Don’t get yourself into trouble, his CO had warned earlier that evening. Nick had almost said, Too late, but ﬁgured the wiseass remark was better kept to himself.
A brutal, three month mission overseas and the team’s combined injuries—consisting of a bullet wound, two broken ribs and a broken nose, none of which was his—added to one week stateside, and a twenty-four-hour window of R&R practically screamed for a night out.
He had expected to get into trouble that evening—hadn’t expected the trouble to actually ﬁnd him.
When his CO put him in charge of the team’s behavior, his enthusiasm lessened considerably, but didn’t change his opinion that drinking, dancing and the loudest music known to man were still the night’s best options. He’d planned on heading to the Underground, a place senior ofﬁcers rarely frequented and where he could be semi-assured none of his team would get into a brawl.
Although with most of the team in tow, including his two adopted brothers, the odds weren’t on his side.
Trouble always comes in threes, Kenny Waldron, the only man Nick called Dad now, would always say when Nick, Jake and Chris were together in the same place.
Nick’s plans had been altered when Max, a captain in Naval Intelligence, called with an urgent message. Hey, Devane, someone’s been running your name. What the fuck is that all about?
Max was the man who brought the teams home—all the SEALs owed him a hell of a lot, and somehow the chits seemed to come up in Max’s favor even when the teams were on dry, safe land. Relatively speaking.
With Nick’s blessing, Max had gotten in touch with the guy from the Department of Defense who’d initiated the search on Nick, put the fear of God into him and gave Nick the name and number of the woman who’d been hunting him.
Nick hadn’t heard of her.
She’s heard of you. Find out why and shut it down had been Max’s final words.
He knew why now. Shutting it down was the final step.
* * * * *
Kaylee Smith had come to the diner early, to have dinner and to frame out some of the stories she had on deadline—a piece on a cache of weapons found at a women’s shelter, and another piece where she’d gone for a ride-along with an undercover policewomen.
The investigations had been exciting—the writing not as much, although if she was in the right mood, she could get that partial sensation of still being in the moment.
Tonight, she couldn’t get herself to that place. She hadn’t eaten, was on her third cup of coffee as she tapped her pen restlessly and stared out the window that faced the back parking lot where she hoped Nick Devane would pull in. She wanted to see him before he saw her, to assess who was coming at her. To attempt to know her target on sight, since the only way she could identify him was by
“Who is this?” The voice on the other end of the line was a rough growl, had made her start initially.
“Who is this?” she asked back, even though she suspected exactly who it was, with a more than sinking pit in her stomach.
Her search for Nick Devane had triggered something in the system, especially since she’d had a friend in the DoD search for his birth certificate. Her friend had come up empty.
According to the information Kaylee had, Devane was Special Ops. Navy SEAL. That was six years earlier—he could be discharged by now. Working for the CIA or FBI was a definite possibility for a man with his background.
Either way, he was a man who didn’t want to be found.
He didn’t answer her question—not fully. “You’ve been looking for me. I need to know why.”
“Your name . . . it’s on Aaron’s list,” she said quietly. There was silence on the other end, so long that she’d checked the display screen on her phone to make sure they were still connected. The call had registered unknown number on her cell phone’s caller ID. Untraceable.
“You want to meet me,” he said finally.
“I want to meet you,” she agreed. “To talk about Aaron.”
“City Diner, on Maple Street. Tonight, 2300.”
Military time. He was still in. “I’ll be there. Don’t you want to know my name… or how to recognize me?” she asked before he could hang up.
“That won’t be a problem.”
What Nick didn’t realize was that anything to do with Aaron was a problem—a large one that threatened her career, her past… her life.
Nick had known more than her phone number—he’d known what state she lived in. And he was coming to her.
“Honey, can I get you some more coffee?” The waitress didn’t bother to wait for an answer before she topped off Kaylee’s cup. And when she walked away, Kaylee noted that a black Porsche had pulled into the lot during that brief interruption, and the most handsome brick wall she’d ever seen in her life was standing directly in front of her.
She’d called Aaron’s entire list, man by man. Each had come willingly to meet with her. Each of them told her that Aaron had been alive when they’d left him, that her ex-husband had saved their lives.
That Aaron had refused to answer questions as to whether or not he was affiliated with the U.S. military.
Nick was the last man on Aaron’s list, and he was definitely not least. If she was writing an article about him, she could already picture the opening paragraph.
Every bit the warrior. Tall, broad shoulders, an aristocratic face—handsome… and it is as though Nick Devane should be modeling menswear instead of running around the world with weaponry.
But she knew differently. Underneath the calm, cool and collected man who stood before her was a hint of the fire inside he couldn’t control. The heat in his belly that drove him to hit harder, fly higher, to risk his life for the sheer need of it.
It was something she both understood and hated. And right now, with Nick standing in front of her, she was convinced that she hated him as well. For being on Aaron’s list. For being a part of the same military that had taken so much from her.
For turning her world upside down in the space of mere seconds.
So yes, Nick was the last man on the list. The last one to see Aaron alive.
And maybe the one who knew how he died.
“You must be Nick.” Her voice was thankfully calmer than she’d expected. He merely nodded in response.
The men she’d met over the past days had been succinct as well, but this man was a whole different animal. Taciturn. Not the buttoned-up type who called her Ma’am and expressed sincere apologies for her loss.
Yet, somehow, she had little doubt that whatever came out of his mouth would be sincere.
“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me. Please, have a seat.” She motioned across the table to the empty half of the booth, a booth she’d picked speciﬁcally to watch both the entrance and the lot. A place where her back could stay against the wall—the ﬁrst rule of combat in the world according to Aaron.
“Not here” was all he said before he turned and strolled out.
She had no choice but to follow. Hurriedly, she threw money on the table to cover her bill, then caught up with him halfway up the street.
He didn’t turn to acknowledge her presence, had assumed that she’d follow him to wherever he was going.
And he’d been right.
Yes, he was deﬁnitely proving to be the most arrogant of the bunch.
“Aaron was your husband,” he said once he ﬁnally stopped at the entrance of an alleyway between two buildings at the corner where the lamppost had blown out. Then he gazed at her and corrected himself. “Ex-husband.”
She was going to have to give answers to get answers from this one. “Yes. He was my ex for a long time before he died.”
“You were young.”
“Too young,” she agreed. “Just eighteen when we married.” Aaron had been a way out. She hadn’t known that she’d been running into more of what she’d left behind, after being deserted by her mother and left with a grandmother who neither wanted nor had any love for Kaylee.
Her life was so much different today. She’d molded herself into a cold, ruthless undercover reporter who was both respected and feared.
No guts, no glory.
No emotions, except when it came to Aaron. Her ﬁrst love. Her ﬁrst everything. And most of those emotions ran between nostalgia and hatred.
“I met him in Africa,” Nick said ﬁnally. His rough voice shot up her spine like a direct caress, the way it had on the phone this afternoon. But it was so much better in person.
“I know. In the DRC—the congo,” she said. If he was surprised that she had that information, he didn’t show it.
She hadn’t expected him to anyway, but just as she wondered if there was anything that could break through the façade, he swallowed hard, then rubbed the base of his throat with two ﬁngers as he stared at the night sky as though reliving that time in Africa. “Aaron saved my life.”
“The list of men he left for me to ﬁnd—he said that he’d saved all their lives. Except for you.”
Nick looked at her with eyebrows raised, waiting. So patient, but somehow impatience radiated off him in waves.
“He said you would’ve done ﬁne without his help,” she ﬁnished. “Is that true?”
“You want me to use twenty-twenty hindsight on something that happened six years ago?” he asked, his voice tight. “Hell, I don’t know how to answer that.”
He stuck his hands in his pockets, the leather jacket ﬂaring out to the side, and she half expected to see a gun holster.
“I tried to get him to come back with me, on the helo,” he said. “He refused. He said that there wasn’t a way back for him. And then he gave me this—told me to give it to his girl when she came looking for me.”
She felt the tears jump to her eyes, hot and too fresh as Nick took a hand out of his pocket to place a worn circle patch, a gray background with a black symbol crudely sewn in, into her palm. “You’ve kept it all this time?”
“I always keep my word.”
That was so much more than she could say about Aaron. “When you saw him last…I mean…how was he?”
Nick nodded. “He was all right. I was the one who’d been shot.”
“He was a good Ranger.” She couldn’t bring herself to say man, even though the military seemed to think the two terms were synonymous.
She knew better.
“I believe you.”
“How did he look?”
“I don’t know what he looked like before. I have nothing to compare it to.”
She pulled a picture out of her bag, the one of a non-smiling Aaron, fresh out of Ranger School and in full uniform. The day it had been taken, the moment, actually, she’d known it had been the beginning of the end for them.
Nick took the picture from her and stared at it. “That’s him. His hair was longer. He had a beard and he looked like he’d been through hell.”
He stayed close to her, both of them leaning against the side of the brick building as the words tumbled out of her mouth.
“I met him when we were both only ﬁfteen. I barely saw him after we got married—he went to Ranger School and then he went off to save the world. Leading the way,” she said, unable to keep the sarcasm out of her voice as she used the Ranger creed.
There was none in his. “Not easy for a military wife.”
“The military would’ve made me a widow by the time I was twenty-six anyway.” She’d gotten notice of Aaron’s death from the Army four years ago—gotten his personal effects, which included a key to a safety deposit box that contained the list of names, and Aaron’s ﬁnal words.
In her estimation, that wasn’t nearly enough.
“How long have you had my name?” he asked ﬁnally.
“I didn’t open the safety deposit box until two weeks ago—I didn’t know he had a list in there.” Her words came out nearly a whisper, but she felt as if she’d shouted them.
“And then you had your friend at the DoD tracking me to the ends of the earth.”
She tilted her head to stare up at him. “Why are you such a hard man to ﬁnd?”
He ignored her questions and ﬁred back his own. “Why did you wait four years to open that box? What changed two weeks ago?”
Would he believe her? She barely believed it herself, but she’d come too far to quit now. “I got a phone call from a dead man.”