Slade Donovan, code name Shadow, moved silently into the room where the men on his Delta Force team waited. Tall and muscular, he was the essence of a warrior, his dark brown hair slightly shaggy with a gray thread or two showing here and there, and the expression on his chiseled face said Bring it on.
Lowering his gear bag to the floor, he dropped himself into an oversized armchair and pulled out his laptop. First things first, he told himself. Mission completed. Men all accounted for. Time to reconnect with the outside world. He turned on the machine and waited for everything to load.
He was more than grateful for the satellite setup at their base camp that allowed them all to communicate with the rest of the world. It was a great way to maintain contact with his ‘brothers’ in the many Spec Ops groups, not just on newsy items but on ways to do things better. He also kept in touch with the foreman of his ranch back in Texas and with the few friends he’d been close with for years.
While he waited for the computer to boot up, he glanced around the room at his men, the members of Team Charlie, sprawled out on the battered furniture, weary and battle-hardened. They still looked rode hard and put away wet, as the saying went in Texas. This last mission had sucked a lot out of them.
Just yesterday they had come down out of the Hindu Kush, the mountain chain that stretched from Afghanistan to Pakistan, tired, dirty and spent, although eminently satisfied. Despite the intel fuckup, the mission had been a success. One more terrorist cell destroyed, one more maniac blown to hell. And the troops fighting for the people of Afghanistan had one less bad guy—and his followers—to worry about.
Delta Force, the Army’s top covert combat unit, had counterterrorism as its main focus and they performed their missions with cold single-mindedness. Like the one they had just completed.
Once they’d landed, they’d gone through debriefing, badly needed showers, a hot meal and fourteen hours of sleep. Now they were just hanging out, guzzling water and making plans for their imminent leave. They were facing ten days to let it all hang out, battle their demons and refresh.
“Damn, Shadow.” Trey McIntyre, code name Storm and the team’s demolitions and firearms expert, flopped onto the beat-up couch and looked over at him. “That last mission was a stone bitch.”
Slade nodded agreement at Trey’s comment. It had definitely been a shitstorm of epic proportions. Angry at the poor intel, at the danger it had put them all in, at the possibility the mission would fail, Slade had kept it all together. They’d regrouped, adjusted their plans and completed the assignment. But hellfire. He wanted to throttle everyone who had put this together.
“Fucking A,” he agreed. “I told the captain the intel on this one sucked. You all pulled off a miracle and I’m damn proud of you all.”
“No shit.” Beau Williams made a rude noise.
With his sun-streaked light brown hair and green eyes, he looked like a typical surfer, fitting his code name. Surfer. Nothing could be further from the truth, though. Beau was their sniper, a job that required incredible focus and discipline.
The ding of a bell let Slade know his computer was now up and running.
When he clicked on the email icon, a flood of messages rolled into his inbox. As he scrolled through them, the subject of one caught his eye. He’d been searching for something he and his team could do together on their current downtime, something to work off the residual tension. Maybe this was it. Last time he’d talked them into it, they’d blown away the competition. Maybe he could coax them out to the ranch and get them to do it again. They might have plans or not, but they were all so drained after the last few ops he wanted them to recharge as a team where he could watch over them.
“Okay, you guys.” The others looked over at him. “I’ve got something here that might interest you.”
“What’s up?” Beau stretched and yawned.
“Remember that shooting competition we took part in two years ago?” Slade glanced at his screen again. “The one held just south of my ranch?”
“Yeah.” Marc Blanchard—code name Eagle—grunted. “We cleaned their clocks.”
Beau grinned. “No shit. What about it?”
“There’s another one scheduled for next week, right at the end of our leave. Handguns and long guns. Just like the last one.” He paused. “I don’t know what plans y’all might have, but how about hanging out at my ranch again and we’ll go win a few more prizes?”
His spread was south of San Antonio, where he ran a small herd of cattle and kept horses he could ride fast enough and far enough to clear his mind. It had become his refuge, a place to heal after each mission and reconnect with humanity. He’d taken his team there a couple of times when they’d really needed to switch off from everything to pull themselves together again.
Beau sat forward, interest sparking in his eyes. “I can always use a chance to dazzle people with my skills. But, uh, Shadow? Besides the competition, will there also be women while we’re there? That’s my top priority.”
Of course. Beau didn’t care where or what as long as there were women.
“Did you notice a lack of them the last couple of times?” Slade grinned. “Yes, there will be women.”
“Then count me in.”
“Me too,” Trey echoed.
Marc was suspiciously silent. Still recovering from the disastrous end of an even more catastrophic marriage, bitterness had etched deep lines on his face and colored his entire personality.
Slade focused his gaze on him. “Marc? You in?”
The man was silent for so long Slade wasn’t sure he planned to give him an answer. Then he gave a short, quick nod. “I’m in for the shooting. We’ll see about the women.”
Slade had discussed Marc’s situation many times with Beau and Trey. They all worried that, when he had leave, the man just crawled into a hole for ten days and drank himself into oblivion. Still, he always showed up on time sober and sharp so Slade really had no cause to say anything to him. Yet. But he could still worry about him.
“And speaking of meeting women,” Slade went on, “remember the JAG lawyer I introduced you to when you were at the ranch two years ago? Paul Hutton? Old friend of mine? We had dinner one night with him and his wife?”
“Is he providing the women?” Beau joked.
Slade chuckled. “Maybe. In a way, that is. He and his wife are having a party. If you all promise to clean up good and not pick your teeth in public, we’re all invited.”
“I’m guessing it will be a little different than the entertainment last time, right?” Trey winked.
Beau laughed. “I’d say that’s a big Ten-Four.”
Slade nodded. “No private sex club this time. We tried it at The Edge and you all passed on doing it again.”
Beau nodded. “Not our cup of tea.”
“I like my sex with no holds barred,” Trey added, “but not with a lot of other people around. Call me simple, but I like my privacy.”
“Is that so the rest of us can’t see how inept a lover you are?” Beau teased. “Afraid your women will take a gander at us and leave you in the dust?”
“Ha ha ha. Very funny. As a matter of fact, I don’t want your women to get jealous of my style.”
“Whatever.” Beau flapped a hand at him.
“But I think we’re all agreed the club scene isn’t for us, right?” Slade looked at each of them. “Speak up now and forever.”
“Yes.” Beau nodded. “Right.”
Trey nodded his assent. Slade glanced at Marc Blanchard, who hadn’t spoken a word. The man was in a very dark place and had been since the implosion of his marriage. Slade worried about him, a lot. He’d thought the visit to The Edge might have lit a spark in him, but Marc had disappeared into a private room with one of the subs and hadn’t said a word about it afterward.
“Marc? You agree too?”
Marc just nodded.
“Okay, then. We’ll head back to my ranch and make plans from there. Let me dig through my email and see if there’s anything else on that might interest us.”
Slade liked sex as much as the next man and had a healthy appetite for it. He lived by the motto—We go abroad to vanquish and conquer for country. We come home and vanquish and conquer for us. And why not? Tomorrow could be their last day on Earth.
Sometimes he wondered, though, if that would be the pattern forever. He was totally committed to Delta. It was his life. He had nothing left over to give to a relationship. Something he’d learned to live with. Sure, he’d seen others do it, but it required a mindset he didn’t think he had. There were those who had retired from Delta Force, at least from active missions. They taught, trained others—any number of things. But could he do it? He was a warrior, after all. The leader of Delta Force Team Charlie. Up until now there hadn’t been room for anything else. Could he ever adjust to a change?
But then, as he stared unseeing at the computer screen, bam! A memory popped into his mind. One that had been haunting him for five years. No matter how he tried, he couldn’t get rid of it. He wasn’t a man given to dreaming about women—except maybe for the occasional wet dream. But a trip to Chicago and a party with friends had ended in a night of the most spectacular sex with the most incredible woman he’d ever met. She had stunned him. Sucker-punched might be a better word. Blindsided him. Silky auburn hair, emerald green eyes and a body that had made his mouth water. Perfume that had tickled his senses, a low musical laugh and the satiny feel of her skin completed the package. She had been so put together on the outside, but wildness had sparkled in her eyes.
They’d come together as two strangers, looking for nothing more than the moment. A brief but explosively intense encounter. He’d wanted to wash away the devastation of his most recent mission and she had wanted—whatever she’d wanted. They hadn’t spent a lot of time discussing it. In his hotel room they’d torn each other’s clothes off in their haste to get naked. That first coming together had been hot and frantic and had blown his mind. He’d felt like a teenager on his first hot date.
Every moment of that night still haunted him, indelibly etched on his brain, on his senses. He couldn’t forget her plump breasts tipped with rosy nipples, or the wet heat of her sex and the way it had clenched around him when she’d come. He swore he could still feel the satiny caress of her skin as she lay pressed against him, or the silken fall of her hair brushing his chest—and other parts of his body.
Underneath her proper exterior she’d been a hot, sensuous woman who’d liked her sex as rough as he did. It had been the best sex of his life, ever, hands down. He had definitely been up for more of it the next day. Worn out and replete, he’d vaguely remembered falling asleep with her in his arms, but when he’d awoken in the morning, she had been gone, leaving him with an unaccustomed emptiness. He’d asked his friends about her, but all they’d known was she’d come with some other people they’d invited. They hadn’t recognized the name and apparently nobody else had known who Mandy Wheeler Baker was. Maybe she’d given him a fake name, just as he’d done to her. Women came and went in his life, and that was fine with him. The way he wanted it. He was married to Delta and had no plans to change that any time soon. But not even calling on all his personal discipline could get one time with that woman out of his mind. One night, for fuck’s sake.
How was it possible that after five years he still remembered every erotic detail of those long hours? How many times had he replayed it over and over, like a video on constant rewind? She appeared in his dreams, as if taunting him, and his cock swelled and hardened every time. Other women hadn’t been able to erase her from his mind. He was arrogant enough to wonder if she thought of him after all this time but pragmatic enough to know the chances they’d ever cross paths again were slim to none.
He wanted her with a hunger that ate at him. Worse than that, they’d made a connection. An emotional link. Whatever. He’d have thought with the passage of time that feeling would fade. Instead, it had just increased. Grown stronger. He couldn’t get her out of his fucking mind. And if he did find her? What then? Where did they go from there?
“Hey, Slade.” Trey’s voice broke into his reverie. “You still with us? Where’d you wander off to?”
He shook himself back to the present, realizing with a start he’d zoned out right there in front of his men. Bad, bad, bad. “Yeah. I’m here.”
“Good to know.” Beau cocked an eyebrow. “You looked a million miles away.”
“So we okay here? If nothing else, for ten days you’ll get to eat terrific food, soak up some sun and not have to do a damn fucking thing.”
Trey nodded. “I’m in.”
The rest of them murmured their agreement, even Marc.
“Okay. Let’s make some plane reservations. We’ll fly into San Antonio. Then I’ll have the ranch chopper pick us up.”
“Sounds okay to me,” Beau agreed. “Let’s rock and roll.”
In less than twelve hours they were on their way out of Helmand Province, making a stop in Madrid to pick up a commercial flight to the States. Long hours after that they finally landed at San Antonio International Airport where Slade hustled them out of the door and down a long walkway to the private plane terminal. A gleaming black helo awaited them, a familiar figure leaning against it, arms folded across his chest, white teeth gleaming in a smile contrasting with his sun-darkened skin.
“Glad you’re home, bro,” he said, slapping Slade on the shoulder.
“Me too. Look at the bunch of ugly mugs I brought with me again.”
“Hey, Teo!” Trey shook hands with the man. “Think you can put up with us again?”
“As long as the boss pays me extra.” He winked. Teobaldo Rivera was the ranch foreman, fiercely loyal to Slade and excellent at his job.
Whenever Slade brought his team to the ranch with him, Teo always went out of his way to make sure they enjoyed themselves.
“Okay,” he told them. “Let’s get loaded up. The beer’s chilling in the fridge and the steaks are thawing.”
It was a tight fit for five oversized males, but Slade figured they could handle it for the short hop to the ranch. As soon as the chopper landed, they were out of the cabin. Slade shoved his hands in his pockets and looked around. He loved coming home to the ranch. It replaced the family he didn’t have and the home he’d lost a long time ago. The sprawling ranch house off to his right rose two stories from the lawn around it, shaded by ancient oaks and maples. To the left stood the enormous barn that held his horses, any cattle that might need to be separated in an individual pen, and Teo’s offices. Behind that nestled the building that housed all the ranch equipment, including the portable pens for branding. And beyond that, as far as he could see, the endless rolling pastures meeting the horizon of the blue Texas sky. Pastures that contained the small herd of cattle he nourished and bred and sold.
He inhaled the familiar scent of horses and hay and Texas sunshine and almost at once the tension riding him began to ease. He loved coming home to this place. He could regenerate, rest, ride his horses.
And there were always women to hook up with whenever he wanted, women he’d met over the years. Too bad none of them replaced the one he really wanted. He could almost see her here on the ranch, in jeans and boots, walking to meet him, two small figures hopping along beside her, filled with excitement. But he didn’t know her real name, didn’t know where to find her and no one seemed able to tell him. So all he had was the memory of the most incredible night of his life, a memory that plagued him whenever he opened his mind to it.
Fucking damn. He needed to find that woman or get over her. He was driving himself nuts.
While Teo went through his shutdown routine, he and his men unloaded their duffels and headed toward the house.
“Let’s get inside,” Slade told them, “and I’ll get you all situated.” He grinned. “Then we can crack open some cold ones.”
The large ranch house had four guest rooms plus the master suite, a situation that worked out well for them. The air was still sun-warmed, even though the sun itself had dipped below the horizon, but a soft breeze added a cooling element. The air carried the heady aromas of hay and horseflesh and cattle, a mixture Slade loved more than any perfume. The spread was his haven, the place where he could put all the blackness of his missions behind him and feel like a normal person. If he ever did settle down, the woman would have to love it as much as he did—if being the operative word. Did the woman he’d dreamed about so much—?
Damn! He had to stop this. He was losing his grip here.
“I see Teo got the beer out?” he commented as he jogged down the stairs and out to the porch.
The men had dumped their gear in their respective rooms and were already out there waiting for him.
“Yeah,” Trey joked. “We’re trying to save you some, but you know how it goes.”
Slade glanced around, realizing one of the team was absent. “Be right back,” he told them.
Slade knocked on the door of the room Marc had dropped his things in. He’d wanted to give the man a moment to himself on the off chance he’d come on downstairs and join them, but it seemed he needed either prodding or dragging. Slade had hoped with such a peaceful setting, surrounded by the natural beauty of Texas ranchland, with a gorgeous sunset painting the sky, he’d feel relaxed. Maybe even looking forward to the ten days here. But nothing relaxed him anymore. While the rest of them kicked back and did whatever, Marc, the team’s weapons and demolitions expert, often used his downtime in practice and refresher training. Considering the state of his personal life, Slade was glad the man was a disciplined soldier, committed to the job.
Slade pushed the door open. Marc stood at the window looking out at the scene below.
“Okay to come in?”
Marc shrugged. “It’s your house.”
“Hey, guy. That doesn’t mean you can’t have privacy.”
If anyone asked Slade he’d say the man had too much privacy. Too much time to think about the dark place he couldn’t seem to get out of. A place where the image of his naked wife, high on the drugs he hadn’t known she was addicted to, was riding their equally naked neighbor and screaming with pleasure. He once told Slade, in a rare moment of confidence, he wished he could bleach his mind to erase that scene that played over and over like a video on a loop.
‘That’s what I got for letting my cock tell me what to do instead of listening to my brain.’
Slade knew some of the background. When Marc had met Ria, he’d been stunned by her beauty and swept away by her vivacious personality. Naturally quiet and introspective himself, he’d nevertheless been drawn to her at once. His total dedication to Delta Force had precluded any type of lasting relationship. Until then. She’d told him she loved him and had made him believe it. The sex had been unbelievable, so hot it had scorched the air around them. When he’d had leave time between missions, he hadn’t been able to get home fast enough to immerse himself in his incredible wife. The fact that she had chosen him when, he was sure, she could have any man she’d wanted, was in itself an aphrodisiac.
Slade and the other team members had met her, at a dinner where he’d proudly showed her off. None of the team members, including Slade, had been too enthusiastic about her, but that hadn’t bothered Marc.
“You’re just jealous,” he’d ground out.
Then the roof had fallen in and his life had come apart. The scene he’d walked in on had been bad enough. He’d managed to control his rage to not kill the guy when he’d tossed them out into the street. But when he’d realized she’d been high on drugs rather than alcohol, he’d done a thorough search of the house, including her personal belongings, and found baggies filled with multicolored pills.
He’d called Slade, because he’d been out of his mind. Insane. Especially when he’d learned she’d been doing that for a long time, both the drugs and screwing anything with a dick. He’d been torn between wanting to kill her and kill himself. Slade had talked him down off the ledge and waited while he’d packed his things—not too many, he traveled light—and had walked him out of the apartment and out of her life. He’d found him an attorney who had told Marc to do whatever was needed to get a divorce fast.
He’d asked Slade not to ever bring it up again and had spent the rest of his leave holed up in a motel room, trying not to drink himself to death.
Slade wasn’t an emotional person, but his heart ached for Marc, so damaged by a selfish, insane woman. He often wondered if Marc would ever get back to the point where he wanted to rejoin the living.
Now Slade cleared his throat. “Heavy thoughts there, Eagle. Admiring the great view?”
Marc turned, his mouth stretched in an imitation of a smile. “Just giving my brain a rest. Give me five and I’ll be right along.”
“I’ll hold you to it. Beer’s cold, so come on down.”
Swallowing a sigh, he left the room and headed downstairs. He could already hear the others on the back porch where he’d left them. Maybe, just maybe ten days at the ranch would be the first step toward Marc regaining his sanity and equilibrium.
* * * *
Slade watched Marc snag a beer from the cooler, pop the cap and move to the far side of the porch. As usual, close to the group but still separate. Man. The guy was going to implode if they didn’t figure out how to get him some help pretty soon. Slade thought about telling him to move closer to the others but decided to keep his mouth shut. This was supposed to be a vacation. Downtime. If he wanted Marc to heal, he wouldn’t accomplish it by giving him orders.
“You know”—Trey leaned back in the lounger he’d appropriated, staring off toward the horizon—“I can see why you like this place.”
“Yeah?” Slade raised an eyebrow.
“I’m not sure I could take the peace and quiet in large doses,” Trey added, “or too frequently. But right now? I have to say it’s great.”
“I actually think I might agree with him, shocking as that is.” Beau took a long swallow of his beer and let his gaze travel lazily over the view that stretched from the house. “I can see why you love it here, Slade.”
Some of the horses were in the corral, their coats glowing in the sunlight. Beside the first bar, two of the hands worked on the hay baler and from the far pasture, two hands who’d been riding fences trotted their horses back to the barn. It always reminded him of a painting he’d seen in a gallery in San Antonio that specialized in Western landscapes.
“Best tranquilizer in the world,” he told the other men.
“So what’s on the agenda now, Shadow? Riding horses or riding women?”
Slade considered each of them—lean, tan, hardened men, men he felt privileged to have on his team. They’d forged a bond that was unheard of in normal circumstances. He wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“I’m thinking we should just hang out here tonight, try to get back to what passes for normal for us. Kick back. Drink some beer. Grill some steaks. Tomorrow night is the party I told you about.”
“Is this the party your friend is giving?” Beau grinned. “And how clean do we have to get?”
“Clean enough to pass muster. Yes, this is the one. So pretty damn clean.” He took his own swallow of beer.
“I know he’s JAG now,” Beau asked, “but was he ever Delta?”
Slade shook his head, irritated at the question. “No, we went in different directions. He loved the law and the fact he could be Army and still practice it. He had his law degree, applied for Judge Advocate Group and he’s been with them ever since. Dumb luck for him he got assigned to Lackland here in San Antonio and he’s been here ever since.” Slade looked hard at each of them. “And he’s done a damn fine job. He puts his ass on the line every day in a different way.”
“Okay, okay.” Beau held up his hands. “I didn’t mean anything by it. Any friend of yours and all that.”
Trey took a sip of his cold beer. “Is this party for something special?”
“No. They just like to entertain. When he found out I’d be home for it, he insisted I come.”
Beau lifted an eyebrow. “And us too?”
“Hard as it is to believe anyone would want your company,” Slade teased. “But yes, he said to bring all you assholes.”
Marc, who hadn’t said a word up until now, shook his head. “I think I’ll pass.”
Slade leaned forward. “That’s not an option, Marc. Even if you sit in the corner all night and glower at everyone, I’m getting your ass there, so just accept it.” He unwound his tall body from the lounge chair. “Meanwhile, I think we could all use a shower. Then I’ll throw those steaks on the grill. I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve been waiting a long time for a decent meal. See you in an hour.”