Finding an amnesiac bride stranded in a blizzard wasn't how a navy SEAL pictured his homecoming
Navy SEAL Cal Hollister is stunned when the white flag he sees flapping in a snowstorm turns out to be a veil attached to a beautiful woman. Unconscious and dressed only in a bridal gown, Cal calls her Stormy and carries her to safety. But it isn't long before trouble finds the mysterious bride, and trying to discover her identity puts a target on her back. Using every resource at his disposal, Cal uncovers a sinister plot involving terrorists, a forced marriageand that who Stormy really is might get them both killed.
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About the Author
Beverly Long"s writing career has spanned more than two decades and twenty novels. She writes romantic suspense with sexy heroes and smart heroines. She can often be found with her laptop in a coffee shop with a cafe au lait and anythiing made with dark chocolate by her side.
Read an Excerpt
Cal Hollister rarely let anything stop him. And that included the weather. But when the freezing rain in the upper plains had turned to snow, then more snow, making the I-70 corridor a real mess, even he'd had to admit it was time to take a break.
Now, an hour east of Kansas City, Missouri, he'd filled up both his gas tank and his belly. He sat back in the tattered booth of Dawson's Diner and watched the television that was mounted in the corner of the truck stop. It was on mute and the words flashed across the screen. Early winter storm paralyzes Midwest.
Cal stopped reading, just as he'd turned off the radio in his rental car earlier. It was all they were talking about. The storm, the storm, the storm.
Missouri rarely got heavy snow and to get it in November was real news. He didn't care. He wasn't going to let a little ice and snow stop him.
He was going home. Back to Ravesville. The idea had taken root after Cal had talked to his brother last month and learned that Chase was getting the old house they'd inherited from their mother ready to sell.
Chase hadn't asked for help. He never did. Especially not from Cal. But it was time for that to change. Cal had finished his assignment and put plans in motion to get back to the States. It had taken a month but finally, he was a mere hundred miles northwest of his destination, more than three weeks early for Thanksgiving dinner.
"All finished?" the waitress asked as she passed the booth.
"That was amazing," Cal said. The woman had encouraged him to get the daily special, the roast pork, especially if he was pressed for time. He didn't have a schedule but he'd gone along with the suggestion.
She smiled. "I know. People are always surprised. They don't expect a place like this to have a chef. Pietro worked for years at Moldaire College in a highend restaurant in their student union. He's always talking about how he used to cater all the important events at the college, even the private parties that the president of the college hosted." She picked up the dirty dishes. "Can I get you anything else? Maybe a piece of apple pie?"
"I'm stuffed but because I suspect it will be every bit as good as that roast pork, I'll take it to go."
"Good choice," she said. She walked over to the pie case, opened the door, slid a piece into a cardboard box, and brought it and a plastic fork back to the table.
Cal pulled out a twenty. "Keep the change, Lena," he said, looking at her name tag. She looked tired. Hell of a job slinging hash.
But at least she had a job.
Which was more than Cal had at the moment.
No job. No expectations to live up to. No one else's timetable to adhere to. It was a heady feeling for a man who'd spent eight years in Uncle Sam's employ as a Navy SEAL and the past six months as a contractor doing much the same kind of work at a considerably higher rate of pay.
"What are they saying about the roads?" he asked. He'd seen Lena chatting with two state police officers at the counter.
"It's bad and supposed to get a whole lot worse. Interstate is still open but there's lots of spinouts and cars in the ditch."
About what he'd expected. First bad storm always resulted in a bunch of fender benders as people relearned their winter maththat speed plus following too close equaled crap-on-a-stick.
He scooted to the end of the booth, stood up and stretched. "Well, wish me luck," he said.
She shook her head. "You're like all the other crazies around here today. There was a heck of a commotion in the parking lot right before you came in. People running around, slamming doors and carrying on. They cleared out fast when my friends at the counter, who never miss an opportunity for apple pie, pulled their squad cars into the lot. Probably couldn't wait to get out on the road and kill themselves."
That was a happy thought. He was grateful he'd missed the excitement. He'd had plenty recently. It had been less than two weeks ago that he'd barely missed getting up close and personal with enemy fire.
"Anyway, for what it's worth," she added, "there's a hotel about five miles east. They might still have a room."
He winked at her and smiled. Then he pulled his coat collar up and walked out the door. The cold wind hit him hard.
Crazy. Maybe. But Lena had no idea the number of truly outrageous things he'd done. And usually in the name of protecting national security or preserving American interests.
The hotel might have been a good option if he was continuing on the Interstate. He would be turning off before that, for the final leg of his journey. The two-lane highway that would take him into Ravesville would likely be in worse shape than the Interstate but he had another hour of daylight left and he intended to make good use of that.
If everything went well, he'd be at the house in a couple hours. He thought about calling ahead but disregarded the idea. While Chase would intuitively know that the weather was a mere inconvenience to any former Navy SEAL, he still would worry.
Chase had always taken his big-brother role seriously. They were going to finally have a talk about that. The conversation Cal had been running from for years.
It took Cal ten minutes to brush the snow off his SUV. When he was finally back inside his rented Escalade, it was nice and warm. He pulled out of the parking lot.
The plows had gone through at some point but another couple inches had fallen after that. But he settled in, going a brisk thirty-five miles per hour. Two miles east, he took the exit, realized he'd been right that the secondary roads were in worse shape. It was somewhat reassuring to see wide tracks in the fresh snow. Somebody driving a big truck had made the same turn within the past ten minutes.
The wind was really whipping up the snow. It wasn't white-out conditions but damn close. Which was why he thought he was seeing things.
He checked his rearview mirror, didn't see any other cars and risked pulling over to the side. He got out, leaving his vehicle running.
Three feet off the road, something had hit the fresh snow, denting its whipped perfection. The object had rolled several more feet before stopping, forward progression halted by a study wooden fence that was likely there to keep cattle in.
He could hardly believe his eyes. There was a woman in a bridal gown and nothing else, no coat, no shoes, just a long veil, which was what had caught his attention. It was flapping in the breeze like a wayward flag.
She was on her side, turned away from him.
He figured she had to be dead.
She was so cold. Had never been so cold. And her head hurt. But she had to keep going. Had to get up. Get away.
She forced herself to move and heard a man swear. Suddenly there were hands on her. She had to fight.
No. No. She could not go back.
Felt a hand on her neck. She swung an arm, a leg. Knocked into something.
"Hey," he said. He pulled on her shoulder, flipping her to her back.
It hurt to open her eyes. The man was big and dark and he loomed over her.
She screamed and knew that no one was going to hear her. No one was going to help her. Just like before.
"How the hell did you get here?" he asked. But he didn't seem inclined to wait for an answer. She felt strong arms, one under her neck, the other under her knees, and she was swung up into the air.
He held her close, pulled tight against his coat. And he started walking.
She tried to struggle, to force him to loosen his grip. But it was as if his arms were bands of iron. And her arms and legs felt heavy, useless.
She was dying. She knew it.
She closed her eyes and waited for it.
She felt him shift her weight. Suddenly, she was standing. She needed to run. Go. Now.
Took one step. Saw the vehicle. Saw the door that he'd just opened. "Get in," he said.
When she didn't move, he scooped her up again and deposited her into the warm, the heavenly warm, SUV. He shut the door. Within seconds he was climbing into the driver's side.
He was big and snow-covered and for one crazy minute, she could only think of the Abominable Snowman. But then he was moving, reaching a long arm into the backseat. She heard the sound of a zipper.
He had a big gray T-shirt in his hand. Suddenly, he was rubbing her face, her arms, brushing snow off. It was piling up on the floor, by her feet. He flipped the heater on high and more of the delicious heat poured from the vents.
His hands stilled suddenly. She looked down. He was staring at her left wrist. Saw his gaze move swiftly to her right arm. She looked, too. They matched. Both wrists sported a wide reddish band of skin.
And she remembered pulling, pulling with all her might. And being so angry.
"What happened here?" he asked, his words sharp.
She didn't answer. Just stared at him.
He hesitated, then reached into the backseat again. Pulled out another T-shirt, this one white and long-sleeved, and some gray sweatpants. "We've got to get you out of that wet dress," he said.
She looked down. Saw what she was wearing and felt her heart start to race in her cold body.
How had this happened?
"Are you injured?" he asked.
Huh? He had evidently easily gotten past that she was wearing a wedding gown but she was having trouble moving on.
A wedding gown. She lifted her hand, touched the satin fabric, noting, rather dispassionately, that it was dirty in several places. Her hand started to tremble.
The man reached his own hand out, caught her fingers. "You're shaking," he said.
"Cold," she said. She had been. For sure. But that wasn't why she was shaking. Her body felt odd. As if she was on edge, just this close to spiraling out of control. At the same time, she felt nauseous, as if maybe she'd drunk too much and gotten too little sleep.
She turned her head to look at him. To try to offer up some sort of explanation.
"You're bleeding," he said, his cadence quick. "I didn't see that earlier." He leaned toward her and, with surprisingly gentle hands, prodded the right side of her head, just above her ear, with the tips of his fingers. She heard him hiss.
"You've got a hell of a knot here," he said. "But just a small slice in the skin. It's already stopped bleeding."
She reached up. Their hands connected and she could feel his barely contained energy. His skin was warm. Vibrant.
He pulled his hand away. She continued to press and realized there was something on her head. A veil. Pinned tight into her hair.
She started yanking bobby pins and tossing them onto the floor. One bounced off the dash. She pulled and pulled. When the veil was loose, she ripped it off her head.
The man was staring at her, his hazel eyes assessing.
She reached up, pulled down the visor and stared into the mirror. Terror seized her, making her want to throw up.
Think. You need to think.
But it was as if all coherent thoughts had deserted her.
She started to shake. Badly. Not just her fingers or her hands. Her whole body.
And the man moved suddenly. Using both hands, he pulled the dry T-shirt over her head, stuffed both arms in. Pushed her forward in the seat, so that he could reach around her back. She felt him release the zipper of the dress. Felt him unclasp her bra.
Then he was pulling down her dress, her strapless bra, and lowering the T-shirt at the same time, preserving her modesty. His touch was quick, impersonal, but she felt the intimacy of it. She shook his hands off.
If she didn't do this, he would.
She pulled the T-shirt down. It came to her thighs. Then she yanked on the wet, heavy wedding dress. When she had it off, she handed it to him. He tossed it into the backseat. She pulled on the sweatpants, cinching the tie strings as tight as she could. When he handed her thick white socks, she put those on, too. She was drowning in his clothes but it felt absolutely wonderful to be warm and dry.
"I'm not sure where the nearest hospital is," he said, "but I think our safest bet is to head back to the Interstate."
Hospital? She grabbed his arm. "No."
He stared at her. "What the hell is going on here?"
She had no idea. All she knew was that she couldn't go to a hospital. Couldn't go anywhere.
They would find her.
"What's your name?" he asked.
She didn't answer. Couldn't trust this man with the truth.
"What's your name?" he asked again. "Mary. Mary Smith."
He narrowed his eyes at her. "I don't think so." She said nothing.
"How about I just call you " He paused. Then looked forward, into the blowing snow. "Stormy," he finished. "That'll do."
"What's your name?" she asked quickly, desperately trying to shift his focus.
He seemed to hesitate for just a moment. "Cal. Cal Hollister." He put the car in gear, pulled back onto the highway and started driving.
"Where are we going?"
He didn't answer her.
He was taking her to the hospital. She just knew it. She had to get away. She reached for the door latch.
He was faster, stretching his arm across her body, blocking her hand. "Please. I would like to help you.
I just came from a diner where there were two cops. I think they may be your best bet."
The police. Again, she could feel her heart start to race. Why? She searched her mind, her terrifyingly empty mind, and tried to reason it out. Was she in trouble with the police? Was she running from the police?
"I just need a place to stay. To get some sleep," she said. "Can you just drop me off at a hotel?"
He waved his hand in a semicircle. "We're sort of in the middle of nowhere."
She could see that. Everywhere she looked there was snow. And it was getting dark.
"Will you drive me as far as the nearest town?" she asked. "I'll pay you. I promise. I mean, I don't have any money with me, but I'll send it. Just give me your address."
He stared at her, his eyes showing absolutely nothing. Was he about to kick her out of his car, thinking that she was going to be more trouble than she was worth?
"I won't be any inconvenience," she promised.
"There have to be people looking for you, worried about you. At the risk of stating the obvious, I think today might have been a big day for you."
Had she gotten married today?
She didn't think so. She'd know that. Deep down she would know. Right?
"I'll contact people once I get to the hotel," she said.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a cell phone. Handed it to her.
Her arm felt as if it weighed eighty pounds when she reached to take it. Her fingers brushed against his.