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"Dr. Owens?" Sergeant Sam Winston called out into the empty outer office of Dr. John Owens, a well-respected Raleigh, North Carolina, psychologist in private practice. To keep Sam's visits as private as possible, Dr. Owens had agreed to meet Sam before his receptionist arrived at 9:00 a.m. Sam looked at his watch. Normally Dr. Owens was waiting for him the minute he walked into his office at seven o'clock sharp.
As a Ranger in the Seventh Ranger Regiment of the United States Army Special Forces, Sam was used to rising early and getting very little sleep. He'd already been up for two hours doing some PT stress relief. Even six months later, his shoulders and hip still provided a challenge to getting back into fighting shape after he'd been captured and tortured for three months.
Also, the recent assassination attempt on his mother's life and the fact the would-be assassin was one of his buddies from his unit, captured and tortured at the same time as Sam, not only pushed him to seek out a therapist, but had shaken his very foundation. How could Mike have gone from a decorated Ranger to an assassin? That image didn't fit with the man Sam had known. Dedicated and tough-as-nails Mike. A hard, hollow ball of pain and regret mixed with a healthy dose of anger constricted his chest.
That incident made Sam question everything but gave him no answers. He was blacking out, losing time and having horrific nightmares that he couldn't understand or even sometimes remember. He would just wake up standing in his room screaming at the top of his lungs.
If Mike could somehow be coerced to kill his mother, Sam had to wonder how he had been compromised. Mike was one of the toughest men Sam had known.
Thank God his mother was tough, too. She was a formidable woman, formerly a very popular vice president of the United States and, later, an ambassador to France. The thought of losing her unhinged him. He would have been devastated, and although his mother was a cagey politician, she was still his mother. The fact that she was mulling over running for president wasn't something Sam exactly hoped for. Along with the prestige and honor, there were a lot of complications and sacrifice. He would be proud of her, but shining the limelight on him and his work with the U.S. Army wasn't exactly something he wanted.
Mike's betrayal and implications that Sam himself might be compromised prompted him to leave his family estate and rent a modest house in north Raleigh. In the back of his mind, he didn't want to be in too close proximity to his family. He didn't want to think too hard about his motivation. A terrible sense of looming disaster hung over him.
He stopped dead only steps from the door to Dr. Owens's office. An icy feeling of dread came over him when he saw the half-open door.
"Dr. Owens?" he called again, just in case he hadn't heard him the first time, but deep down, Sam knew he wouldn't get an answer. After being in Special Forces for a decade, Sam had a sixth sense about violence. He could almost smell it in the air.
He pushed the door open, braced for the worst. Dr. Owens's office was trashed. Papers and files were strewn everywhere and amid the chaos was Dr. Owens lying near a smashed computer monitor, his eyes open and a pool of blood beneath his head.
Sam barely noticed the unmistakable stench of death permeating the room. He had experienced death so many times in the past, often at his own hands and delivered in close proximity, it was now second nature to him.
Even as these thoughts were rushing through his head, he hurried over to Dr. Owens, knowing that he was dead, knowing there was nothing he could do.
His blood ran cold as he knelt down and felt for a pulse. There was a neat round hole in Dr. Owens's forehead. A head shot meant it was done by a professional.
Which meant what?
Tattered images came to him and his breathing doubled. He rose, backing up, gasping, starting to sweat. The dream he'd had last night! He'd killed somebody.
His back hit the wall and he looked down at his hands, trying to sort out what was real and what was fabricated by his tortured and damaged mind. When would this shit be over! When would he be himself again!
One thing was for sure. Dr. Owens couldn't help him anymore.
He looked down at his hands again as if he could find the answers. But there never were any answers.
He could easily have pulled off a head shot. But why would he have killed Dr. Owens? He reeled at the thought that his own mind somehow wasn't his own. But commit unspeakable acts against a civilian who was trying to help him? That just didn't make sense, and yet the dream burned in his memory. Had he killed someone or was he supposed to kill someone? The jumble was just too chaotic to make sense out of.
He could even be remembering a long-forgotten mission for all he knew. For a man with a very regimented life, who had been in the military since he was twenty-three and understood control, having these kinds of doubts only seemed to make him angry. Which didn't help at all.
In Special Forces, there was no margin for error and second-guessing.
But the torture A fist of anxiety tightened in the pit of his stomach. Those bastards had tried to break him, the relentless beatings, the withdrawal of food and water, the cold, the discomfort and the pain. He endured it all for three long, torturous months.
He wasn't normally a paranoid kind of guy, but that didn't mean Dr. Owens's death had anything to do with Sam. But after Mike's inconceivable behavior, Sam couldn't discount that somehow the government might be involved. He'd admitted as much to his brothers. Hence the need for secrecy. Sam hadn't even told his superiors he was seeing a psychologist. Presumably, no one besides his brothers knew anything about it. So most likely Dr. Owens's death didn't have a damn thing to do with him.
Or it had everything to do with him.
He pulled his cell phone out of his jeans pocket and dialed his brother, a forensic specialist with the Raleigh Police Department.
"Thad, I want to report a murder."
Sam had to admit the cop they sent, Detective Evans, was pretty sharp, asked really good questions, but again, Sam didn't really have any answers. He hadn't seen anything, didn't know anything. When the cop heard his last name, he recognized it, glancing over at Thad, who was present but had recused himself from working the crime scene because of Sam's involvement.
The Adair/Winston family money had come from tobacco and shipping. All his life, growing up in Raleigh, he'd had respect just by virtue of his wealthy political family. It was one of the main reasons he wanted to get out, do something where he could really earn respect. He wasn't cut out to sit behind a desk like his older brother, Trey, the CEO of Adair Industries, who, with his easygoing attitude and a politician's smooth way, charmed just about everyone, nor like his younger brother, Thad, who had wanted nothing to do with the all the privileged trappings of the Adair legacy.
"Sam, you're free to go. If Detective Evans has any more questions, he'll let you know," Thad said.
"I'd like to know when you catch whoever did this to Dr. Owens. He really helped me a lot."
"Of course, I'll keep you posted. I'm really sorry about this. I know you liked him and he was really helping you. Are you sure you don't want to move back home or bunk with me?"
Sam gave his brother an affectionate punch in the shoulder. "Stop being a mother hen. I'm a Ranger. I can take care of myself."
"No one said you couldn't, Sam, but with this shit going down with Mom, I'm just on edge. And when I think about Mike it makes me crazy all over again."
"I don't blame you for killing Mike, if that's what's bothering you."
"No. I wish I could have avoided it, but he gave me no choice. He was going to kill Lucy and I had "
Sam touched his brother's shoulder. "You did the right thing, Thad. No matter how much it hurts." Sam was pretty sure this was going to hurt for quite some time.
Thad nodded. "I have a feeling this isn't over." He looked at Dr. Owens's body. "Mom's assassination attempt was thwarted, but that doesn't mean they won't try again."
"At this point, I don't trust anyone."
"Not even the Secret Service? They're guarding her night and day."
"I told you and Trey. I feel the government is involved somehow, and the Secret Service is a government agency. I worry about her, too. But I like Agent Dan Henderson. Not only did he save her life, but he's intelligent and dedicated. I have a good feeling about him."
Thad nodded. "Yeah, I like him, too. He took a bullet for Mom. I will always be grateful for that."
"Yeah, a guy involved in shady stuff doesn't do his duty and stop a bullet."
"I've got to get going. But if you need anything, call me, brother."
Sam nodded and walked out to the curb with Thad. As he drove away, he was still unsettled about Dr. Owens's death and its possible connection to him, his family and his mother's assassination attempt.
Sam looked at his watch. He still had time to make it to his therapeutic massage appointment. Another suggestion Dr. Owens had given him. First, to help with his rehabilitation and second, to reduce stress.
He arrived with about ten minutes to spare and checked in at the front desk. The receptionist smiled flirtatiously at him, but he didn't respond. She was interested, but his life was such a complete mess right now. He had no intention of trying to carry on any type of relationship. He wasn't fit for a relationship, even a temporary one, or for duty. Right now he was in limbo until he figured it all out. As soon as he got his head on straight from the damage done by the insurgents, he was shipping out again.
Although it was something he'd thought about often. Maybe he should retire and find something else to do with his time. Serving his country had been a privilege and an honor, but after Mike's unpredictable and violent behavior, Sam wasn't sure that returning to active duty was a good idea.
He walked to the locker room, stripped down and stored all his clothes in the locker. Shrugging into the robe, he dropped his wallet into the pocket and tightened the belt. He made his way to the room and went inside. Slipping off the robe, he slid under the sheet facedown.
He'd only lain there for a moment when the therapist entered. "Hello, Helga," he said. "I'm going to need some work on my shoulder today. It's been giving me some problems."
"I'm not Helga, but I'll be happy to take care of that for you." Her voice was beautiful, soft and melodious. Perfect for a massage therapist.
He turned his head. The delicious sight of the woman in front of him almost made him want to lick his lips. She had sun-kissed skin, wavy caramel shoulder-length hair, the front pinned up and away from her striking face with high, slashing cheekbones, and a plump bow of a mouth. She was lovely, delicate, feminine, her skin as flawless as fresh cream. She wore no makeup, no jewelry, nothing to enhance or draw the eye. But she drew attention, his very interested attention.
He left her eyes for last because that's where all the information about a human being was. Right now he was savoring the anticipation of the moment their eyes met.
Hers were dark brown, fringed with thick lashes. They were direct, assessing and communicated her attraction. He knew most women liked muscles, and he was ripped. As soon as he got out of Walter Reed in D.C. and was cleared, he'd resumed his fitness routine. Being honed both in body and mind was what made a Special Forces commando a lethal son of a bitch. Besides the effects of his injuries, his body was back to normal now, but not yet his mind. He was still working on that Regret washed through him as he thought about Dr. Owens's death.
So he'd seen that shell-shocked look before. It wasn't the first time the sight of him half-naked, or completely naked, had put that expression on a woman's face. It happened all the time.
He'd had zero interest in the pretty receptionist, but this woman was a different matter. She certainly wasn't the middle-aged, somewhat dour Helga with the strong hands that he was used to. No, this woman was hard to look away from and hard to dismiss.
But unfortunately he had the same problem that he'd had with the receptionist. Getting involved with anyone at this point in his life would be a mistake.
But he suddenly wanted to make a lot of mistakes.
"Helga's out sick. My name's Olivia Marshall."
Trying not to show any reaction to the change in his therapist or the affect she had on him, he smiled and nodded. She was dressed in a white cotton T-shirt with the logo of the spa just above her full breasts and a pair of black, stretchy pants that were modest but did nothing to hide her curves.
"Why don't you tell me what you need taken care of, Captain Winston?"
When she pulled the sheet from his back, she gasped, but she tried to stifle it.
He turned to look at her again. "I should have warned you about that."
Her gaze was riveted to his back. She was affected by the sight of what the insurgents had done to him, but there was more than just shock in her eyes. Was there heat, too? "I should have been more professional. I'm sorry."
"There's no need to apologize. My back is a mess. I was tortured for three months before I was rescued. As you can see, they weren't easy on me. My shoulders give me the most problem. They hung me from the ceiling every day."
Sam met those dark brown eyes and watched her struggle with her compassion and her shock. And something loosened up in him at her look, something that brought with it intense heat. Suddenly he wanted to get close to this woman on more than just a physical level.
"Okay, your shoulders. Anything else?"
"My left hip and quad. I got shot there."
She nodded. This woman should have come with a warning label, Sam thought. She was much too potent, and he was, lethal son of a bitch or not, feeling just a tad vulnerable.
It had never happened before. Not even when those bastards were pounding on him.
Yet the brown eyes of a beautiful massage therapist seemed to do it without effort.
She dimmed the lights in the room and put on soft, chiming music that was really relaxing.
As the anticipation of her touch built up in him, he sighed softly when her hands started on his upper shoulders. Her touch was sure, gentle, soothing. He tried not to read into it, but her hands just didn't feel impersonal. He wasn't sure if that was just his perception.
He didn't really care. He liked it too much.