This was the perfect mission — unbeatable, the kind Navy SEALs like Justin Brandt dreamed about, prayed for and rarely got.

His target was locked in. No opposition in his periphery. He maneuvered through the water easily, focused on his one, his only intent. The temperature had to be close to eighty degrees and the sun was starting to go down. Darkness gave him the perfect cover, especially with the moonlight reflecting dimly on the water.

There would be no stopping him.

He closed in, swift, silent, his one hundred pound advantage on the intended target rendering resistance futile. He met his prey with determined contact. There was a slight struggle, some splashing, and then, success, at last.

“Justin, I have to check on dinner.” Monique giggled as she held the bikini top he’d just unhooked against her breasts in one last attempt to subvert his efforts.

He held her, her back pressed against his chest with no intention of letting her go. “Not hungry. Check on me instead.”

He nuzzled her neck as he eased the tiny squares of fabric away from her. She gave up protesting and the garment in question floated away. He turned her to face him, and when she smiled up at him, he prepared to sink his body into her eager one. Because this was what he needed. Twenty-four hours in her arms, skin on skin, and he’d be a new man.

Or at least that’s what he told himself now. He’d have his regrets later, but he was in the moment and that’s what mattered.

She moved her mouth closer to his ear, and he waited to hear her tell him she wanted him, that she couldn’t hold on anymore, because he was going to take her so well the entire neighborhood was going to know about it… “Justin, your clothes are ringing.”

“I’m not wearing any clothes, so ignore it.” He took her hand, guided it between his legs.

“Sounds like it might be important,” she said, glancing toward the jeans he’d pulled off hurriedly and left in a pile on a lounge chair where his cell and beeper had started to ring angrily in tandem. Never a good sign.

“Damn,” he muttered. “Don’t move.” He pulled himself out of the pool and rifled through his jeans.

“I’ll be right back,” Monique said. She’d followed him out of the pool and headed inside, her bikini top left floating in the water. He stared after her, and then flipped the cell phone open with a groan.

“This had better be world war frigging three,” he said by way of hello. A low chuckle answered him, and immediately his focus shifted. It was Turk, aka Leo Turkowski — his best friend from childhood, and this sure as hell wasn’t a social call.

“Close enough, buddy.” Turk was smoking again. Justin could hear him take a deep drag and exhale. Normally, he would have called his friend on it, since he’d promised everyone for the millionth time he’d quit for good but it wasn’t the time for a lecture. “You busy?”

Monique chose to come back out of the house at that moment, the lights from the kitchen highlighting the fact that her bikini bottoms were now conspicuously absent. She handed him a beer and trailed a finger along his neck before slipping back into the pool. He fought another groan and put the beer down. “What did you do now?”

“What did I interrupt?”

“Nothing. Really,” Justin lied through clenched teeth. It had been a long, dry deployment for his entire team, who were stationed in Virginia. Every eighteen months they deployed. This time, their six month stint found them in the mountains of Afghanistan in an operations combat ready status and working a lot of recon missions — his specialty. The team had taken some heat, taken down some tangos and returned slightly worse for wear and ready for some down time.

He’d been home for less than twelve hours before he hit a local bar and met up with Monique, a full time stewardess, part-time actress whose schedule seemed as busy as his and who’d told him back at the bar that she didn’t want any strings. It was goddamned perfect.

But when a friend called, his one-night stand would be shoved to the side no matter how much it hurt. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and all that crap.

He heard the scratch of a match and a deep inhale as Turk lit another cigarette. “You on leave?”

“Four day’s worth.”

“I need some help,” Turk said quickly, like it wasn’t easy to ask.

“Name it.”

“It’s about Ava,” his friend said quietly and Justin’s stomach dropped at the mention of Turk’s little sister. Ever since Turk started working deep undercover cases for the DEA, he’d asked Justin to be on-call for Ava. Turk and Ava’s father had died when Ava was still in high school and they had no other significant family, save for each other.

Justin had agreed, of course, but in all the years Ava had his phone number she’d never, ever used it. To be fair, he hadn’t used hers either. “Is she all right?”

“She bit off more than she can chew. And this time, it’s going to bite back.”

“Start talking, man. I need more information.” Justin was already pulling on his jeans, not giving a damn about being soaking wet.

“I can’t give you much. Just go to her.”

This was nothing Justin hadn’t done before. He’d always managed to do so without Ava knowing. As if guarding her from afar could make up for the way he’d hurt her. For the way he’d hurt them both.

Secrecy was better for all of them. And he’d always been able to take care of the problems plaguing her without much effort — usually some low-life threatening her because of her job as an Assistant District Attorney, and because of her tendency to refuse to stand down when she up against the wall.

It was a trait that ran long and hard in that family. And while Justin himself had a healthy appetite for living right out there on the edge, Turk and Ava brought it to an almost artistic level without even trying.

But this time, something in the tone of Turk’s voice didn’t sit right with Justin. “Tell me more.”

“This is just between us, Justin. There’s a possibility that her new case could blow my cover,” he murmured, and Justin knew that what his friend said could mean a death sentence for him, no matter the case Turk was on. It also meant that Justin couldn’t bring in the local authorities for back-up. “She’s involved in something big and she doesn’t realize it. You need to get to her tonight and get her out of New York.”

“Where do you want me to take her? Maybe she needs more protection than I can give her.”

“You’re the only one I can trust with this right now.” Turk paused for a long second, as if he wanted to say more but couldn’t. “It’s not going to be easy this time, Justin.”

“Dammit, Turk — don’t do this—“ But the phone clicked on the other end before he could finish. Frustrated, he slammed it against the table and stared up at the sky for a few minutes.

Turk had joined the DEA around the time Justin made it through BUD/s training and moved into SQT, the final step before he received his Trident. He and Turk were always helping each other out, especially when one of them found themselves balls-deep in something, but Justin had never ever heard fear in his friend’s voice when Turk called for a favor. Not like this.

Turk was so deep undercover that he couldn’t get out in order to protect Ava.

But protect her from what?

Justin closed his eyes, thought about what would’ve happened if he hadn’t been home now – if he’d still been deployed and god almighty, his instincts were screaming.

If he hauled ass, he could get to Ava before midnight, maybe hitch a ride on a helo from Virginia to a base in New York – then he could rent a car and drive to Westchester County. And that would’ve made him happy if the thought didn’t cut him right off at the knees.

Nine years had passed since he’d actually had more than peripheral contact with her – years full of some of the worst memories of his life, some of them softened by time and by a job he excelled at. A job that kept him too busy for more than a passing fling and no more commitment than a few hours could bring.

At one time, Ava had promised she’d be there for him. No matter what. That she trusted him. And then she’d never given him the chance to explain. The day he got married, she skipped town and never looked back.

You wouldn’t have been able to tell her anyway.

Yeah, loyal to the end. Loyal and stupid. And young – too young to know any better, although it only made him feel marginally better to be able to blame his stupidity on youth and misguided loyalty.

It’s not going to be easy this time, Justin.

With Ava, it never, ever was.