Book 1 of West Coast Navy SEALs
From beloved romance author Anne Elizabeth comes a hot new contemporary romance trilogy featuring hunky Navy SEALs and the strong-minded, sexy women who capture their hearts.
He lost just about everything on that mission...
Being a Navy SEAL means everything to John "Red Jack" Roaker, but a mission gone wrong has left his buddy dead, his memory spotty, and his world turned upside down. His career as a SEAL is threatened unless Dr. Laurie Smith's unconventional methods of therapy can help him.
Maybe she can show him how to get it back...
Laurie's father was a SEAL-and she knows exactly what the personal cost can be. She can't resist trying everything to help this man, and not only because she finds him as sexy as he is honorable.
As the layers of Jack's resistance peel away, he and Laurie unearth secrets that go to the highest levels of the military- and the deepest depths of their hearts...
West Coast Navy SEALs Series:
A SEAL at Heart (Book 1)
Once a SEAL (Book 2)
A SEAL Forever (Book 3)
Praise for A SEAL at Heart:
"A beautiful story of life, loss, and love." -New York Times bestselling author Suzanne Brockmann
"The connection between Jack and Laurie is instantaneous and combustible." -Publishers' Weekly
"You will not find a better storyteller with such feeling for the hearts of our military warriors." -Coffee Time Romance
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
If you're not gonna pull the trigger, don't point the gun. —James Baker
Operation Sundial, at an undisclosed location deep in the jungle
Blood dripped down his forehead and blurred his vision. Wiping it away, Jack forced his eyes to focus. He squinted, but it was useless.
The helicopter downwash whirled mud and dirt into the air faster than he could blink, and the clouds of grit stuck to his face. Nothing shielded him from the suffocating pelting of the brownout, making him blind as hell without his protective glasses.
Gathering the five-foot-ten-inch form of his swim buddy Don into his arms, he duckwalked as low as he could, heading toward the belly of the helicopter. Luckily the rain had stopped momentarily as the rotor blades cut the air, but it made the moment more surreal.
Whup, whup, whup...
He blew air out of his mouth. His nostrils were caked with grime, but he could still smell the blood seeping from the bandages he'd fastened around Don's chest. He squeezed his swim buddy tightly, trying to keep pressure on the wound.
A stray bullet ricocheted, displacing the air near his face. Where the hell did that shot come from? The helicopter was so goddamned loud.
The door of the copter jerked open; the blessed haven was dead ahead. The two door gunners laid down suppressor fire, but it was short-lived aid as enemy bullets took them down. They fell back just within the side door of the helo.
"God help us," Jack muttered under his breath as he finally reached the opening. The men in front of him were practically cut in two by the rounds. There wasn't time to think about them or their families now. With a mighty heave, he lifted his buddy onto the helicopter floor and scrambled in after him.
Coughing the crap out of his lungs, he dragged Don over to the far wall, away from the doorway, and stood up to scan the interior. It took him a minute to take in the carnage. He tried to wipe the image from his eyes as his mind put the gory pieces together. The pilots were shredded. Damn.
Making his way to the cockpit, he could see that the glass dome had been compromised and the entire enclosure looked pretty chewed up. "Please let this thing fly." The blades were still turning, so that was a good sign, and neither the cyclic nor collective were hit. But would it be enough to get them out of this hellhole?
He touched his throat to activate the comm mike. It didn't respond. He spoke softly, trying again, "Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot." What the fuck!
Where the hell is everyone?
The rain was starting again, angling into the copter and hitting his face.
Another series of blinding flashes-hard to tell if it was lightning or shots-from outside, but it forced him to move Don, to stash him deeper in the belly of the copter, and momentarily duck for cover.
Pwing! The bullet bounced off metal.
He was pretty sure it was only a small number of insurgents and one sniper firing wildly. Random shots in the dark. Problem was, even a broken clock was right twice a day, and the dead airmen were horrific evidence of the sniper's success.
A volley of shots. A few rebels cross-fired at one another, sending shouts of anger into the air. Go to it. Maybe you'll hit each other.
The only good news was that if he couldn't see them, they couldn't target him directly either.
There was no point in sitting tight. He needed to find his Team. After securing Don and rigging a piece of equipment to hold pressure on his swim buddy's wound, Jack went back to the open door. A glimpse of rag-covered muddy boots to the right let him know that an enemy was approaching. Moving quickly into the disrupted cloud of crud, he positioned himself so his vantage point was optimal.
Two Tangos dressed in frayed pants held Russian 9mms at the ready. Instinctually, Jack withdrew his Sig Sauer, took a breath, and squeezed off several rounds. They dropped instantly.
He checked their pulses. Dead. Now, where were the others? Here, birdie, birdie, birdie...
Working his way quickly out of the cloud of dust, he knew he would be vulnerable, but this was his best option. He had to know what was going on. This mission had gone sideways long ago.
Coming up behind a rebel who was caught up in dislodging a jammed gun, Jack holstered his own weapon and, using bare hands, silently broke the enemy's neck. Slowly, he worked his way around the perimeter of the helo. For now, it was clear.
Lightning split the sky, bathing the area better than a floodlight. It was the vantage point he sought.
A noise caught his attention as a door from the factory flew open, banging against the siding. That was them-his Teammates-sprinting from the interior as flames engulfed the structure. They were coughing and several of them appeared to have minor injuries. Jack held his ground, preparing to lay down cover fire, if required. His eyes were desperately searching for a subversive threat, when an explosion lifted him from his feet and threw him to the ground.
Thrown backward from the blast, the back of his head smacked something hard. Black spots danced in front of his eyes and bile scored the back of his throat. Swallowing the harsh rush of acid, he lifted his hand-gun gripped tightly in his fingers-trying to focus on the enemy that should have been coming over the large boulders a few feet in front of him.
Nothing. No one.
The smell of C-4, with its acrid ether odor, filled his nostrils even as thunder shook the sky and rain barreled down.
A sharp burning sensation seared the back of his skull, going from ten on the pain scale to numb within seconds. Another wave of nausea made his stomach roll and quake as he deliberately forced his way to his knees and then his feet.
The clock is ticking. Fighting the dark spots, he stood wavering for a few seconds before his sight returned to normal and he could search for them... The enemy. His buddies. Or any signs of life.
His eyes widened.
Giant pieces of seared, cloth-covered flesh were scattered over the ground. It didn't compute at first. Those were his buddies, Teammates from SEAL Team ONE, Platoon 1-Alfa, and only a few of them were moving.
Jack was instantly in motion. Grabbing the body closest to him, he felt for a pulse. The steady thump sent a surge of adrenaline through his system. He gathered the man to his chest, trying to keep his hands on his buddy as he dragged him toward the helicopter. The path was wet with blood and mud, and repeating the task several times, he slipped in the sludge as he loaded the bodies closest to him on board.
Only one Teammate, Gerry Knotts, was left and remained exposed. Jack would be a moving target-a perfect bull's-eye-for the enemy's shoot-'em-up game if he attempted it.
Eyes sought his. His Teammate was alive and signaling him. Jack understood and moved to a rock as far from Knotts as possible. Lifting his 9mm, Jack fired several shots. Bullets peppered around the rock as he quickly belly-crawled back to his original position.
Knotts fired several shots, nailing the Tangos.
Moving up into a dead run, Jack reached Gerry's side and then helped him stand. Together they rushed into the cloud of dirt and grunge, going for the helo.
They left long streaks of mud along the deck as they rolled inside.
Jack checked...seven men loaded, and he was lucky number eight. His life meant nothing without them.
Finally able to close and secure the door, Jack shoved debris aside until it was easier to move around the cockpit. Quickly moving the pilot's body to properly reach the controls, he straddled the chair and checked the instrument panel.
He held his breath, watching the RPM gauges of the turbine and rotor. The helo hovered. The controls required constant small changes to keep the bird in the air. Sweat dripped off his face. "Come on, baby. That's it! Into the storm.
"Now, let's get the hell out of here." As the helo responded, he sighed with relief. He'd only piloted helicopters a couple of times-all his experience was in fixed-wing aircraft-and he was hoping his brief lessons would be enough to get them back to the rendezvous point.
He had to hand it to her-this bird flew, even all shot up. Just as he was beginning to feel okay about the flight, he noticed black spots at the edge of his vision. With the back of his thumb, he rubbed one eye. Nothing prepared him for his sight going, leaving only one eye functioning.
He squinted at the instruments. The radio was blown and there was no luxury of an autopilot. Keeping a helo in the air was a constant struggle against the torque, the wind, and the pilot's ability. "Come on, Jack. Concentrate!"
Wind buffeted his face courtesy of the bullet-shattered windshield. The smell of ozone was heavy and ripe. He hoped the lightning was over.
Wetness dripped down the back of his neck. He wiped a hand against the warmth, and it came away with fresh blood. His.
Fuck, fuck, fuck!
Looking over his shoulder, he saw the bodies of his Teammates. He didn't know if they were alive or dead. But he could never let them down. He'd get them all to safety-make them secure-even if it was the last thing he ever did.
No other place on the planet was like McP's Pub in October-the seagulls circling and crying overhead, and the women just as raucous. He took a long pull on his beer.
"Welcome home, Jack," said Betsy. The friendly blond waitress with a wide, pearly white smile and a set of 44Ds grinned knowingly at him as she walked by. Hers was the kind of walk that had her hips swinging, and her tight apron full of change played a musical medley to the movement of her sexy saunter.
Some women can move like their hips are on springs.
For those around him-the suntan worshippers-almost any hot spot on the planet would probably suffice. But for Jack, this tiny island town between Glorietta Bay and the Pacific Ocean was uniquely qualified to be his home. Having been assigned to SEAL Team ONE and with an apartment only ten blocks away from the Amphib base, Jack thought this was a snapshot of perfection.
He scratched at the gooey tape mark behind his ear. The bandage around his head was gone and he was no longer hooked to IVs or being pumped full of fluids and painkillers, but he wished there were an antibiotic or balm for the one place he hurt the most, his soul.
At Balboa Naval Hospital, the medical staff had told him his number one job was to relax until he was fully healed and had his memory back. There were too many holes, too many memories missing from the last Op. The worst part was... his best friend was dead.
Jack couldn't reconcile it and didn't know how to fix the situation.
The rub was... if he didn't take care of himself, fix the recollection issue, he'd be stuck with the label "acute psychological suppression"-forever. That didn't bode well for him.
Do the familiar. Take it easy. Those were the orders from the medical staff.
With those directions rattling around his brain, it meant finding a place to unwind where he could feel the sun's raw heat on his skin, taste the tang of salt on his lips, and have a cold brew sweating in his hand as he savored each sip. Well, maybe not the alcohol part, but everyone had a vice and his was simple: fresh air, exercise, and a bit of the barley.
Ah, beer! The first sip was always sweetest.
At first, being back in Coronado had been difficult. The layers of emotion had punched him in the gut practically every few minutes. Drink in hand, his mind had started to go numb, turn off, and he went whole hog for the break. McP's was the perfect place to just... be. Where men and women interacted, doing a dance as primal and ancient as time itself to attract each other. As the action unfolded in front of him, he saw a few younger brethren had scored, snapping up the curvy and very willing quarry to set off for more serious play somewhere else. Nature's fundamental dance never ceased to intrigue him, though he wasn't looking.
Listening to the slap of the waitresses' tennis shoes against the slate wasn't quite as sexy as the click of a stiletto, but he couldn't complain. Most of them were paragons, Madonnas-look but don't touch-because they were SEAL wives or friends.
A loaded hamburger with a crisp green salad was placed in front of him. Steam rose from the burger and his nostrils flared. Of course, this tasty morsel he would be willing to sink his teeth into anytime.
"Just the way you like it, and on the house," said Jules with a wink, another one of McP's waitressing angels. "‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure-dome decree...'"
"‘Where Alph, the sacred river, ran through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea...'" The reference from "Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream," by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was a favorite of his and McP's was a home of sorts, his own pleasure-dome. A framed copy of the eighteenth-century poem sat on his nightstand, a birthday gift from Jules and all of the waitstaff at McP's. Even now he could recite each and every line verbatim. His own life was like that poem, a journey, and very much unfinished. He wanted that chance... to explore.
"Thanks, Jules." Jack grinned, unusually grateful for the human connection. He shifted uncomfortably on the chair. Maybe the incident overseas had shaken him more than he realized. "Hey, how did you know exactly what I wanted?"
Her smile was sweet. "The same way I've known for years that you'd rather drink your calories than eat them. Enjoy lunch, Jack. You're looking skinny." She leaned down and kissed him gently on the cheek.
"Thanks." Part of him wanted to add a sentimental comment about her being a sweetheart or maybe ask about her husband, who was in Team FIVE and probably deployed, but being sappy wasn't his thing. Life was easier with the walls up.
"Don't forget to eat your vegetables." She gave him a big smile before she went back to attending her other customers. Did she know how her aura of bubbling beauty affected men? Probably not.
Releasing the grip on his beer bottle, he placed it on the table and then attacked the salad. It was significantly better than hospital food and MREs. Hooking his fork into the meat, he pulled it out from between the buns. As a SEAL, he was always in training, and he would rather carbo-load with a brew and burn it off running. He wrapped the burger in lettuce and took a bite. The meat was savory and juicy, filling him with welcome satisfaction.
News droned in the background until someone had the good sense to flip on a ball game. There was something peaceful about that... as if it were Saturday and he was a kid again.
Methodically, he ate until the burger and salad were gone. The french fries sat untouched next to the bun halves and a very sad-looking pickle. He lifted his brew, and his lips drew tight, pulling the cold liquid down his throat.
He'd been in the Teams for eight years, and being a SEAL was the basic foundation of his soul. Another enlisted man might state that the military was important, but to Jack it was everything. If he couldn't deploy anymore... well, the concept was too harsh to even contemplate.
His eyes searched, looking for a distraction from his musings. For several seconds his gaze stopped on a large, agile man until his inner gauge dismissed him as a nonthreat. Ever vigilant, there was always a part of him searching for trouble and ready to respond.
At the next table, a dog happily lapped water from his complimentary "pup" bowl. A man in his fifties, probably the owner or an overindulgent dog walker, dropped parts of a hamburger into the water and the dog went crazy-busily fishing pieces out and then chomping, chewing, and swallowing the tasty morsels down as if no one had ever fed him.
Life must be so much easier as a dog. Someone is there to make the meals, walk side-by-side, play, and run. Was that what he wanted? Did he want someone feminine, curvy, and sweet to be there, too?
He'd be better off with a dog. With his schedule he didn't know if either was a realistic wish. His ideal state was being deployed, which didn't leave much time for a home life.
Gripping the cold bottle of beer like a lifeline, he lifted it to his mouth and drank deeply. God, that tastes good! And it's predictable. Every swallow is the same.
Off to the side, he could hear the faint buzz of cars and trucks as they sped down Orange Avenue, confirming that everything was in sync here, normal. That was reassuring to a degree, witnessing the commonplace; this is what "everyday" was supposed to resemble. Calm. Steady. Regular.
Why isn't that me? His mind and body couldn't slow down. Closing his eyes, he forced himself to let this familiar place and a beer soothe him. At least he hoped it would. McP's was a special home for his kind. Owned by one of his brethren, there was Navy SEAL memorabilia on the walls, a trident on the T-shirts, and oftentimes the bar would fill with sightseers and froghogs-women who hopped from frog to frog. In the Underwater Demolition Team, or UDT-the precursor to the SEAL Team-these Navy sailors were called frogmen. Later on, the name was changed to better show their areas of operation: SEAL-SEa Air Land-but the age-old name for the women who pursued them never got updated.
Half his Teammates were in committed relationships, and the rest dicked around almost constantly. Lately, his celibacy walk had turned into a preference. It had begun as a way to concentrate on work, and now...
Maybe he just didn't have what it took-a crap tolerance-to be in a relationship.
The back of his head exploded with a sudden and sharp pain. His hand lifted automatically, rubbing over the healing wound and stubbly blond hair.
"Red Jack!" His eyes whipped open, and for a second, he could have sworn that he'd heard Don. That was impossible. His swim buddy was dead, and there was nothing that could bring him back.
Pain squeezed his neck. His vision blurred and for a moment an image of his friend flashed before his eyes.
The rush of emotions for his swim buddy was the kind of tidal wave that could take out a city, and equally as devastating as it crashed over him again and again. He'd have done anything to have Petty Officer Second Class Donald Dennis Kanoa Donnelly alive and well. Sorrow punched his heart, but he'd never show it, especially not in public.
His phone vibrated. Jack had the cell in his hand before he remembered he was supposed to be on vacation-no one would be calling him for sudden deployment.
Punching a button, he accessed the email. Appointments had been scheduled for him: group therapy and individual sessions. Can't this Frankenstein wannabe leave me alone? I don't need a doctor.
He just needed to keep it together long enough to go operational again. Being on medical leave was like swallowing two-inch nails whole: it hurt the entire way down and out. He had way too much time on his hands to think. He needed action.
"Petty Officer First Class John Matthew Roaker."
His name was a command that had Jack sitting up straight in his chair. Any other service would have a guy standing at attention before the rank and name had been completely spoken. Spec Ops was different, more laid-back.
"Taking a trip down memory lane?" commented a gruff man with salt-and-pepper hair and a long bushy mustache. His sideburns were like hairy caterpillars perched on the side of his face. The man took a step closer to Jack and grinned. A fat cigar was clamped between his lips and his voice had lost the hard edge and was warming progressively. "Shit, you look like a newbie jarhead, Jack! We're going to have to mess you up a bit! So you look like a fucking SEAL."
"Good to see you, Commander," replied Jack, already proffering his hand to greet his former BUD/S Instructor, now mentor. With a grin on his lips that spoke volumes of the man's capacity for jocularity, Commander Gich didn't appear to be the kind of guy who could teach you fifty different ways to kill with a knife.
His gaze connected with the Commander's. Jack took comfort in the stare. Emotion hung like a bad painting just behind his own eyeballs, but he pushed past the weight of it. "Sir, it's great to see you."
Jack stood and the men embraced, slapping hands on each other's backs in heavy smacks and then briskly separating. There was a tremendous sense of the familial. Jack needed that right now.
"You too!" said the Commander. "How's the brain? Is it still swelling? I can think of better things to make swell."
"Christ! They're not sure. You know docs. Though, I'm pretty sure the fracture's better." Jack reseated himself, eager to change the subject. "I was thinking about my first drink here, and then there was the Hell Week celebration, when you and I drank until the kitchen opened for the early birds' lunch the next morning." He could practically taste the stale alcohol. Bile threatened to rise, but he shoved it down. Yep, that memory was definitely intact! Why couldn't he have lost that day, instead of the events from the last Op? He needed those memories.
"No shit! You were so hungover from those shots that you puked your guts out in the back of my car." Gich signaled the waitress for a beer. "Still doesn't smell right. But it's easy to find Blue Betty in the dark." His grin could have lit up the darkest depths. "So, how's it going, Jack? What's with the shrink-wrap therapy? I may be retired, but I'm still in the loop."
Shaking his head, Jack said, "I don't know. It's been..." He searched his mind for the word, but he couldn't even find that. Who really wanted to know the inner workings of a SEAL? They might not like what they find in there, and then what? SEALs had more layers than an artichoke.
"Hard, complicated, and disillusioning to come back from a mission that's seriously goat-fucked. You're not the first, Roaker, and unfortunately, you won't be the last. Just don't become a poster boy, it's not your gig."
"Yeah, me a poster boy! Could you see me in Ronald McDonald hair?" cracked Jack without missing a beat. It felt good to have someone giving him shit. Everyone had been so "nice" to him lately that it creeped him out. "Sure I can pull off the look, but all those hands to shake, personal appearances, and then there goes your private life."
"Wiseass!" A shapely blond waitress who could easily be a modern-day Marilyn Monroe placed an icy beer in front of Gich. "Thanks, Betsy. I knew you'd remember how I liked it."
"Anything for you, Gich." She winked at him and headed back inside. The bar was pretty empty for a Tuesday afternoon, but it'd pick up tonight and be packed with military personnel on the hunt for hook-ups and single ladies on the quest for the golden ring. That was old hat for him, and he'd rather work out, clean his guns, anything...
"I can make a few recommendations. There are a couple of medical professionals who use unconventional methods. Alternative healing... it might help." Gich looked at him over the top of his beer as he drank. "The person I'm thinking of does acupressure. Did wonders for my knees and lower back."
"Doctors aren't my preference." Jack contemplated getting a pain pill out of his pocket, but he knew it'd be a dicey mix with the alcohol. He preferred to drink, so he left it in his pocket and took another sip.
"Roaker, you can talk to me," said Gich, drawing on his cigar and puffing out a long thin stream of smoke.
Jack sat silently, briefly weighing his thoughts before he shared them. "Six weeks ago when I left here, I was ready for the mission. Even though there were a couple strikes against it. First, Tucker kept getting changing Intel on the location and how it was laid out. Second, the resources seemed underkill for a plan of this magnitude, and whenever I brought it up, they told me to add as much as we needed. So I did, but it never felt like enough. Third, when we got there, nothing was as discussed; the place was a ghost town outside with only a few people inside. Either the information was terrible, or-"
"You were being set up. Seems unlikely, in the Teams," said Gich, softly leaning forward. "What happened next?"
Jack shook his head. "I don't know. I don't remember. I can see my feet hitting the dirt and watching everyone take position, and then... nothing."
Gich took the cigar from his mouth. "Did you see Don die?"
"I must have..." Pain ripped through his heart as he pushed hard to make it go away. "But I don't remember any of it. What the hell am I supposed to do? I'm beached like a whale until I can remember, and it's ripping me apart to be this still. I need help."
"You need to get out, have some fun. Don't think. Just react and let go of everything." Gich surveyed him with a critical eye before turning his gaze back to watch the shapely blond go through her routine of serving drinks and taking orders. "The watched pot never boils, or in our case, the undrunk beer only gets warm and flat."
Jack gave a half smile. "I'm not really in the mood for socializing."
"Come on, you'd have to be dead not to appreciate that," Gich said, motioning toward the waitress.
He had to admit the bending and reaching of the busty waitress was rather compelling, but he had more important stuff on his mind and couldn't even consider flirting right now. Shifting in his chair, he found a more comfortable position and said, "What I want to know is how do I... get my warrior mentality back?"
Those words captured Gich's attention as his eyes locked on Jack's. The lesson of finding his equilibrium and balance had been the hardest trick for Jack to learn. Gich had worked doubly hard with him on that one. They'd developed all sorts of techniques to help him out, but right now, Jack felt like his skin was crawling off his body and he had to nail himself to a chair to keep still. Did other SEALs feel like an alien in a human body?
With a deliberate and slow movement, Gich brought his hand up and rested it gently on Jack's arm. But no matter how slowly he'd moved, Jack still flinched and had an urge to pull away. Forcing himself to be still took some concentration.
"Give it time. PTSD happens. Ride it out." Gich leaned forward and whispered, "And while you're waiting, go get your whiskers wet and your dick licked. You're a fucking hero; you should take advantage of it." He pulled back his hand, grabbed the neck of his beer, and chugged it down. When it was empty, he waved it in the air. "Tonight, Dick's Last Resort. There are all sorts of SEAL fans there. I'm sure the Naval Special Warfare fund-raiser crowd would benefit from laying eyeballs on you, too. Why not go get your pick of the, uh, ladies? Tour some sweet spots and give your brain some time off."
The idea of being surrounded by that many people made Jack's stomach clench, but he knew Gich was right. He had to get back out there. Going from the Op to the hospital, and now home, had not afforded him the opportunity to decompress, let alone figure out how to socialize with anyone of the fairer sex.
Maybe getting hot and heavy would help. He could love 'em and leave 'em as easily as the rest of them, though it seriously had been a while. Love just wasn't a priority the majority of the time, though sex was almost always welcome.
When Don had been alive-God, those words stuck in his throat-it had been easier to go out for a night on the town. His buddy, though married, was a perfect wingman. He would wrangle the ladies in Jack's direction and it was a sure thing that his pocket would have a few phone numbers. Sometimes, he'd even take someone for a spin on the town.
Shit! When the fuck would he feel like himself again?
"Promise me you'll go tonight." Gich was studying him again. A man's word was a bond that was never broken in the SEAL community. Might as well have said, "Put your balls on the table, and if you don't do as I say, I'll slice 'em off and pocket 'em."
Gich would badger him until he agreed, and the Commander ten times out of ten knew best. He'd give it a try. What could it hurt? It couldn't be any worse than spending weeks in a hospital bed.
"Yeah," said Jack. "I'll go." Though he knew he'd probably not enjoy it.
The back of Jack's head squeezed tight again, reminding him that the head injury was still an issue. But as the Commander was fond of saying, "Where the body goes, the mind follows." Maybe a little interaction-some puss and hoots-would go a long way toward finding some kind of relief or momentary happiness.
The beat-up yellow Jeep slid into an empty parking spot only a few blocks from the Naval Special Warfare fund-raiser. Jack didn't bother securing the torn soft top. There was nothing of value inside, not even a radio. Though he did shove the Bluetooth speaker under the seat.
The last vestiges of light were slipping from the sky as the ripe smell of seasoned meat filled the air. He was tempted to ditch the NSW event and go to the Strip Club for a steak.
A memory flashed through his mind of grilling T-bones to perfection with Don, his wife, and their five-year-old daughter. God, it was barely two months ago! They'd feasted and Sheila had announced she was pregnant at the meal. A game ensued of toasting her all evening long until she drove the lot of them home.
"Shit!" Jack swallowed hard and forced the vivid moment from his mind. Dwelling on the past, especially the loss of his swim buddy, was not helping. He knew he needed to deal with his friend's death, but until he knew what had happened on that mission, he didn't know how. Maybe once he remembered, he'd finally be able to look Sheila in the eye.
Rubbing his hand over his head, he lingered on the scar. If his buddy's death was his fault, he'd own it. If someone else were responsible for Don's death, he would bring justice.
Without that missing bit of knowledge though, he was in limbo.
Let it go. For at least one night, Jack, you need to be someone else. Take a break from yourself. He nodded his head, deciding his gut was providing good advice.
Pointing his feet in the direction of Dick's Last Resort, he set off. The slap of his feet against the pavement felt good. Anything physical seemed to be healing. This morning he'd run six miles and swum for an hour. His body had felt somewhat spent, but his mind was still spinning on the hamster wheel.
"Hey, Jack, good to see ya!" Hank Franks, a Master Chief in SEAL Team THREE, slapped his back and then enthusiastically shook his hand. His arm felt like a pump trying to pull up water from a rusted pipe. "Are you on your way to Dick's? Have you met Dan McCullum, our new weapons specialist?"
Jack nodded and shook Dan's proffered palm. "Good to see you again, Dan. Been a while."
"Yeah," said Dan warmly. Pointing to his head, he asked, "How's the noggin? I heard there was some action."
"Healing." Jack withdrew his palm and looked forward. He didn't want to say anything about the Op.
Franks wrapped an arm possessively around the woman walking next to him. Her heels clicked a swift staccato on the sidewalk, keeping time with their pace. "Hey, have you met my wife?"
The lady beside the Master Chief smiled shyly. "I'm Rita. Happy to meet you, Jack." The emerald dress hugged her body as if she were a pinup girl, but it was the humor and happiness in her eyes when she looked at her husband and then switched that intense gaze to Jack that held him captive for a few seconds. He caught the residual affects of her joy and the strength was Grade A.
"Nice to meet you, too," he replied, relieved that he hadn't blurted out some silly comment about Hank's wife having a nice rack or the fact they looked good together. His guess was that Hank had already measured those assets for himself. Giving them all a smile and a nod, he slowed his pace and let them surge ahead.
Social graces weren't his thing. He hadn't been to Dick's Last Resort in years, but his recollection was that the food was tasty and the beer was ample. That had to be enough to work for him tonight.
After making a show of eyeballing his phone, he pocketed it. Then he looked in the windows of several nearby stores. Stop stalling!
He forced himself to walk the extra twenty feet, flashed his military ID, and went inside. The din of voices and music was momentarily deafening. A passing waitress pushed a beer into his empty hand. He gripped it gratefully.
His instincts took charge, taking him to an optimal vantage point, one that afforded him an overview of the comings and goings of the bar. Nothing could halt either that habit or the training, except a conscious decision to set his back to the door. When that happened, he'd have to trust the expressions of the people around him to alert him to danger. It was a hard-earned skill to be able to utilize ordinary passersby as mirrors.
As he drank, he watched a couple argue. The wife was seriously pissed. Jack was glad he wasn't in that guy's shoes. At another table, a group of ladies were making plans for later. Then there was the small group of retired military men lined up on bar stools, chatting about the good ole days, wearing jackets that read Old Frogs and SEALs. Across the room near the bar, several wives gathered together, laughing and pointing as they discussed the auction items and sipped delightedly on mixed drinks. Jack smiled as their conversation turned a bit more racy. He was glad he could read lips.
An alarm beeped on his wristwatch. Time to take an antianxiety pill. Anger lanced through him. What was he, some hundred-year-old man who had to take his medication? He would not die without that little pill, and there was no way he'd let himself get in a situation where he was addicted to something... anything or anyone. Unwilling to spend even another minute contemplating it, he stepped toward the closest trash can and dropped the bottle inside. Relief swept through him. He knew he could do better than those "hunt and peck" doctors who were actually using the process of elimination to guess at courses of action. Besides that, he didn't want to pollute his body with crap.
Beer was his only vice. Basically, it was his carbohydrates-liquid bread.
Ah! He swallowed down the rest of the cold brew.
Another body pushed into his, and suddenly the crowd, the noise, and the smell-everything-was too much. It was overwhelming. And that was his cue to go.
He placed the empty bottle on a passing waitress's tray and headed for the door. He'd done his duty. He came, he drank, and now he was leaving.
The door he had selected as his escape hatch opened before him and a gorgeous brunette stepped through, wearing spikes and a black dress with a very short skirt. Her skin glowed as if she'd just come in from the sun, and she was slightly out of breath. A large basket filled with goodies that she balanced on one hand wavered and then tipped.
In one motion, he was by her side, catching the basket before it reached the floor.
"My hero," she said. "Is this a side job or do you do it professionally?"
A grin split across his face; he knew it must look pretty goofy, but he couldn't stop it. "Which one do I win brownie points for?"
"Depends..." She smiled, and her eyes sparkled like diamonds in a darkened cave. "I'm Laurie Smith." She held out a now-empty hand.
He shifted the basket to one side and reached forward to take it.
An abrupt woman wearing a badge that read "Salia Sedgwick, I am the Queen! Don't make me fetch my 9mm!" interrupted him before their hands could connect. This rude lady was actually standing between them. "Laurie Smith! You're late. Give me that basket. This was supposed to be here two hours ago. How am I supposed to do my job when other people aren't doing theirs?"
Jack inserted himself into the conversation. "Ah, Ms. Sedgwick, I'm sure she has a good excuse, or does Ms. Smith need a note from her mother?"
The woman frowned at him. "Well, I never!"
"Never what?" he asked innocently.
Laurie did a lousy job hiding her smile behind pursed lips.
As the organizer snatched the basket and hurried away, Laurie's laughter burst out. "Thank goodness, she left. I almost laughed in her face." She touched his arm. "Thank you. Salia Sedgwick is a handful..."
"A handful of what? Pudding? Meanness? Squishy resentment?"
"All of the above," she said, presenting her hand again. There was something light about her, and as he leaned forward, he could smell a hint of lilacs, as if she'd been rubbing the silky petals on her skin and hair.
This time, his hand connected with hers. As his palm engulfed her tiny fingers, a small bolt of electricity raced up his arm. Perhaps he could stay at this event for a little while longer.
"Hooyah! Hooyah! Hooyah!" The sound of the crowd grew louder, chanting as glasses were raised. The noise grew until his ears rang, yet it didn't stop him from trying to speak over it.
"My name is Jack."
What People are Saying About This
"The connection between Jack and Laurie is instantaneous and combustible" - Publishers Weekly
"I look forward to see what Anne has in-store." - Urban Girl Reader
"SEAL at Heart is an interesting read." - Brazen Reads
"The action sequences were very detailed and exciting and the concept behind the book was very interesting. " - LeAnn's Book Reviews
"Anne Elizabeth is a romantic writing force to be contended with and read by every reader with passion in their heart. The story that is woven shows the balancing act those in the military must go through to have and keep love. Bravo!
" - The Reading Reviewer
""A SEAL at Heart" is an exciting and poignant read that gives insight into the dangerous and stressful life of a SEAL even as it shows the magnitude of the sacrifices and commitment of these amazing heroes. TOP PICK" - Night Owl Reviews
"This book absolutely captivated me. " - Minding Spot