“Maya Banks writes the kind of books I love to read!”
—Lora Leigh, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Secret Sins
BIG Eddie Sinclair sat behind his aged wooden desk in his big empty house—a house that had once been filled with love and laughter—his gnarled, callused hands shaking.
Sweat beaded his forehead and ran in thin rivulets down his temples, tracing a line over grooved, aged, weather-beaten skin. His hands shook so badly that the papers he’d been holding fell, scattering on the desk, some sliding onto the floor.
He stared up, his gaze unconsciously seeking out the mantel over the fireplace his wife had insisted on having installed in his working space. She hadn’t wanted him to ever get cold. The idea that Big Eddie Sinclair’s gentle wife had been concerned that he’d get cold would have gotten him laughed out of the barracks. His badass buddies would never let him hear the end of it.
Eddie was a big man. A killer. Trained by the best. And in turn he had trained the best. But right now he felt as helpless as a newborn babe. Fear, an emotion that until the day his first child was born had been completely alien to him, gripped him by the balls, freezing his insides. He rubbed at his chest in an effort to alleviate the discomfort and closed his eyes, trying to rid himself of the images the threat had invoked.
He’d lived his life knowing that he was invincible. He wasn’t egotistical. Men who served with the men he served with didn’t think they were good. They knew they were good.
And none of that ability had been able to save his precious wife.
He closed his eyes more tightly against the betraying sting of tears. Even years later, thinking of the love of his life had the power to bring him to his knees. A lifetime of regret stored in the years since she’d died, leaving him with three young children to love, protect and raise on his own. And by God, he’d done just that. He’d made certain they were protected above all else.
And now his precious Eden, his only daughter, was a target. All because of him and the life he’d led, the choices he’d made. The mistakes he’d made in the past. All coming back to haunt him. Still fucking haunting him every goddamn night.
She was the image of her mother not only in looks but in all aspects. Gentle. Loving. A heart of gold. Sweet and innocent. Always willing to look for the good in people. Never seeing the bad.
It wasn’t said in so many words, the threat. But he knew. His gaze fell on the blown-up glossy photos of his daughter. Taken in a moment of unguardedness, a rarity for Eden because he’d taught her to never let her guard down. She might have the face of an angel and pose for cameras for a living, but she had the mind of a soldier. Eddie had ensured that.
I’ll take from you what you took from me. I won’t stop until pain is all you see, all you feel, all you know. I’ll take every single thing you love and then you’ll die. Beautiful, isn’t she?
The note, so simple and yet so life changing, stared back at him, ugly, black.
The photos of Eden glimmered in his vision. Taken of her when she thought she was out of the camera’s eye. None of the glamorous clothing or makeup. If he weren’t so terrified, he would have softened at the real Eden. More comfortable in sweats, hair in a ponytail, face devoid of cosmetics. So beautiful it hurt to look at her because she reminded him so much of her mother.
He reached for the phone, dialing her number before he thought better of it. As it rang, he nearly hung up, but Eden would only call back. What could he possibly say to her?
He had security around her. The best money could buy and yet he knew there was better out there. It wasn’t her he needed to talk to. He needed to speak to others. People who would ensure her safety and put her life before theirs. That kind of blind loyalty was hard to find. Not many men, no matter what, were willing to sacrifice their lives for someone else.
Civilians couldn’t possibly understand that kind of selflessness. They lived in their little bubbles never thinking about the thousands of young American men and women who gave their lives so the rest of America could exist in willful, ignorant bliss.
He didn’t need private security. What he needed was military.
Eden’s voice came over the line just as he started to disconnect.
Her cheerful voice hit a deep part of his heart that never failed to tighten whenever she was near.
“Hi, baby,” he said gruffly. “How are you?”
“I’m good. What’s up?”
“Nothing,” he said hastily. “I just . . . I just wanted to hear your voice.”
“Is everything all right? Are you okay, Dad?”
The worry in her voice shook him from his dark thoughts. The very last thing he wanted was her worried and distracted. If she was focused on something else—him—then she wouldn’t be paying attention like she should. She’d make a mistake. Slip up. Allow someone the chance to get to her.
“I’m fine, baby girl,” he said, making his voice stronger. “I just wanted to see how my girl was doing.”
“I’m good. Just got done with the afternoon shoot. If I never see another froufrou yip-yap dog it’ll be too soon,” she grumbled.
Despite the gravity of the situation, Eddie smiled. No. His girl wasn’t one for irritating furballs. She’d much rather be surrounded by bigger, stronger dogs. Her “baby” was an English mastiff well over two hundred pounds.
“King is going to be pissed when he smells these other dogs on me,” she said in disgust. “I’ll have to bribe him with treats for a week.”
“Are you resting enough?” he asked. “Don’t let your agent work you into the ground, Eden.”
She laughed. “If anything I work him too hard. You know that, Dad. He’s always after me to slow down. And well, maybe one day I will. But right now I have to hit it hard while I’m still in demand. In another year or two, no one will want me. There’s always someone younger, prettier coming up the ranks. And you know that I’m getting old in model years.”
He rolled his eyes and let out a grumble. Didn’t make a damn bit of sense to him. Eden was only twenty-four years old and yet she talked like she was some middle-aged nag about to be put out to pasture. She constantly reminded him that for a model, she was old.
“Oh hey, let me go, Dad. That’s Ryker calling now. We’ve been playing phone tag all day and I have to tell him happy birthday.”
Eddie’s chest tightened at the mention of his middle child. Eden’s older brother. The two were as thick as thieves. Always had been. Eddie hadn’t forgotten his son’s birthday. But he’d put his call to him off because he knew what he’d say wouldn’t be the best birthday message in the world.
“Talk to you later, then. Love you,” Eddie said gruffly.
“Love you too, Dad,” she sang out just before the line went silent.
Still gripping his phone, he hesitated only a brief moment before punching in a seemingly endless series of numbers and codes. He’d sworn he’d never involve Guy again. Not after what he’d done for Eddie in the name of revenge after his wife had died. No, she hadn’t just fucking died. She’d been murdered.
Eddie closed his eyes in frustration when once again he failed to connect to the one person he trusted with Eden’s life. A man who’d never allow anyone to hurt her.
“Hancock,” Eddie said raspingly, clearing his throat in order to leave yet another message. “It’s me. Big Eddie Sinclair. I need your help. It’s Eden. I’m afraid . . .” He broke off, refusing to allow his weaknesses to be aired over even a secure line. “I need your help. Call me as soon as you get this.”
He ended the call and then leaned back in his chair, dreading what he had to do next. Weariness and dread assailed him. His sons wouldn’t understand. How could they? Eddie had never confided in them that their mother’s death was no accident and that her killer had been ruthlessly hunted down and taken out. Though he hadn’t been present, he knew without asking that his wife’s killer’s death had been slow and painful. The mission had been deeply personal to Hancock as well, for Eddie’s wife was in all ways a surrogate mother to Hancock himself.
Now Eddie had to call them. Because he had to ask for their help if they were going to close ranks around Eden.
He punched in Raid’s number and waited, knowing that unless his son was out on a call, he’d answer. Two seconds later, his idea was confirmed when his son answered.
“Hey, Dad. Shouldn’t you be calling the worm today? It’s his birthday, not mine.”
“Hold on while I conference him in,” Eddie said in a short, grim voice.
Raid fell silent. It was a testament to his training and discipline that he didn’t immediately demand to know what was wrong. A moment later, Ryker answered with a short hello.
“Son, Raid’s on the phone as well,” Eddie said by way of greeting.
“Ah great, a twofer,” Ryker said cheerfully. “I just got off the phone with Eden. Now my day is complete.”
“What’s wrong, Dad?” Raid asked, cutting through Ryker’s mood.
“I need you both to come,” Eddie said. “I can’t discuss it over the phone. I’ll explain everything when you get here. I need you to hurry.”
“SMILE! Come on Eden, give me sultry. That’s it. One more. Perfect!”
Eden arched her neck, flipped her hair over one shoulder and sent her most smoldering glance straight into the camera lens. Her neck ached and she wanted a break, but there was still the dogs to contend with.
“Okay, that’s a wrap. Justin, where are the goddamn mutts?” the photographer bellowed.
On cue, two chihuahuas were carried onto the set while another assistant changed the backdrop. As Justin shoved one of the dogs into her arms, the tiny dog snarled at Eden and began to yap furiously.
“Yeah, yeah, the feeling’s entirely mutual,” Eden growled back. “Stupid hairball.”
“Uh, Eden, they don’t have much hair,” Justin said in his tinny voice.
She rolled her eyes. The guy was so literal. “It was an expression,” she said uselessly.
“Well, whatever, but be nice to them. We need to get these shots and you can’t be scowling, nor can they be growling at you. You’re supposed to be laughing. Flirty. Cute even.”
Eden had to call back the growl that rumbled in her throat. King, her mastiff, wouldn’t forgive this transgression. As soon as he smelled other dogs on her, he’d sulk for eternity. That is, until she broke out the treats as a peace offering.
Pasting on her brightest smile, she cuddled, or as much as she could when the dog was a wiggling mass of unhappiness, and turned her attention to the camera.
The photographer shot rapid-fire, capturing every angle. He barked commands at Eden as if she were the dog, and then she got on her knees and the two dogs gathered around her as she acted out playing with them, her smile bright, cheeks aching from the effort.
She had a huge, huge shoot the day after tomorrow and if they didn’t get this wrapped up today, there went her one day off to get some much-needed downtime before the Aria cosmetics commercial shoot.
It had been a huge coup to land the lucrative contract. It would set Eden up enough that she could retire if she so chose, though she planned to work a few more years. She would only be in demand a few more years at best. There was always someone younger, more beautiful, more eager climbing the ranks. While Eden might be the big thing today, there was nothing to say that tomorrow she wouldn’t be yesterday’s star.
But she did plan to slow down some at least. She had already planned a vacation after the Aria account was finished. Already she was imagining being home with her father and brothers. Maybe she’d take them someplace nice. To the mountains. They all loved it there. It didn’t really matter, though. She just wanted to be around her family again. It had been months since the last time she’d seen them for more than a day here and there. Though it had made her schedule tight and taken away from much-needed rest, she’d scheduled flights home occasionally when she had only a day between gigs.
“Are you with me, Eden?” the photographer snapped. “Believe me, sweetie, we all have things we’d rather be doing, but don’t let me hold you up. By all means take all afternoon.”
Eden shot him a glare before snapping back to the task at hand. She was bone weary and she was just ready to be done with it so she could sleep about twenty-four hours before flying to Paris for the Aria shoot. She had to look her absolute best. Fresh. Rested. Sparkling with life.
For another half hour she suffered through endless smiles, ignoring the dogs that seemed to hate her and getting them to cooperate for the camera. At one point, Eden slid her hand underneath the belly of one of the pooches, intending to scoop him playfully so they were nose to nose. Only the dog wasn’t having it and sank his sharp teeth into Eden’s hand.
“Ouch! Damn it!”
She dropped the dog and held her hand in her other palm, glaring at the offending dog, who looked supremely pleased with himself.
“Okay, that’s a wrap,” the photographer said in an irritated tone. “Get someone to look at her hand, damn it. Are you up to date on your tetanus shots, Eden?”
She gritted her teeth, still glaring at the smug dog she was positive was laughing at her.
“I’m fine. He didn’t break the skin.” Thank God. Her hands would be predominantly on display in the upcoming commercials, as would the rest of her body. She didn’t need any blemishes or cuts.
Still, one of the assistants rushed over with a first-aid kit and clucked and fussed over Eden until he was satisfied that the spot was only red and would likely fade within a few hours.
She listened as he rattled off a ton of instructions for how to treat it, moisturize it and care for it so her skin was perfect for the upcoming shoot. She tuned it all out and glanced to where David and Micah waited in the wings.
They recognized it for the SOS it was and pushed forward, flanking her and herding her toward the exit.
“Thank God that’s done,” Eden muttered.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Micah drawled. “You looked kind of cute with the little hairless rats.”
She shot him a dirty look that guaranteed payback.
The two men her father had insisted oversee her personal security and travel with her everywhere she went situated her between them as they left the studio. They were nearly to the waiting car, the driver having been alerted by David that they were coming out, when the world seemed to explode around them.
Screams sounded shrilly in Eden’s ears as she went down hard, a two-hundred-pound man on top of her. There were hoarse shouts, more screams and the sound of scrambling people on the sidewalk. More glass shattering, windows of the building being broken out.
A car roared up, a barrier between Eden and whatever the hell was doing the . . . shooting? She dimly registered that it sounded like bullets smacking into concrete and glass, and she was certainly acquainted with what bullets sounded like.
Then she found herself hauled up and thrown into the backseat of the car and then Micah’s hoarse shout of “Go, go, go!”
The car screeched, tires burning rubber on asphalt as they careened away from the scene.
“What the hell’s going on?” Eden gasped.
Her body felt bruised and she dimly wondered if she would be scraped and bloody for the Aria shoot. They wouldn’t be happy with any delays. They were on an extremely tight production schedule and were cramming two weeks’ worth of filming into just a few days.
“Shooter,” David said grimly.
“But why?” Eden asked in bafflement. “That’s crazy! You mean some random sniper just started shooting at people on the sidewalk?”
“If it was random,” Micah bit out.
She turned wide eyes on him. “This wasn’t personal.”
But it sounded more like a question than the statement she intended it to be.
“I’ll make some calls when we get to the hotel,” David said. “The cops are going to want to talk to you regardless. They’ll make noises about you leaving the scene, but they can hardly blame you for staying safe. But they’ll want to question you since we’re all eyewitnesses to a crime.”
“But I didn’t witness anything,” Eden said. “Oh God, I have to call my dad. If this hits the news he’ll freak!”
“It doesn’t matter what you saw. The police will still want to question you,” Micah said, his tone soothing.
They rolled up to the hotel and Micah all but dragged Eden out, placing her firmly between him and David. He wrapped his heavy coat around her despite the warmth of the day, shielding her from view, though the sight they likely presented would be a huge tip-off to any lurking paparazzi.
At the front desk, Micah spoke in hushed tones with the clerk and then was presented with several key cards. Eden stared at him in confusion as he herded her onto the elevator and hit the button for a floor that wasn’t the one she was currently staying on.
“We don’t know what the hell is going on, but I’m not taking you back to your hotel room until it’s cleared,” Micah said. “For now, you’ll stay in a different one on a different floor until this is all sorted out.”
She allowed herself to be led into the large suite, identical to the one she had occupied the last several nights, and then plopped into one of the armchairs, her hands shaking so badly she couldn’t control it.
Then, remembering she had to call her father, she picked up the phone. Across the room, David was already on the phone, explaining the situation to the police and that Eden was safely inside the hotel. She purposely waited for David to finish his call, wanting to be able to give her father as much reassurance as possible.
When he finally hung up, he turned, his expression tight. “They’re sending two detectives here now. They were very certain to say you weren’t to go anywhere in the meantime. And Eden, it’s likely they’ll detain you further while they sort out this whole thing. The press is going to be all over this.”
She made an ugh sound and then stared down at the phone. With a sigh, she punched in her dad’s number, knowing he was going to have a heart attack when she told him she’d been shot at, whether randomly or as the intended target. Either option wouldn’t be acceptable to Eddie Sinclair.
EDDIE stared at his two sons, unease gripping him by the balls. He was sweating. Even his hands were damp. His legendary cool under pressure had flat deserted him.
Ryker and Raid were staring at him expectantly, their expressions grim and worried. Raid had come from work, his shoulder harness still on, gun holstered. Ryker’s hair was still damp from a shower and it was obvious he’d thrown on the first thing he’d come across in his haste to answer Eddie’s summons.
“What’s going on, Dad?” Raid asked in a low voice.
Eddie wiped his palm down over his face. “It’s a long story. One I need to tell you from beginning to end so you understand what we’re dealing with.”
Ryker frowned and glanced over at his brother. No doubt they weren’t used to seeing their father in such a state of agitation. Eddie had never been anything but assured and confident.
“Sit,” Eddie commanded, gesturing toward the couch.
His two sons did as he directed and then looked expectantly at him, but he didn’t take a seat. He was too jittery, too gutted by what he had to tell his boys. How could he ever look any of his children in the eyes again once they knew the truth?
“You’re worrying me, Dad,” Ryker said in a grim tone.
Eddie closed his eyes and then ran a hand raggedly through his hair.
“Your mother’s death wasn’t an accident,” he said.
Shock registered on both his sons’ faces.
“I don’t understand,” Raid said, his tone as grim as Ryker’s had been moments earlier. “What the fuck are you saying, Dad? Did you just find this out? How the hell did you find this out anyway? And if her death wasn’t an accident . . .”
“Who killed her?” Ryker asked hoarsely.
The knot in Eddie’s stomach grew, clenching painfully. “It’s a long story, one that begins before you were born.”
“We’re listening,” Raid said tightly, his features drawn into a mask of pain and confusion. And worry.
Eddie finally slumped into one of the armchairs across from the couch where Raid and Ryker sat and bleakly stared at his sons.
“You both know I served in the military.”
They nodded, impatience simmering in Ryker’s eyes. He wanted his dad to get to the point.
“I served in a special ops group, one that didn’t officially exist. Our missions weren’t the usual run of the mill. We took on missions that were it discovered the U.S. had a hand in them, the fallout would have been messy. One particular mission took us three years to complete. Three long years of waiting and watching for the right opportunity. Raul Sanchez was our mission. Taking him down and dismantling his operation. Three years and two months into our operation, we caught a break. We got intel that he was going to be in a particular location for a family gathering. His daughter’s birthday. This was a man who was as slippery as an eel. More than one country’s military was after him. We just happened to get to him first.
“We set up surveillance on the compound where he was going to be. Everything went off without a hitch. But then the unthinkable happened. We believed his wife and daughter had already left in a car. We waited until they were clear of the compound and then we went in.”
He broke off, regret and guilt surging and pumping through his veins as if it had happened just yesterday. For years he’d lived with his mistake. A mistake his wife had paid for, his entire family had paid for. And now it would appear Eden would pay for it if he and his sons didn’t prevent it.
“A firefight broke out. Our entry wasn’t clean. A guard got lucky and deviated in his patrol, saw one of my men and all hell broke loose. I was leading the group of men tasked with taking out Sanchez. We burst into the study he was holed up in. He had two men with him and they drew on us. We had no choice but to return fire and . . .”
He scrubbed his hands over his face, tears burning his eyelids.
“What happened?” Raid asked quietly.
“Sanchez’s wife and daughter got caught in the cross fire. God, she was just a little girl. Holding the doll she’d been given as a birthday present. There was blood everywhere. God, I can still see them in my dreams, my nightmares.”
“Jesus. I’m sorry, Dad. That’s a big burden to carry around all these years,” Ryker said.
“Sanchez and his son got away, in the chaos and my horror over the wife and daughter being caught in the cross fire. My priority was trying to get them help, and Sanchez and his son escaped.
“We cleaned up best we could. Collected the information needed to dismantle his operation and rounded up a lot of the key players in his business. He had a hand in a lot of different pots. Drugs. Arms trafficking. God, he even had a lucrative human trafficking operation going. Selling young girls into sexual slavery to the highest bidder.”
Raid made a sound of disgust.
“I thought . . .” Eddie took a deep breath. “Years went by and I thought I’d put it behind me. I retired after that debacle. I just couldn’t do it any longer. You children were born and your mother and I were happy. And then . . .”
He choked off, emotion knotting his throat as tears gathered in his vision.
“Sanchez waited, biding his time, planning his revenge. He was responsible for your mother’s death and he wasted no time in letting me know he was taking an eye for an eye. A wife for a wife.”
“What the fuck?” Ryker demanded. “And you never told us? You just let him get away with that? Killing our mother?”
“No,” Eddie said quietly. “No, I didn’t. I called Guy.”
“Hancock?” Raid asked in a puzzled tone.
Eddie sighed. “There’s a lot you don’t know about Guy. He joined the military, followed in my footsteps in more than one way. He belonged to a group that was buried so deep that according to military records, they were all killed in action. They no longer existed. They weren’t supposed to have any ties to the outside world. They lived, breathed and ate their missions. But he kept me in the loop. He wasn’t supposed to, which is why I never let on to you or Eden. All you knew was that he was serving and off the grid. And it’s why we never see him. I hear from him sporadically. He never tells me much, just that he’s okay from time to time. He’s made a lot of enemies over the years and now the government has cut ties and likely has orders to eliminate him if he ever surfaces.”
“So you contacted him after Mom died. Why?” Ryker demanded.
“Because I wanted revenge,” Eddie said in a low voice. “I wanted to go after the bastard and make him pay for what he took from me. For what he took from all of us.”
“Jesus,” Raid breathed. “And? Did you? Did you find him?”
Eddie was silent a long moment before finally nodding. “Guy went after him. He didn’t want me involved. I gave him all the intel I had. I called in a lot of favors to get the information he needed.”
“So he killed him,” Ryker said bluntly.
Again Eddie nodded.
“Christ, Dad. And you didn’t think we deserved to know all of this sooner? And why tell us now? What’s going on?” Raid demanded.
Eddie paled, suddenly feeling years older. The weight of a lifetime of regret settled like a ton of bricks on his shoulders and his heart.
He reached up to the mantel and picked up the photos and the note he’d received. With shaking hands, he shoved them toward his sons, simply waiting for them to look them over and draw their own conclusions.
“Holy fuck,” Ryker exploded. “Eden is being threatened?”
“His son,” Eddie said in a strained voice. “It has to be the son. We weren’t able to find him. Just Raul. But his son would want revenge because not only did he lose his mother and sister but then Guy took out his father and now he’s looking for revenge. By hitting me where he knows he’d hurt me the most. Through Eden.”
“Son of a bitch,” Raid swore. “What the hell are we going to do? Where is Eden now? What are we going to do? She’s not safe even for a minute. What if he’s already found her? What if he’s going after her as we speak?”
“It’s why I called you both to come. I spoke to Eden earlier today. She seemed fine. I don’t want to scare her. I don’t even want her to know all of this. It would upset her. But we have to close ranks around her. Tighten security. What we have now isn’t going to cut it. These people are ruthless. They have resources beyond our imaginings. She isn’t safe. We have to figure out a way to make sure she’s safe at all times.”
Ryker went silent a long moment, his expression thoughtful. “I know people who could help us. It’s what they do. They’re all ex-military. I served with two of the brothers. Nathan and Joe Kelly. They got out when I did. That last mission that went all to hell. Some of us didn’t make it back. Joe was injured and Nathan and another teammate were held prisoner for months in the mountains of Afghanistan. But their brothers run a special ops group. Some of it’s private sector, but they also do a lot of government contract work. Jobs that no one else can or will do. Hostage recovery, rescue, protection. You name it, they do it. And they’re damn good. Nathan and Joe work with them now as does Swanny, the other guy I served with. We could call them in. They owe me a favor.”
“How good?” Raid asked bluntly. “Because good isn’t good enough. Not when it comes to keeping Eden safe. We need the fucking best.”
“I’ll call them. Set up a meeting immediately. We may need to fly out there so we can get the ball rolling sooner,” Ryker said grimly.
“You do that,” Eddie said. “I’m not losing Eden. Or you. Those bastards have taken enough from this family.”
The phone rang, interrupting the tense discussion. Eddie glanced down to see that it was Eden calling.
“Hey, baby girl,” he greeted, holding his hand to his sons.
At the tremble he heard in her voice, his blood went cold.
“Eden? What’s wrong? Are you all right? What’s happened?”
Raid and Ryker immediately came to attention, rushing over to stand closer so they could hear what was transpiring.
“There was a shooting,” she said, her voice wobbling precariously. “But I wanted you to know I was okay. I didn’t want you to hear about it on the news and worry.”
“What do you mean there was a shooting?” he roared.
“I don’t know anything yet, Daddy. The cops are coming to question me. David and Micah got me into the car and to the hotel. We’re staying in a different suite. Micah and David were concerned that this could be personal.”
Hell, Eddie knew it was personal. Son of a bitch, but he hadn’t expected it to start this soon. He’d only received the threat today. His blood chilled in his veins. But the timing was impeccable. Had the killer planned it this way? For Eddie to receive the threat just a short time before Eden was killed?
Helpless rage gripped his throat, squeezing until he could barely breathe. Raid wrenched the phone from his hand, ignoring his father’s immediate protest.
“Eden, this is Raid. Tell me where you are and we’ll catch the first flight out we can,” he said calmly.
There was a pause and then Raid said, “Okay, honey. Stay where David and Micah put you. We’ll be there as soon as we can.”
He ended the call and handed his father back the phone, his eyes nearly black with rage.
“So it’s begun, then.”
Eddie could only nod, fear and fury waging war in his mind.
“Then let’s get the fuck out of here,” Ryker said tightly. “I’ll call Nathan and Joe on the way and have them meet us there if they can make it.”
DARYL “Swanny” Swanson picked his head up when the phone rang in the cabin he shared with Joe Kelly.
“Hey, can you get that?” Joe called from the bathroom.
Swanny hauled himself up from the couch where he was watching the baseball game and ambled over to pick up the cordless house phone. It was probably a damn telemarketer because no one ever called the landline. Everyone used cell phones.
“Can I speak to Nathan or Joe Kelly? It’s urgent.”
The male voice sounded vaguely familiar, but Swanny couldn’t place it. But whoever it was obviously wasn’t someone who knew the brothers well or he would have known that Nathan lived in his own place with his wife, Shea.
“Can I tell him who’s calling?” Swanny asked as he started toward the bathroom.
“This is Ryker Sinclair. We served together. It’s important I speak to one of them immediately.”
“Sin?” Swanny exclaimed. “Hey, buddy, it’s Swanny. How the hell are you?”
There was a pause and then Ryker replied. “Swanny? I heard you were working with the Kellys, but I didn’t expect to get you on the phone. Man, am I glad to hear your voice. How are you doing? How is Nathan doing? I haven’t heard from y’all since we all got out.”
“We’re all doing fine. Nathan is married now. But hey, what’s going on? You said it was urgent. Anything I can do to help?”
Ryker breathed out heavily over the phone. “Yeah, I need your help. I need KGI’s help.”
“Hang on, let me get Joe and I’ll put you on speakerphone.”
Swanny beat on the bathroom door, holding the phone to his side. “Hey, Joe, get out here. It’s Sin. Ryker Sinclair. He needs to talk to us ASAP.”
The door swung open and Joe appeared, a frown on his face. “Sin?”
“Yeah, get in the kitchen so I can put him on speakerphone. He said it was urgent and he needed KGI’s help.”
“Fuck,” Joe muttered.
They strode back to the kitchen and Swanny punched the speaker button before replacing the phone on the receiver.
“Hey, man, we’re both here,” Joe said. “What’s up? How the hell are you?”
“Not good,” Ryker said grimly. “I have a problem. I need your help. KGI’s help.”
“You know we’ll do whatever we can. Give me the rundown.”
“I don’t have time to get into it on the phone and I don’t have all the details myself. We’re on our way to where Eden is. She’s in trouble. It’s a long goddamn story and I know I’m not giving you much to go on, but I need you for this. Can you come?”
Swanny’s eyebrows went up. Eden? She was Ryker’s sister. His very hot sister. Ryker used to share her letters—and photos—with the guys when they were freezing their asses off in the Afghani mountains. She’d fired more than one wet dream. She was fucking gorgeous. And not in a bought-and-paid-for way either. She was a natural beauty through and through and she just sparkled. She had a million-dollar smile and her letters were always filled with love and humor. Her letters had brightened many otherwise shitty days when they were hunkered down with only her pictures—and their fantasies—to keep them warm.
He frowned. She was a model, if he remembered right. And she was in trouble? Swanny’s protective instincts roared to life. What kind of trouble was she in that her brother needed KGI’s help? Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good.
“Tell me where,” Joe said simply.
Sin had saved Joe’s ass by shoving him down when their team came under fire. Sin had taken a bullet that would have otherwise taken Joe out. Swanny knew that if Sin needed help, Joe wouldn’t refuse. No matter what it involved.
“We’re flying to Boston now,” Ryker said grimly. “Some asshole took a shot at her and they’re holding her for questioning, so Dad and Raid and I are going there so we can find out what the hell is going on.”
He paused a second, letting out a sigh.
“And there’s more. A lot more. But I can’t get into it over the phone. That’s why I need you there as quickly as you can make it. I’ll explain everything when you get there.”
Joe and Swanny exchanged quick looks.
“I’ll call up my team and we’ll head out as soon as I can get everyone to the jet. Sit tight, okay? Let me give you my cell number so you can reach me.”
“Thanks, man. This means a lot to me. And to Dad. I’ll text you the hotel.”
Joe gave him his cell number and Swanny’s, and then they quickly took down Ryker’s as well.
“Okay, give me a few hours and we’ll be on our way. I have to run this by my older brothers, but we’ll come. You can count on it,” Joe said.
They rang off and Joe turned his frown on Swanny. “I wonder what the fuck that was all about.”
Swanny shrugged. “I’m more curious as to what he meant when he said someone took a shot at Eden. Did he mean someone hit her or actually tried to shoot her?”
Joe scowled at that. “Isn’t she some hotshot model?”
“Surely you remember the pictures Sin used to show us,” Swanny said dryly.
Joe’s brow furrowed. “No, not really.”
Swanny rolled his eyes. “Dude, she is hot. Smoking hot.”
Joe’s eyebrows shot up. “Wow. She must have really made an impression on you. I never hear you talk about chicks, hot or not.”
Swanny rubbed a hand over the jagged scar that ran the length of his face. “Not much to talk about,” he murmured. “They aren’t exactly lining up to get with me.”
Joe grimaced. “Sorry, man. Poor choice of words.”
Swanny shrugged. “You want me to call Skylar and Edge? Get them heading in this direction? I’ll let you tackle your brothers. They’re going to want a meet-up at HQ. They aren’t just going to turn us loose on the basis of a phone call saying we need a jet, and oh, by the way, we’re taking the team but we don’t know why yet.”
“Smart-ass,” Joe muttered. “But yeah, you’re right. You call Sky and Edge. I’ll call Nathan and Sam and we’ll meet at the compound.”
Swanny pulled his phone out of his pocket and turned away to start making his calls. If he lucked out, both would be at home since they roomed together in a house close to the compound so he’d only have to make one call.
“Edge,” Swanny greeted. “Hey, man, is Sky with you?”
“Yeah, she’s here,” Edge replied. “What’s up?”
“We’ve been called up. Load-and-go situation. No idea on how long, so pack accordingly. Meet up at the war room as soon as y’all can get there.”
“Later,” Edge said, and hung up.
Swanny grinned. As verbose as ever. Edge didn’t say a whole lot, but people tended to pay attention when he did. But then he was a big guy. Most people were wary around him. Swanny often wondered how he and Skylar ever decided to room together.
Skylar was bubbly, outgoing and talkative. Edge was quiet and never instigated conversation. Swanny could well imagine Skylar driving the big man insane inside of a week of living together. But they’d been in the same house for months now and all seemed to be going well.
Joe was still on the phone with one of his brothers, so Swanny took off to his bedroom to pack his gear. He did a weapons check, although he was always meticulous about his gear and kept it ready to go at all times. It wasn’t unusual to get a callout that required them to load and go.
Just another day on the job.
Only this job involved a very beautiful woman, and it pissed him off that someone had taken a shot at her, figurative or not. From what he’d gleaned in her letters to her brother and Ryker’s stories about her, she had a huge heart and was completely down to earth, despite her glamorous life as a model.
An image flashed in his mind. A magazine Ryker had proudly produced on that last tour, the one that had effectively ended Swanny’s career in the army, had Eden’s face on the cover. She’d been chosen as the world’s most beautiful woman, and Swanny could see why. She was so beautiful she made his balls ache.
Long, flowing blond hair. Not the bottled kind either. Eyes an unusual shade of aquamarine that glowed brightly against sun-kissed skin. And her smile. Man. Not a fake smile, but a genuine, from-the-heart-looking smile. Her eyes had sparkled with laughter. She hadn’t done one of those serious, sultry poses. There was a hint of mischief shining in those ocean eyes. The kind that told a man he was getting a handful with her.
And those lips. Full, luscious. Just the right amount of plumpness and forming a perfect bow. No lipstick, just a hint of shiny gloss. For that matter, as he gained a firmer image of that picture in his mind, he remembered that she hadn’t worn makeup, or if she had, it was the kind that made it look as though she wore none. She had a natural, all-American-girl look going. The girl next door, only ten times hotter. Men could only dream of the girl next door looking that damn good.
He shook himself from his wayward thoughts and stashed clothing in a duffel bag, took a quick inventory of his knives and the flashbangs he always had on him and then made sure he had sufficient ammo for the two pistols he carried.
He was acting like a goddamn teenager with a crush on the cheerleader. Yeah, he’d had his share of fantasies on those long nights in the cold with only his daydreams to occupy his thoughts. Eden wouldn’t give a man like him a second glance. Or maybe she would, but it would be because she was doing a double take at the hideous scar that marred his face. That thought effectively put a damper on his imaginings and he got back to the task at hand.
He secured the ankle holster before sliding the smaller Sig into place and then put on the shoulder harness and secured the larger Glock. He grabbed the duffel bag carrying his clothes and the case holding the ammo and then carefully shouldered the straps of the two high-powered rifles. One was a semiautomatic, the other his .308 with the high-powered scope he used for sharpshooting. Anything else they needed would be on the plane in the weapons locker.
He wasn’t sure what kind of trouble Eden Sinclair was in, but Ryker had sounded worried, and not much worried the Sinclair family. Their father was a badass in his own right. Raid, the oldest, was a seasoned cop and Ryker worked in private security, a smaller, less military version of KGI. All his jobs were on the up-and-up. Mostly personal security, which made it odd that he was seeking KGI’s help for the trouble his sister was in. Swanny would have thought that if she was in any kind of trouble, the family would close ranks around her and handle it on their own. They were private that way. Which only reaffirmed his belief that the situation was dire. Ryker’s vagueness on the phone bothered Swanny. He had a bad feeling about the whole damn thing. But there was nothing to do until they got there and heard firsthand what was going on.
He hurried back into the living room to see Joe stuffing his bags with clothing and his own personal arsenal, which was similar to Swanny’s own. They all had their personal preferences when it came to guns, but they all adhered to the motto that many was sufficient but more was even better.
If the zombie apocalypse ever occurred, they were definitely prepared. The KGI compound could withstand a fucking war. The sheer number of legal—and illegal—shit that was housed behind the walls of the compound would shock the average citizen. Swanny had his own stash of C-4 and enough grenades to repel a small army.
During his captivity, he’d sworn never again to feel that kind of helplessness and fear. He’d accepted the inevitability of his own death. He’d even embraced it. In his darkest hours, he’d prayed for it. It shamed him now, but at the time, death was the ultimate freedom. Escape from his dismal reality.
Thank God for Shea, Nathan’s now-wife, who’d inexplicably reached out to him across thousands of miles, speaking to him in his mind. Helping him and Swanny escape their captors and certain death. And Grace. Shea’s sister. God, she’d healed him. She’d fucking healed him from injuries that would have slowed his and Nathan’s escape. He’d begged Nathan to leave him. To save himself. And instead Nathan, with Shea’s and Grace’s help, had healed him. Made it possible for him to soldier on, and they’d made it out of those mountains alive. Not unscathed. But alive nonetheless.
He absently fingered the scar on his face. A memento from his time in captivity. Insurance that he’d never forget those endless days of torture and starvation. They’d carved him and Nathan both up. They both still wore the scars from their captivity, but Swanny’s were more visible. His face had been slashed and by the time they’d been rescued and hospitalized, there was little a surgeon could do, and he wasn’t vain enough to ever have plastic surgery.
No, he wore that scar as a reminder of what he’d survived.
His sex life had certainly suffered as a result, but sex wasn’t one of his priorities. Not since coming home alive. He threw himself into his job. His new family. He shook his head. He had no family. Not until Nathan. The Kellys and KGI had embraced him. Marlene Kelly, the matriarch of the Kelly clan, had adopted him as one of her own, and she treated him just like he was one of her many children.
Frank and Marlene Kelly had six sons, but Marlene had adopted others into her fold. Rusty Kelly, the sullen teenager who’d broken into her home but was now about to graduate from college, a vibrant, beautiful young lady who had the world at her feet. Swanny had no doubt she’d one day rule the world.
And there was Sean Cameron, a sheriff’s deputy in Stewart County. Also adopted into the Kelly fold and treated much like all Marlene and Frank’s other children. It was mind-boggling, the extent of the Kellys’ generosity.
The family had grown and expanded. Joe was the only unmarried Kelly, and he definitely heard about it from Marlene on a regular basis. There were grandchildren aplenty and more on the way.
And here in the middle of it all was Swanny. He’d gone from a solitary existence with only the men he served with as his brothers. And now he had the entire Kelly family plus the KGI team members. All at his back. Ready to go to the wall for him. It baffled him, this unconditional loyalty.
He’d crawled back to the little house he’d inherited from his parents after he and Nathan had been discharged from the hospital. But he’d been restless and . . . lonely. His brush with death, facing his mortality and then his miraculous healing had brought him to Tennessee, seeking answers from Nathan about what had happened in those mountains before they were rescued.
And he’d stayed, first adopted into the fold instantaneously by Marlene Kelly and then offered a position with KGI. He’d joined the new team headed by Nathan and Joe and joined soon after by Edge and Skylar. They were his family now. And having family, people who accepted him, felt . . . good.
When he’d served in the army he’d had a purpose. His life had been consumed with the need to protect and serve. After his injuries and discharge, he hadn’t known what else to do. There was nothing for him on the outside. He’d never be happy with a nine-to-five office job or joining the rat race as a civilian. KGI had given him purpose again.
KGI helped people. They protected the innocent and the weak. They helped bring down the assholes in the world, those who preyed on the innocents. Now when he woke in the morning, he felt alive. Like he had a future. KGI had given him that, and he’d be forever grateful to them for that.
He’d resigned himself to never settling down, having a family, things most people took for granted even if they weren’t in a hurry. He was surrounded by just those things. Each of the Kelly brothers, with the exception of Joe, had met their soul mates. Even the team leaders, Rio and Steele, had settled into domesticity with an ease that still amused and befuddled the men and women who worked under their command. Hell, even Cole and P.J., two of Steele’s team members, had hooked up and were living in marital bliss, though he imagined theirs was an interesting arrangement since P.J. could kick ass with the best of them. It was for certain she kept Cole on his toes.
But that wasn’t for him, and he accepted that just like he’d accepted everything else. With peace and understanding. He didn’t just have scars on the outside. He was irrevocably scarred—changed—on the inside. He wasn’t sure how Nathan was handling the memories. He was sure Nathan still had his fair share of sleepless nights, but he had Shea to help him, to lean on when the past reared its ugly head. But Swanny still suffered nightmares. Flashbacks to his captivity. He still woke in a cold sweat, fearing for a moment that he was back in that hell. Chained in a cave waiting for the time when they came for him. To carve him up, beat him and interrogate him.
They hadn’t been able to break him. He took pride in that. He and Nathan both had withstood all that their captors had dished out and had never broken. Because in the end, that was all they’d had left. Their pride and determination not to let those cocksuckers win.
He had a good life now. No, he wouldn’t ever have a wife or children, and he was okay with that on most days. Every once in a while when all the Kellys got together and he was surrounded by so much love, the Kelly wives and the children, he was instilled with a fierce sense of longing, but he’d long discovered it did no good to dwell on what would never be.
Most women couldn’t even look at him without fear, disgust or pity. Pity was the worst. He’d take fear and loathing over their pity. Although it pained him for a woman to fear him just because of his appearance. He’d cut off his right arm before ever hurting a woman. It made him sick just to think about it. He’d seen enough violence in his life to know it would never be part of his makeup. Except when it came to taking out assholes who deserved what was coming to them.
He was a killer and he suffered no qualms about meting out justice where it was merited. As long as he could look at himself in the mirror every morning with a clear conscience, he could continue to do the job required of him as a member of KGI.
“You ready?” Joe called out, shaking Swanny from his thoughts.
“Yeah. All packed up. You call Nathan and Sam?”
Joe nodded. “Nathan’s on his way over and Sam is calling Garrett, Ethan and Van to meet us there. I told him there was no need to call in Steele or Rio. This is our mission. Sin is our friend and I’m not letting anyone else head this mission.”
“Agreed,” Swanny said. “I don’t know what kind of trouble Eden’s in, but if Sin is worried then it has to be serious.”
Joe nodded. “Let’s get on the road. Nathan can fly us so there’s no need—and we don’t have the time—to call up one of the other pilots.”
Swanny grinned. “Kind of nice now that we have a landing strip on the compound. That drive to Henry County was a pain in the ass. Not to mention it makes for a hell of a quicker response time when we get called out on a mission.”
Joe slung one of the bags over his shoulder and then bent to snag the straps of the two rifles he shouldered. They carried their gear to Joe’s truck and carefully placed it in the back before sliding into the cab to head the few miles down the lake to the compound.
WHEN Joe and Swanny got to the compound, Nathan, Sam, Garrett and Ethan were already there. Swanny walked inside the war room and laid his gear on the floor next to the door. When he looked up at the others, he had to stifle a grin of amusement that would likely get his ass kicked if noticed.
Sam and Garrett were both holding their new babies. Well, not so new. They were a few months old now, but according to Joe, they were both in teething hell and had been giving their parents a lot of sleepless nights. Swanny could only guess the dads were giving their wives a breather and had hauled the infants to the impromptu meeting.
“The tykes keeping y’all up at night?” Joe asked with a grin he didn’t disguise.
Sam and Garrett shot him disgruntled looks and Garrett made a quick shhhh and waved his free hand to quiet the others.
“I just got her to sleep,” Garrett whispered. “She hasn’t slept the entire goddamn night!”
Ethan chuckled, which earned him another glare from Garrett.
“Welcome to parenthood,” Ethan said in a loud whisper. “I’m glad to say that we’re past that stage with the twins. They’re sleeping through the night completely now. Mason is even almost potty trained! Not bad for an almost-two-year-old.”
The proud note didn’t go unnoticed by the rest. Sam rolled his eyes and made a rude gesture with his free hand.
“If only your wives could see and hear all the profanity and gestures y’all are making,” Nathan drawled. “Sarah wouldn’t be happy to hear your cursing around Kelsey.”
“Fuck you,” Garrett said in a low voice.
Sam shifted his son in his grasp and then thrust him toward Ethan. “Here. Since you’re so adept at this now, you can hold Grant while I conduct this meeting.”
Ethan happily took the infant and immediately began cooing to the gurgling baby.