New Year’s Eve sounded like a war zone. With confetti.
As soon as the ball touched down, the room exploded with noise. Cheers. Those annoying tasseled horns. A champagne bottle popped open. Confetti shot into the air as if propelled from a cannon and rained down on the group.
Travis Quinn flinched at the assault to his pounding head and melted back, away from the chaos.
He should be happy and celebrating like the rest of HORNET. A month ago, they’d successfully rescued a man who had been left for dead. They’d stopped a maniac from getting his hands on a nuclear weapon and saved a women’s shelter while they were at it. They all had a right to some happiness, but the only emotion Quinn could conjure up was…dread.
They all seemed to blur together into one long battle, and he was tired. So tired, and he watched his team celebrate with a weird kind of detachment. None of the guys knew it yet, but Afghanistan had been his last mission with them.
Why did that knowledge settle like a ball of molten lead in his gut?
Gabe Bristow, the commander of the team, walked over and handed him a glass of the freshly poured champagne. “You okay?”
The guy was his best friend, the closest thing to family he had. More than anyone Gabe deserved the truth—which was fuck, no, he was not okay and might never be again—but when he opened his mouth to say it, nothing came out. So he shut his trap and gave a jerky nod instead, which sent pain singing through his skull.
Damn headaches had been worse since he’d taken that blow on the head in Kabul. How much more abuse could his already fucked-up head take? He was no medic, but if he had to guess, probably not a whole helluva lot more.
Which was exactly why he had to quit the team, and he should do it now. It was the perfect opportunity to tell Gabe everything about his traumatic brain injury and the blackouts he’d been suffering since their car accident last year. Just lay it all out and…
Then what would he do?
He was no longer a Navy SEAL. And he couldn’t continue as XO of HORNET…
So who the hell was he?
Gabe eyed him. “Yeah, buddy, you sure look okay. That green complexion you’ve been sporting all night suits you.”
“Too much to drink,” Quinn muttered.
“I’ve seen you drunk, jackass, and you’re not right now.”
Quinn mustered up a smile and took a small sip of his champagne. He might not be, but Gabe was well on his way.
Across the room, Jean-Luc Cavalier, the team’s linguist, who was currently wearing a ridiculous party hat and oversized sunglasses, grabbed Gabe’s wife in a fast two-step and broke out into a horrible rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.”
Gabe winced. “Jesus. Why does that man think he can sing?”
“Y’all love me, f’true,” Jean-Luc called and dipped Audrey.
“Getting a little handsy there with my wife, Cajun. I suggest you remove them if you wanna keep them.”
Jean-Luc grinned and straightened, setting a giggling Audrey back on her feet. “You can’t blame me for trying. Look at her.” He spun her, and her little red dress flared out from her hips. “She’s gorgeous.”
“Yeah,” Gabe said with a big, dopey grin. “Why do you think I married her?”
Audrey laughed. “Oh, so it wasn’t because I manipulated you into it?”
“Nah. I just let you think that.”
“Liar,” she called in singsong.
“Yeah,” Gabe admitted into his glass before taking a drink, his eyes never leaving his wife. “Best thing that’s ever happened to me, too.” After a moment, he shook his head and looked at Quinn again. “Take some time off, Q. You look like hell, and that whack on the head you sustained in Kabul—”
Gabe’s jaw tightened, and as soon as there was a lull in the noise, he raised his hands to get everyone’s attention. “Listen up, gentlemen! Mandatory one-month leave starting now. I don’t want to see any of your ugly mugs until February, got it?”
“Hot damn,” Jean-Luc said. “I know what I’m doing.”
“Gettin’ laid?” Jesse Warrick, the team medic, suggested dryly.
“Well, duh. That goes without saying. Why are there no single ladies at this shindig?”
“We didn’t want to subject them to you?” Seth Harlan, the newest member of the team, suggested.
Jean-Luc blew a raspberry. “That’s ridiculous. Women love me. But that’s beside the point. After I get laid, I’m going home to Louisiana and sweet-talking Grandmère into making me her famous gumbo.”
“I don’t believe your grandmother can be sweet-talked. I’ve tried,” Marcus Deangelo said as he refilled his glass from the massive stash of alcohol laid out on a table. As the team’s lead negotiator, he could talk his way into or out of almost any situation—except, apparently, if Jean-Luc’s grandmother was involved. Marcus shuddered. “That woman scares me.”
“Aw, mon ami. She ain’t nothin’ but a sweet old Cajun lady.”
“Who wrestles gators in her free time,” Marcus said.
“Really?” Harvard, resident hacker extraordinaire, perked up. Still recovering from a chest wound that had nearly killed him, he couldn’t drink like the rest of them and had been unusually quiet all night.
“Oui,” Jean-Luc said. “Gator wrestlin’ is a national pastime in the bayou. All the cool grandmères are doin’ it.”
“You’re so full of shit,” Harvard groaned.
As the chatter continued, Gabe sent Quinn a smug sideways glance, the meaning loud and clear. Executive order. Now he had to take time off.
Quinn sighed. “Yeah, I read you. I’ll go home.” He set his glass aside. “In fact, I’m gonna call it a night.”
Gabe nodded. “Good plan. Go home, get some rest. Do you need a ride?”
“You’re not driving anywhere right now, Gabe.”
“No. Audrey is. She…” He winced and lowered his voice. “She wanted to start trying for a baby, and she refuses to drink a drop of alcohol until we know if it…took. Just in case.”
Shock coursed through Quinn. Yup, Gabe was definitely drunk. He’d never share that bit of personal news while sober. “Whoa. Uh, congrats?”
“I’m fucking terrified about it.”
“But,” he added on an exhale, “she wants a family, and I want her to be happy. And…maybe a kid would be kinda cool.” He polished off his glass in one long gulp, then shrugged. “Anyway, she’s, uh, the designated driver tonight.”
Quinn’s gaze skimmed over the crowd until he found Audrey in her bright red dress. She was indeed drinking water, but she was also laughing with Seth and his girlfriend, Phoebe, and looked like she was having a good time. He shook his head. “Nah, don’t worry about it. I’m good.”
“All right. If you’re sure.” Gabe clapped him on the shoulder but hesitated a beat before adding, “I’ll tell Audrey to expect you on Sundays this month for dinner. Raffi’s already coming. I invited Michael, too. Audrey has been nagging me to be nicer to him because he’s my brother, same as Raffi, and blah, blah, but I doubt he’ll show.”
Quinn winced internally. He liked Raffi, Gabe’s youngest brother—except for the fact Raffi thought he was hot, which made him damn uncomfortable—but he’d rather not have to sit around and make nice with Michael, the middle Bristow boy. He got along with Michael about as well as he did The Admiral, Gabe’s father. Those two were struck from the same puritanical mold.
“Yeah, I’m not—”
“C’mon,” Gabe said. “It’ll be like a family thing.”
“Except I’m not family.” The long stare Gabe sent his way made him feel like an ass. A subject change was in order. “You’re not going back to Costa Rica?”
“Nope. We’re hanging out here in D.C. for a while, which is all the more reason you should join us. Who knows the next time we’ll make it back to D.C. for an extended stay? And Audrey will be thrilled to have the company.”
Quinn started to protest again, but Gabe had already limped away.
Christ. That was so like Gabe. Not an invitation, but a thinly veiled command with shades of a guilt trip, since Quinn hated the idea of disappointing Gabe’s wife in any way.
Yeah, well, it wasn’t going to work this time. He’d give it a few days, then come up with some B.S. reason why he couldn’t make it. All that happy-family-Sunday-dinner shit wasn’t for him. Never had been. Never would be.
Gabe walked over to Audrey, picked her up in a tight hug, and kissed her thoroughly, shamelessly, right there in front of the entire team. The guys whooped and catcalled, and Gabe ignored them, all but bending his wife backward with the force of his kiss.
A hollow ache opened up in Quinn’s chest, and he glanced away from the two of them, only to spot Seth and Phoebe being all lovey-dovey as they picked at the finger foods laid out on another table. And Seth—unstable, paranoid, jumps-at-his-own-shadow Seth Harlan—was laughing. Amazing. Somehow during the course of their mission in Afghanistan, Phoebe had gotten through his PTSD and drawn him out of his shell.
That hollow ache spread, got a little deeper, a little colder, and Quinn rubbed his chest. Yeah, definitely time to get gone. He grabbed his coat and headed toward the door.
“It’s a fucking love plague,” Ian Reinhardt said. The EOD tech was leaning against a nearby wall, swinging an empty leash as he watched all the happy couples. His lip curled into a sneer. “Don’t stand too close. You’ll catch it.”
Quinn glanced at the couples again. First Gabe, then Seth. Ian was right. Maybe it was contagious. And, Christ, he wanted it.
Fuck, it was a good thing nobody could hear that kind of sappy shit going through his mind. He had a reputation to maintain. He was the hard-ass, the ice-cold unbreakable warrior, nicknamed Achilles by his BUD/S instructors because they had tried their damnedest to find his heel, his weakness. Too bad he didn’t have one.
But men like him, the kind of guys who left the womb fighting? They didn’t get fairy-tale endings. They burned bright until they burned out—and he was burning out. He knew it, accepted it, but it was not exactly conducive to a happily-ever-after kind of life.
And yet, he couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like to have that kind of intimate connection with someone.
No, not with just anyone.
Christ, that woman. Mara Escareno shouldn’t still be haunting his thoughts. She’d been a one-night stand over the summer—one he couldn’t seem to forget, sure, but still only a one nighter. But then he’d returned from Afghanistan last month and found himself on her doorstep, and suddenly that no-strings-attached fucking turned into a…he didn’t know what. A fling? A booty call? It hadn’t felt like either, and the memory of her in his arms was so vivid he could almost feel her there again. Would that memory ever leave him? He had a sinking suspicion the answer to that was a resounding no.
Ian snorted in disbelief. “Jesus. Don’t tell me you’re already infected?”
Quinn dragged himself out of his thoughts and pulled on his coat before flipping Ian the bird. “Hey, I’m not the one who fell so hard for a dog that I brought him home from Afghanistan.”
Ian stopped swinging the leash and pushed away from the wall. “Fuck you, Quinn.” He walked away, presumably to go find his new buddy, Tank, in the crowd.
He needed to make a quick, clean exit before anyone else noticed him, but as he opened the door, the little bell on the jamb rang, alerting everyone to his departure.
Audrey waved. “Bye, Q. See you Sunday for dinner.”
Fuck. Gabe had already mentioned it to her?
Quinn raised a hand and called up a smile that hurt his face. And then he ducked outside, shutting the door on all the other farewells.
The party had been held at the private security firm owned by the Wilde brothers, who were all ex-military and had done some work here and there for HORNET throughout the last few months. Their office was in a disused strip mall, which had recently been damaged by fire at one end. Because of that incident, the parking lot was now well lit but quiet, muffled by new snowfall. Silence closed in, threatened to strangle him.
He should leave. Go home like he told Gabe he would. But all that waited for him there was more silence.
He didn’t want to be alone.
Stupid. He gave his head a hard shake to dislodge the thoughts. He was a grown-ass man, and he’d been alone most of his life. How was now any different?
He zipped up his coat, and his footsteps crunched across a fresh layer of snow as he crossed to his car, parked in the far corner of the lot. He fished for his keys in his pocket and instead came up with his cell phone. He’d barely looked at the thing while in Afghanistan because the team had relied mostly on radios and sat phones to communicate, and in the weeks since he’d been home, he’d spent most of his time with Gabe and the team—the only people who ever called him—so he’d kept it shut off. But now he powered it up, and the screen showed he had several voicemails.
Who the hell would call him? He didn’t recognize the number.
Maybe it had been Audrey checking up on Gabe. Or possibly Gabe’s younger brother Raffi. Those two were the only people he could think of, because the rest of Gabe’s family—the Admiral, his middle brother, Michael, and his mother, Catherine—were all assholes. And Quinn himself didn’t have any family to speak of. At least nobody who would be calling and leaving messages.
He stopped walking and punched in the code to access his messages. The uncertain voice that came through the speaker was like a punch to the gut.
“Hi, Travis. Um, I know it’s probably bad form to call like this, but…I need to talk to you. About something. So, um, could you please call me back?”
The sound of her voice after so many weeks sent his heart galloping, and for a moment, he forgot how to suck air into his lungs. Mara wanted to talk to him. Even after the way he’d acted six weeks ago. He knew she was a good person, generous to a fault, but could she possibly be that forgiving? Could he possibly be that lucky?
More than anything else in his life, he wished he could turn the clock back to the night he’d walked away from her. If he could have a redo, he wouldn’t let himself get all tangled up inside his head again, wouldn’t let the intense, instantaneous attraction he’d felt toward her scare him away.
Was this the second chance he’d hoped for?
His stomach fluttered with nerves—a sensation he felt so rarely, he almost couldn’t name it—and his fingers even trembled a little as he punched in the number she’d left. But then he hesitated over the send button.
Fuck calling her. He had an entire month free, and if he was going to get a second chance with her, he would do it the right way.
“He’s leaving.” Todd Urban smacked his palms on the steering wheel of the van parked next to Quinn’s car, then reached for the door. “We need to grab him before—”
“Sir, if we don’t—”
“Stand. Down. I’m sure the Wilde brothers have cameras everywhere around here. We can’t risk being spotted.”
Urban grumbled but released the handle and watched in the side mirror as Quinn climbed into his car. “If he’s going on another op, who knows when we’ll have this opportunity again? We have to neutralize him before he gets his memory back.”
“He’s not going on an op. Gabe and the rest of the team are still inside.”
The car started, and Quinn pulled out of the lot. Good thing they’d had time to bug his vehicle.
Urban cursed under his breath and glanced over at Captain Cold in the passenger seat. He’d never call the captain that nickname to his face, but it was a fitting one, bestowed on him by the people that suffered under his command. “Your orders, sir?”
“I’ve never liked this idea. We’re better than grabbing a man out of a parking lot like a bunch of thugs. We need a new plan of attack.”
Urban grunted. “Like running him off the highway?”
“That was an act of desperation and never should have been given the green light. We’re better than that.”
Urban just barely managed to keep his eye roll to himself. That was Captain Cold’s mantra. He was better than this, better than that, better than everyone and everything. And Urban was starting to think he didn’t like getting his officer hands dirty. Maybe he even resented that he’d been sent on this kind of wet work with a lowly grunt. “We should have sent some guys to take him out in Afghanistan. Nobody would have thought twice about it if he ended up with a bullet in his head there.”
“Urban,” Captain Cold said after a moment and looked at him with—well, maybe not respect, but with something close to it. “That’s the best idea you’ve ever had.”
“We’ll send him on another op, get him out of the country again. Preferably someplace hostile where we’ll have a scapegoat for his death. Where there won’t be an investigation when his body turns up.”
“That…might work.” At least, it solved the problem of trying to explain away a decorated ex-SEAL’s body to the American police. “How do we get them out on another op?”
“They’re mercenaries,” Captain Cold said with disdain and picked up his cell phone. “We hire them. Pull up the GPS and follow Quinn, make sure he’s going home. I have some calls to make.”