluntly. “L.T. didn’t ask me to talk to you. I saw you and Hogan. I heard you and Hogan.”
She lifted her chin, finally met his gaze dead on. “I know.” Her voice shook slightly. “Thank you, Senior Chief.”
Ah, crap. Now she was forcing a smile, but with her eyes so huge in her thin face, she looked about twelve years old, and about as defenseless. Stan wanted to go find Hogan and beat him senseless.
He wanted to pull her into his arms and give her a reassuring embrace. But, Christ! That was the last thing she needed from him right now. Another man who wanted to touch her. No, she needed him to be cool and distant and professional.
She needed him to nod and walk away. To give her space to regain her equilibrium.
He couldn’t do it.
“I couldn’t help but notice that you seem to be having a problem, Lieutenant.” He called her by her rank to cancel out the fact that he’d slipped and called her Teri a few moments earlier.
She didn’t say anything, but she didn’t run away either, so he kept going, choosing his words carefully.
“I’m not sure what’s going on here.” Much better, certainly more polite than flatly asking what the fuck was happen- ing. “And I know that under normal circumstances, I’m probably—technically—the dead last person you should go to with a problem, but . . . I get the feeling that these are not normal circumstances.”
She had been staring down at the ground, but now her gaze flicked up to his face, to his eyes, and then away.
“Look, I don’t mean to embarrass you,” Stan told her as gently as he could. The men he’d yelled at for being lazy sons of bitches during this morning’s run would’ve been amazed. “I just want you to know that a problem that might seem insurmountable to you might not seem that way to someone like me.”
He twisted his mouth up into what he hoped was a reassuring smile as she glanced up at him again.
“I’m here,” he said as honestly as he possibly could, holding her gaze, hoping she understood that he meant what he said. It was probably wrong, he could probably get hammered even just for offering, but . . . “If you decide you want some help, Teri, I’m here. Okay?”
Oh, damn, her eyes filled with a sudden rush of tears.
And that wasn’t even the biggest surprise. The biggest surprise was when she threw herself forward, into his arms.
Yes, the biggest surprise of the day, week, month, and possibly even the year was that he was standing in the parking lot, getting hugged by Teri Howe.
Stan’s body reacted more quickly than his brain, and he was hugging her back before he had time to consider what exactly he should do in this particular circumstance.
But holy shit, she was an armful. Both soft and strong, she was warm and female—all soft breasts against his chest, and god damn, her hair smelled great. He buried his nose in it before he realized that probably wasn’t such a good idea.
And then, almost before he registered the fact that, Christ, she was trembling, it was over. She pulled back, away from him, looking as surprised at herself as he was.
“I’m sorry,” she said, hanging on to herself again as if she might explode into a thousand pieces. “God, I’m—”
Stan adjusted his face, wiping away the incredulous expression he knew he must’ve been wearing. “Did he hurt you?” he couldn’t keep himself from asking. “Hogan,” he added. “If he did, I’ll—” Fucking kill him. He stopped himself from saying that in the nick of time.
“No,” she said, glancing around, no doubt checking to see who’d witnessed her hugging SEAL Team Sixteen’s senior chief. The parking lot was still empty, she was safe. She backed away. “No, it’s not . . . I’m sorry.” She turned and practically ran away. “Thank you, Senior Chief,” she called back to him.
“No problem,” he said, though she couldn’t possibly hear him. “Teri.”
Teri. Yeah, right. One weird hug, and she’s permanently Teri in his head.
Okay, Mr. Fix Everything. Now what?
Teri—who would henceforth be thought of only as Lieutenant Howe—clearly was having some kind of problem—probably one of a sexual harassment nature—with Lieutenant Commander Hogan, who would henceforth be thought of as that asshole.
Stan had made it clear to Lieutenant Howe that if she wanted help, he was available. But he couldn’t force her to tell him what the problem was. Confronting that asshole—as much as he was itching to do so—was not one of Stan’s options right now.
Teri Howe was a big girl. If she wanted Stan’s help, she would ask. Until then, the best he could do was sit tight. And keep an eye on her.
If Hogan was going to mess with Teri Howe again, well, damn, it wasn’t going to happen on Stan’s watch.
And that was for fucking sure.