Jesse Warrick used to consider himself a kickass medic, but a teammate
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Friday, July 24
La Trinité, Martinique
In a moment of blinding clarity, Dr. Tiffany Peters knew she was dying.
It didn't scare her. The macabre had fascinated her throughout her life, and her death was no different. The clinical part of her brain reeled off the symptoms of death, and her body was checking every box. She wished she could document what was happening. Doctors and scientists had spent centuries trying to understand death. She wished she could tell someone how it felt, but when she opened her mouth, no sound escaped.
The hotel room around her swam in and out of focus, and each breath was a chore, like an elephant sat on her chest. Her belly felt full. She bet if she cut herself open, she'd find a whole lot of blood in there.
She was so damn cold.
A bullet to the stomach wasn't how she'd expected her life to end. Tiffany wasn't a particularly adventurous person. She liked routine, and was okay with sticking to her little corner of the globe and viewing the rest of it through the viruses she saw under her microscope. In a few months, she was supposed to get married — though now she knew that would've been a mistake. She'd planned to have a couple of kids. Maybe win some recognition for her work in virology. She always figured she'd live long enough to see her grandchildren grow up, then die old and frail like most people.
Never in her wildest dreams had she expected to be hemorrhaging internally on a hotel bed in a five-star Caribbean resort during a hostage situation.
Funny how only one week could change so much.
A flash of movement at the foot of her bed caught her attention, and she blinked to clear her vision. Someone was pacing there. A young man with a mean, hard-edged face and cold eyes. She remembered him, the kid with the orange sneakers. He was part of the group of people trying to keep her alive, but he was different from the rest of them. He was trouble.
"This whole thing is fucked," he said, and it took her a long moment to realize he wasn't speaking to her, but into a cell phone. "I warned Briggs this was a bad idea, but he's lost his goddamn mind and taken the whole fucking hotel hostage. Dr. Peters is dying. Dr. Oliver is MIA. And HORNET is everywhere."
Hornet? Like the bug? What did that have to do with anything? But one thing he said did make sense to her.
Dr. Oliver is MIA.
Claire Oliver, her best friend and research partner, had somehow escaped this hotel of horrors. Claire was safe. She was okay. Tiffany grasped the thought, held it tight, and something loosened inside her. Another tether holding her to life snapped free.
The kid in the orange sneakers stopped pacing at the foot of her bed and stared at her. His features showed no concern, no empathy, nothing but mild annoyance. He noticed she was awake and met her gaze. She thought his eyes cold, but they weren't even that. They were dead, with no flicker of humanity on the other side. She thought she'd seen evil before — the man who had shot her less than six hours ago had certainly seemed evil at the time. But she was wrong. That man had been a human making bad decisions. This kid was a psychopath.
"Sir," he said evenly into the phone, all the while holding her gaze. "If I mop up this mess, it's over. My cover will be blown."
He meant kill her. Would he find Claire and kill her, too? Oh God, and there was no way to warn her.
Tiffany tried to sit up, but she barely had the strength to lift her head. She opened her mouth, tried to call out, to warn someone, but all that came from between her dry lips was an inhuman moan. Even though she was dying and could feel her body shutting down one process at a time, she still had to try. For Claire's sake.
"Yes, sir," the kid said and then pocketed the phone. He shook his head and produced a gun.
This was it, she realized. He'd pull the trigger, and she'd be gone before she even registered the pain. She turned her head slightly, looking for the door, praying nobody walked in and got caught in the crossfire. There was no help for her, but if she could save someone else ...
Except she and the kid weren't alone in the room. On the queen bed next to hers lay an unconscious blond man in a bloodstained New Orleans Saints T- shirt. She remembered him. Jean-Luc? She'd heard someone call him that during one of her bouts of consciousness. He'd rescued her from the floor of the hotel's lobby, had brought her here, to safety in this room. And now he'd die, too. All for helping her.
She looked at the kid again and choked out, "Please, don't."
"Sorry," he said, not sounding the least bit sorry. "You've outlived your usefulness, Dr. Peters."
Yeah, that's what he thought.
Tiffany sucked in a lungful of air and screamed with everything she had left in her. The sound that tore from her throat was raw, ragged, primal.
It was the last thing she ever did and, in the split-second before the bullet struck, she hoped it was enough to save the blond man.
One Week Earlier
Friday, July 17
Where the hell was his son?
Jesse Warrick took off his Stetson and shielded his eyes against the afternoon glare of the hot Wyoming sun as he scanned the land around the barn. He knew Connor was awake. He'd hoisted the kid out of bed himself — and, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, why was the boy in bed at three in the afternoon anyway? — but now Connor was nowhere to be seen.
Ever since Jesse's ex-wife had shipped their fifteen-year-old son to the ranch, Connor had been nothing but a pain in the ass. Lacy had all but given up on their son as a lost cause after his most recent run-in with Las Vegas law enforcement. She'd made it clear that she didn't particularly care if he came back because he was "corrupting" her younger children. As if those kids' well-being was somehow more important than her oldest child.
Classic Lacy behavior. As soon as the road got a little bit bumpy, she bailed and went in search of greener pastures. That was exactly what had happened to their marriage. Jesse had really meant his vow of "till death do us part." Lacy had meant something more along the lines of "till I find a better alternative." And she had. Her current husband owned a casino and a couple hotels.
But shipping her son away? It was a new low for her.
And he still hadn't figured out how to break it to Connor.
Not that Connor was even talking to him at the moment. And even if he were suddenly in a chatty mood, Jesse wouldn't be able to have a rational conversation. The kid had been tap-dancing on his last nerve for weeks. Sulking, mouthy, defiant, stubborn, and too damn proud for his britches. Connor had all of Jesse's and his ex-wife's worst qualities.
God help them.
Jesse drew a long, slow breath to combat the temper heating the back of his neck and resettled his hat on his head. Well, there was work to be done whether or not Connor showed up for his chores. He walked into the barn, grabbed a pitchfork, and got to work mucking out the horse stalls. He lost himself in the task until his muscles burned and sweat dripped down the side of his face. The ranch — and the physical labor that came hand in hand with it — was his happy place, and he was in desperate need of some happy these days. Especially since he was still coming to grips with the fact he would never have an MD after his name. No med school wanted a former Army medic with a less-than-honorable discharge under his belt. He'd received another rejection just this morning.
At the sound of his name, Jesse straightened with another scoop of dirty hay on his fork and found Gabe Bristow standing in front of the open stall. "Hey, boss." He dumped the load in a wheelbarrow, then propped the pitchfork against the wall and stepped out of the stall. "I thought you were meetin' us in Martinique."
Gabe inclined his head. "That was the original plan, but I wanted to check things out around here. Quinn's kept me up to date on the training facility. It's not the same as seeing for myself."
The facility, planted on a stretch of land bordering Jesse's ranch, was a new project for HORNET and, save for a few small-time missions, had been the team's main focus. "You know Quinn. He has that place runnin' like a well- oiled machine."
"Yeah, I'm sure he does." Gabe hesitated a beat, then added, "How has he been? Any issues with the mandatory medical checks?"
"Nope. He still don't like 'em, but he doesn't complain." Quinn, the team's XO, had a traumatic brain injury that he'd done his damnedest to hide until their last mission had forced him to reveal it. Since then, he'd had surgery to correct the blackouts he'd been dealing with and was under orders to undergo a monthly physical.
Gabe cracked a smile. "Mara's doing?"
"My guess." Jesse still wasn't 100 percent comfortable with his baby cousin and Quinn together, but there wasn't much he could do about the relationship at this point. Quinn and Mara were planning a fall wedding, had a ten-month-old daughter together, and now Mara was heavily pregnant with their son. Not that he wanted to break them up. Mara was good for Quinn, and they were goofily in love. Just wasn't a comfortable thing to think too much about.
Jesse swiped off his hat and mopped the sweat from his forehead with his arm, taking those few seconds to study Gabe with his practiced medic's eye. Gabe had been wounded during a mission a year and a half ago. They'd nearly lost him, and then he'd been wheelchair bound for close to a year. Now he was walking again with his usual cane, which he'd always had due to a previous injury. He wasn't nearly as muscular as he'd been, but he'd regain that in time with training. Other than the weight loss, he looked the picture of health. Still ...
"What about you? How are you feelin'?"
Jesse'd never say it to Gabe's face, mainly because Gabe wouldn't have wanted to hear it, but he'd been worried about the man. Especially during the months Gabe had been stuck in a wheelchair. Former SEALs like him made the worst patients, and for a while, when doctors were telling him he may not walk again, he'd withered to a husk of his former self. Almost as if he wanted to give up, which was completely unlike Gabe "Stonewall" Bristow. Depression had been a mighty weight around the big guy's shoulders until one day he'd suddenly thrown himself into his rehabilitation with the same single-minded determination that had seen him through SEAL training. Jesse didn't know what had prompted the sudden change, but suspected Gabe's wife Audrey had lit a fire under his ass.
Audrey should be sainted for that because the man standing in the barn now was a complete one-eighty from what he'd been at this same time last year.
"I'm, uh, good." Gabe changed the subject fast, as he always did when someone brought up his brush with death. "There's something Quinn and I would like to talk about if you have some time to swing by the facility this evening."
"I was plannin' on it. Mara invited me for supper."
"Good. See you then."
Jesse replaced his hat on his head and watched Gabe leave. What was that all about? Despite the usual hitch in his giddy up, he appeared to be moving painlessly again, carrying himself like a man once again comfortable in his own skin.
Huh. Gabe had never been the type to beat around the bush, so the fact he didn't come right out with whatever was on his mind was puzzling. Guess he'd find out soon enough.
Jesse grabbed the pitchfork and returned to mucking out the stall. He had five more to do before supper since his son had disappeared on him. He didn't mind the labor. It cleared his head like nothing else could, but the fact Connor had shirked his chores once again rankled. The kid was going to learn some goddamn responsibility if it killed him.
Frustrated with it all, Jesse stabbed at the hay a little too hard and the pitchfork stuck in the wood floor, jarring him all the way up to his teeth.
"Whoa, cowboy. The floor's already dead. If you want to kill something —"
Figured. How was it the one person he'd done his damnedest to avoid always seemed to find him? He didn't bother glancing over at Elena Delcambre, his cousin Mara's best friend, who had somehow managed to become the only female member of HORNET. And had been a massive thorn in his side ever since. He scooped up more hay. "Are you offerin' up yourself?"
Lanie snorted and leaned a shoulder against the stall door. "You'd like to stab me, wouldn't ya?"
He would, but not in the way she meant. Ever since she'd talked her way onto the team, he'd wanted nothing more than to fuck her — an urge he viciously fought. He'd first met Lanie when she was his son's age. She'd visited the ranch for a summer with Mara, and she'd been all long, gangly limbs, with frizzy hair and braces. He wanted to keep that image of an awkward teenage girl front and center in his head, because if he saw her as the woman she was now, he'd end up doing things he'd most definitely regret.
The darkness that had consumed him after Delta Force kicked him out was always hovering right there, a ghost at the edge of his consciousness, waiting to devour him. And now, after three failed marriages, he'd learned nothing ever stuck, not even the people who were supposed to love you. Every loss took a little piece of him with it. And he had so very little of himself left to give. He was done. No more women. No matter how appealing this particular one was.
"Hey," Lanie said and straightened. There was a note of concern in her voice. "What's up with you? You're not taking jabs at me like usual."
Sighing, he forked up another mound of fresh hay from a nearby pile and shook it out across the floor of the stall. "Gabe was here."
"Yeah?" She took hold of the wheelbarrow full of dirty hay and pushed it down to the next stall in line, then grabbed another pitchfork. She never shied away from dirty work, whether in the barn or behind enemy lines, and it was something he'd always admired about her. "I thought he was meeting us in Martinique next weekend. What did he want?"
"He said he and Quinn want to talk to me about somethin'."
"That's ... cryptic. Weird."
It was. "Probably about the trainin' exercise."
She paused from scooping out the stall and grinned over at him. "That's going to be fun."
"You're just lookin' forward to a weekend at Tuc Quentin's resort when it's over."
"Well, duh. Who doesn't look forward to island time? I'm gonna break out my little red bikini and catch some rays while sipping on a coconut drink."
He scoffed. "You can be such a girl sometimes."
"I am a girl. No, wait —" She straightened and peeked down the front of her tank top. "No, yeah, they're still there. Definitely female. Whew."
The move drew Jesse's gaze to her chest and his throat dried up like he'd swallowed a mouthful of sawdust. Yes, definitely female. The woman had curves in all the right places ... a fact he worked hard to forget. Easier to do when he saw her as just another one of the guys.
"But it's not only the resort time I'm looking forward to." She leaned on her pitchfork and grinned. "I can't wait to scare the bejesus out of our trainees."
He cleared his throat and went back to shoveling like humanity depended on him to clean this stall. "Hmm. Yeah. Trial by fire."
"Is there any other way?" She went back to work on her own stall. "Besides, these kids have it easy. Nothing we can throw at them will be as bad as my first mission with y'all. But I intend to do my best. Like I said, it's gonna be fun."
Jesse had been anticipating the weeklong training mission, too. It was guaranteed to be a good time. The whole team back together again, playing war games out in the jungles of Suriname, scaring some of the FNGs — fucking new guys — followed by a weekend debriefing-slash-retreat at Tucker Quentin's 5-star resort on Martinique. But now that Connor was here ... was it right for Jesse to leave the ranch? His parents would most certainly watch Connor for the week, but there was no telling what kind of trouble the boy would get into. Already in the short time since he'd arrived, he'd been in several fights, had been caught drinking and smoking, and had stolen money out of Jesse's wallet. Which Jesse hadn't called him on yet.
"Earth to Jesse," Lanie said and clanged her pitchfork on the side of the wheelbarrow a couple times. "Hey, space cadet. What's with you?"
He looked at her. Sweat glistened on her brown skin from the effort of mucking out the stall and a sprig of hay clung to the dark ringlets of her ponytail. Dressed in jeans and boots, her bra strap slipping down her shoulder from under her tan tank top, she'd never looked more beautiful. Every thought in his head disappeared except one: he wanted this woman. Had for a very long time. Lanie wasn't so much the one who got away as the one who might have been, had their circumstances been different when they met as teenagers.
Goddammit. Figured she'd come barreling back into his life after he'd sworn off women.
Excerpted from "Code of Honor"
Copyright © 2017 Tonya Burrows.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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