This is Luke Harding’s story.
Six months in a desert hellhole taught Navy SEAL Luke Harding things he never wanted to learn about life and death. Only tender memories of the beautiful brunette he met a few weeks before his deployment helped get him through the torturous days and nights. Back in the States after a perilous rescue, physically and emotionally damaged, Luke’s about to plunge into a new kind of war. In a seemingly bucolic Idaho town, Sally Duncan faces real—and unpredictable—danger.
All Sally ever wanted was a safe place to raise her nine-year-old daughter. Her identity hidden behind a façade of secrets and lies, can she trust Luke—a man she barely knows—with the truth? Even as they give in to long-denied passion, a killer with a personal vendetta is setting an ambush that will leave them praying for a miracle and fighting for the future they may not live to see.
Praise for Dixie Lee Brown
"Dixie Lee Brown delivers all the goods in high style: romance, adventure and suspense-with a generous helping of sexy that will leave readers clamoring for more. The talented Ms. Brown writes the kind of story romance readers crave: sexy, fun and filled with adventure and suspense."
—Linda Castillo, New York Times bestselling author of The Dead Will Tell
"Brown will thrill readers who enjoy some spice." —Library Journal
About the Author
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Heart pounding, Luke bolted upright, wide awake, as though a dose of adrenaline had shot directly into his bloodstream. The sound — no, more a feeling than a sound — came again, pulling him back from the edge of his nightmare — the same damn one he'd had last night and the night before that. The pain in his shoulders and arms was bad, intensified by his sudden movement. Yesterday's interrogation had been more brutal than usual. Don't think about it. It's only going to get worse. Focus. Something had jolted him from what passed for sleep these days. After nearly six months in this filthy, godforsaken POW camp, not much surprised him. Yet the strange vibrations that still pulsed in his nerve endings were somehow different.
Hell. What did he know? It wasn't exactly unusual to wake battling a gut-wrenching, hard-to-get-enough-air sensation that sapped his strength and made him want to scream to the God he was slowly beginning to doubt existed. With the dream fresh in his mind, how the hell was he supposed to distinguish reality from the warped images taking up residence in his fucked-up brain?
He lowered himself to his sleeping pallet and strained to catch the sound one more time. His gaze raked the shadows beyond the wire fence that segregated his two hundred square feet of Afghan sand and scrub brush from the rest of the compound. Within its confines, he was allowed to move around as much as he wanted. That was his one freedom, but his harsh captors provided little else. A frayed and rat-eaten tarp to keep out the rain and provide shade from the desert sun. Still, he could be grateful for the times he was allowed to stay inside his prison ... away from this ruthless and unpredictable terrorist group. Militant jihadists who'd spun off al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden was killed, they now claimed ties to ISIS and made his life a living hell on a daily basis.
It was unnaturally quiet in the compound, yet something lingered on the stillness of the night air. A sound so familiar it was as though, without it, he hadn't been complete. Shit. He was finally going crazy. Luckily, crazy was preferable to his other options.
A lone spotlight perched atop the locked gate at the north end of his stockade, interrupting the darkness. The moon, a mere sliver, was barely visible behind a thin veil of mist that would leave the ground wet with its touch before morning. The nights were getting colder. Late September or better. Fall already, with winter on the way. The seasons were the same as they were back home, except more extreme. Would his captors give him a blanket to fend off the freezing temperatures of winter? Would he survive long enough to worry about the weather?
Every nerve told him something waited in the dark just outside the fence. The skin on the back of his neck did that creepy-crawling thing he hated, assuring him he was being watched. Instinct screamed for him to stand and fight his unseen enemy, or at least defend himself. But fools perished quickly in this hellhole, and he wasn't fool enough to start a war he couldn't win. Attracting attention was never a good idea. For now, he would lie still on his worn sleeping mat, tucked beneath a shabby canvas lean-to in the darkest corner. His time would come soon enough.
Luke waited on high alert while minutes ticked slowly by. Nothing. No unusual sounds. No indication the fighters were any more vigilant than normal. Damn. It was probably the dream that had him imagining things. He'd have laughed at his paranoia, but his sense of humor had been the latest casualty of his months in captivity.
With an effort, he resisted looking toward the empty mat in the opposite corner of the lean-to. Before his buddy, Ian, had died, Luke at least had had hope. Since the chopper crash that killed three members of their team and stranded them deep within land held by the terrorists, they'd kept their spirits up by planning how they were going to escape. Admitting they'd probably die in the attempt, they'd agreed it would be worth it ... as long as they took a shitload of terrorists to hell with them. Yeah, revenge was sweet.
Now, every time he closed his damn eyes, he saw the sword fall again, heard Ian's scream turn to a gurgle as his body jerked and twitched in agony. Each time the death scene played out in his mind, Luke struggled against unseen bonds, to free himself and help his friend and fellow SEAL ... to no avail. It'd been nearly two weeks since Ian's death. And Luke was on deck. He knew that ... but he wasn't going out without a fight.
Slowly, moving only his arm, he reached beneath the edge of his sleeping mat and pulled a picture free. The meager light was barely enough to make out the image. Sally Duncan and her eight-year-old daughter, Jen. With his thumb, Luke gently stroked Sally's cheek in the worn photograph.
The smoking-hot brunette had captivated him, and the kid, Jen, had flat-out won his heart. They'd met three weeks before he deployed, and he'd instinctively known some bad shit had gone down in Sally's life at some point. Whatever had happened had made her skittish, especially with men, and he didn't have to be told he wouldn't last ten minutes if he moved too fast. He'd played it cool. Didn't rush her. Many a night he'd ended the evening alone in a cold shower because of the petite, sexy woman whose Mona Lisa smile always made him think she had a secret. And damned if he didn't want to know what it was. The night before he flew out, he'd kissed her — really kissed her for the first time — and asked for a picture.
Jesus! The guys in his unit would have laughed him out of the platoon if they'd ever found out what a wuss he'd been.
But that kiss and this picture had kept him sane through countless days of pain, depravation and intense hatred. She wouldn't let him give up. He had one purpose: to stay alive to see her again. To hold her and feel the warmth of her body against his, see the sparkle in her deep blue eyes as she laughed at one of his dumb jokes. Marvel at her appreciative smile when he did something nice for her. What he wouldn't give to sit with them again in their living room, Sally on one side, Jen on the other, while he held a huge bowl of popcorn on his lap and pretended to groan through some chick flick they'd picked to watch.
The faintest swish of something moving in his peripheral vision jerked his attention to the guard's platform towering over the desert floor a hundred yards to the east. And then he heard it again — the sound that had woken him. The whop, whop, whop of a Blackhawk, coming in low and fast. He sprang to a crouch, his heart thumping fast and loud.
The guards on the platform rushed to the far side, pointing and yelling. Then one of them hit the alarm, and its screech drowned out everything else. An instant later, a missile launched from the helo and streaked toward the camp barracks across the compound. The detonation knocked Luke on his ass and lit up the night sky. When the .50 caliber machine guns mounted in the bay of the Blackhawk opened fire on the guard tower and the few unfortunates who escaped the barracks, he decided it was best to stay down.
What the hell were they doing? They had to be Americans, but this was no high-value target. They didn't know he was here. They were just as likely to take him out, along with the dirty bastards who ran the place. It wasn't like he could take cover inside his open-air accommodations. What was he waiting for? There'd never be a better time to make his escape.
He scrambled to his feet, tucked Sally's picture in his pocket and ran for the gate. The barracks were all on fire. A few enemy fighters still fled the burning buildings, screaming and slapping at the flames that hungrily devoured their clothing, while trying to outrun the merciless onslaught of bullets from the chopper. The smell of smoke, gunpowder and burning flesh turned Luke's stomach and propelled him on. He had no sympathy for them, any more than they'd had a gnat's compassion for Ian as he died. Let them all burn in hell.
One of the hostiles ran by the outside of Luke's enclosure with a rocket launcher on his shoulder, dropped to one knee twenty feet away and aimed the weapon at the Blackhawk that was still picking off ground forces.
"Hell no!" Luke veered toward the corner of his yard, the closest point to the chopper, and waved his arms wildly over his head. "Get the hell out of here! Go!" A direct hit at such close range would drop the aircraft like a rock. It didn't matter why they were here. He had to warn them.
Not a chance they heard him — he could barely hear himself. It was even less likely that they saw him ... but somehow, they knew. The chopper lifted up and away at a steep angle, just as the rocket fired. Even then it only missed the underbelly of the craft by a matter of inches. The Blackhawk continued to move away, circled the blaze they'd created and disappeared behind some hills to the west.
Fucking A! They're safe. Now it was his turn. He swung toward the gate ... and halted abruptly. Abdul Omari, commander of this little resort, had apparently managed to hide his sorry ass and survive. He stood a few feet inside the wire, brandishing a pistol, flanked by two of his most depraved underlings with semiautomatic rifles. The only good news was the gate stood open behind them ... but Luke would need a miracle to reach it alive.
"Where do you think you are going?" Omari's sneer made his heavy accent even more pronounced.
Luke studied the three. He had no personal knowledge of the man on Omari's right, but he knew the other man too damn well. Ahmed Kazi returned Luke's stare. Blond-haired, blue-eyed, American born and raised, the turncoat was now an interrogator and assassin for the terrorist network. He obviously held a deep-seated hatred for his former countrymen and had brought that to bear with a vengeance on Ian and Luke.
He'd been one cold son of a bitch when the sword he'd raised over his head had ended Ian's life with a hollow thud. Luke would never forget Ian's murderer. How could he? The man's fucking face appeared in his dreams every night. Rage, as black as the pits of hell, burned just beneath the artificial composure he presented to them. His fingers itched to be around the bastard's throat, squeezing the life from him.
Omari spoke a few words in one of the regional dialects. As one, his men raised the barrels of their weapons and pointed them at Luke.
Well, hell. Apparently, there wouldn't be time to come up with Plan B. Out in the open with no cover, his only option was to fight. Seriously outgunned, his odds weren't good. All he had in his arsenal was the training provided by the Navy SEALs — which was considerable — but he'd have to get much closer if it was going to help him against three armed men. Then, if the planets aligned just right, maybe he'd have a chance. Still, going down fighting was better than dying where he stood.
Luke straightened to his full height and raised his arms, threading his fingers together on top of his head. He dropped his gaze in mock submission as he walked slowly toward his enemies. "Commander, you have many injured men outside. I've trained as a medic. Let me help them."
"You would have me believe you care about my men?"
"Hell no, but I wouldn't allow even an animal to suffer if I could help it." Luke lifted his gaze to take in the commander's skeptical expression. That's right. Don't believe me, you bastard. Just let me get close enough.
A handful of men rushed by the gate with weapons drawn, heading toward the west, the direction the helo had disappeared. Ahmed and the other guard returned to the gate, stepping outside to question the leader of the small group.
Omari turned his head for only a few seconds, but that was all Luke needed. He launched himself across the few feet that separated them, grabbed him from behind and applied just enough pressure to snap the bones in his neck before the commander could make a sound. When Luke let him go, his lifeless body slid to the ground. Seizing the Russian Makarov pistol the dead man had dropped, Luke opened fire on the two guards, while the group of men scurried for cover.
The heavily guarded gate was his only way out. Luke was as good as dead if he stayed where he was, so he might as well get in the game. Bending low, he raced a zigzag path toward the opening, ignoring the pain in his extremities from the cruel tortures he'd endured. He was counting on the notoriously poor marksmanship of the local recruits with the Russian-made AK-47. Three men outside the gate went down under his offensive, including Ahmed, before the pistol Luke continuously fired ran out of ammunition. He shrugged off a twinge of regret that Ian's murderer had gone down so easily. A slow, painful death would have been Luke's first choice.
The men crowding around the outside of the gate fired wildly in his direction, but Luke kept moving forward. An instant later, something slammed into his chest, stealing his breath and stopping him in midstride. Unable to move or even breathe, he hung there for a split second, while time stood still. His gaze locked on his goal, a mere half-dozen feet ahead, and he staggered backward, his efforts to stay on his feet ineffectual, until he sprawled in the dirt of his prison yard.
Damn! Get up! Pull it together! He tried to position his legs to stand, but his body wouldn't cooperate. Then the first wave of pain seared his nerve endings. He couldn't catch his breath. He'd been hit. Those lousy desert rats got in a lucky shot! The taste of blood filled his mouth. Panic seized him, but he refused to give it more than a few seconds. New objective — stay alive. Failure is not an option. The SEAL mantra had been drilled into him again and again during his training until it automatically followed fuck this in his vocabulary. One corner of his mouth curved upward in a half-assed grin, and he managed to draw a partial breath.
His gaze focused on the light at the top of the gate, he moved his hand upward toward the source of the pain, stopping when he felt the warm, sticky liquid that coated his shirt. He squeezed his eyes shut and struggled until another breath temporarily took away the ache in his lungs. Failure is not an option.
It sounded like a full-fledged war was being waged just outside his containment area. Every bit of his training demanded he get up and fight, but he needed a little more time to rest.
"Stay down!" someone yelled from not too far away in a pretty good imitation of English.
Who are they talking to? Does somebody need help? In a minute, I'll be strong enough to get back in the fight. Failure is not an option.
A sound close by forced Luke's eyes open, and he looked in to the gloating face of the remaining guard. Blood seeped from at least two wounds in his torso, but still he aimed his rifle at Luke. When the sound of the shot reverberated across the open desert, Luke's body jumped in anticipation of the slug tearing through his flesh. Instead, blood ran down the officer's chin, and he did a face-plant in the sand beside Luke.
Then there were people all around him, everyone talking at the same time — in English!
"Damn fine shot, Davis! Now, let's get our friends and get the hell out of here before reinforcements roll in." An American soldier, dressed in full battle gear, stood over Luke and talked into a small radio.
More unfamiliar faces appeared behind the first man, each yapping about something that seemed insignificant from Luke's position. He wanted to shout at them to shut up, but apparently there was no longer a connection between his brain and his mouth. Not that there ever was much of one. Oh, great — now I get my sense of humor back.
"Are you Petty Officer Second Class Luke Harding?" The man in battle gear knelt beside him.
As hard as he tried, Luke couldn't make a sound — or even nod his head. All he could do was stare until his eyes misted, and he squeezed his eyelids shut so he wouldn't fucking humiliate himself.
They know my name. Somebody knows who I am. Gratitude washed over him even as sorrow intruded into his momentary peace. Except for two short weeks, he could have celebrated with Ian.
The warrior reached for Luke's hand, gripping it firmly. "It's okay, son. You stay with me. You hear me, sailor? That's an order." He leaned over Luke, and there was understanding in his eyes. "We're here to get you home alive, and failure is not an option. You copy that?" Luke would have smiled if he could have. Did the guy know the phrase he uttered so effortlessly was the only thing holding Luke together?
Excerpted from "Heart of a Seal"
Copyright © 2018 Dixie Lee Brown.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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