Excerpt for Rogue by , available in its entirety at Smashwords






ROGUE



Laura Marie Altom



SEAL Team: Disavowed


To become a United States Navy SEAL, a man must be physically forged in steel and able to mentally compute life or death situations with laser accuracy and speed. Our country trusts these men with the most sensitive military operations—many so covert that once they are successfully completed, they are never spoken of again.

This series celebrates one particularly fierce band of brothers who valiantly battled terrorists whose crimes against nature and humanity were far too great to chance escape. On a dark night, on foreign soil, SEAL Team Alpha witnessed acts so unspeakably cruel against women, infants and small children that their consciences would not allow anything other than their own brand of justice for the scum terrorist cell.

A trial would have been too good for these pigs, and so, one-by-one they were taken out, and the women and children they’d used were freed. By dawn, an entire region breathed easier. The men of Alpha found themselves heroes to those whose lives they had saved, but virtual criminals in the eyes of the organization they served. After a lengthy investigation, their elite, covert team was formally disbanded.

They now spend their lives deep undercover, still serving—no longer their country, but individuals who find themselves in need of not only their own personal warrior, but a particular brand of justice.

While honorably discharged, these men and their actions will forever be disavowed . . .


SEAL Team: Disavowed series


Rogue, Book 1

Outcast, Book 2

Shunned, Book 3

Exiled, Book 4

Renegade, Book 5

Forsaken, Book 6

Scorned, Book 7

1



ONE WRONG MOVE.

That’s all it would take for Maisey and her unborn child to die.

For disavowed Navy SEAL Nash Adamson, Maisey represented his first crush, his first kiss. His first everything. They could have had it all—until she’d dumped him. Now that fate had forced their reunion, they not only had years between them, but his dead wife and son.

The irony of the situation hadn’t escaped him.

In and out, he chanted in his head with each breath. He’d make this an in-and-out mission, then never see her again.

Through his NVG’s alien-green light, Nash counted ten of her husband’s thugs guarding the south Florida compound’s west border. The Everglades were isolated, but this place was located on a remote island among hundreds of islands. Even with satellite maps and photos and state of the art GPS, it had taken Nash hours by boat to reach it.

As a SEAL—make that ex-SEAL—he might have been trained to deal with all manner of chaos, but he was also smart enough not to rely on miracles. Rather than fighting what was sure to be an overwhelming show of force, he realized his best course of action was stealth.

The single-story, sprawling Spanish style home might be remote, but a fortress it was not. The stucco exterior featured plenty of easily accessible windows and balconies with handy-dandy, climbable trellises. The roof was tile, and sloped low enough to run across in a pinch.

In short, Maisey’s hubby, drug kingpin Vicente Rodriguez, was a dumbass.

Still—even a dumbass could get Maisey or Nash’s ass killed.

Above Nash’s steady pulse sang the nighttime swamp. The hum of insects. The bellow of bullfrogs and the occasional grunt of a gator. The place had more bio-danger per square inch than anywhere else he’d recently traveled. Sure, the Amazon basin had the Sunshine State beat, but not by much. Escaping Maisey’s sicko hubby was only half the battle. He’d then have plenty of slimy, hissing, biting obstacles to circumvent to ensure their safety.

Once he’d established a rhythm to the perimeter guards’ flow, Nash eased through shadows to the compound’s weakest link—its electrical box that was linked to a generator. The security system was surprisingly rudimentary. Took mere moments to rewire.

The early August day had been a scorcher.

Crouched against a still-warm brick wall, he flipped up his goggles, giving his eyes time to adjust before using a retractable mirror to peer into the window above. Three goons lounged around a kitchen table, M16s resting alongside steaming coffee and Danish.

Nice domestic scene.

Research told Nash that Vicente was one of the region’s most lucrative dealers. Miami authorities had had him on their radar for years, but when it came to maintaining his squeaky clean image, the guy was a master. Not only was he suspected of buying off every local police force within a hundred miles, he’d wooed locals with perks like college scholarships for underprivileged youth and new public pools, clinics and baseball fields. Did Maisey know he already had a nice, Catholic wifey tucked away in his Columbian palace? The fact that Nash could possibly be the one telling her made him sick. Her mom had been the one to alert him that she was in trouble.

Satellite photos had given Nash a blueprint to follow. A quick check of the laminated diagram he’d stashed in a pocket reminded him to hug this wall to a ninety degree turn, at which point he’d find a courtyard with a pool framed by six bedrooms. The trick would be finding the one housing Maisey.

Lucky him, lights were out behind all but one set of French doors.

The lone illuminated room had open curtains.

Lying on a floral spread, looking fourteen-months pregnant was Maisey. If she hadn’t sported tear-stained cheeks and cuffed hands clasped over her belly, he might have thought her at peace. Her blond curls were as unruly as ever and her petite frame made her appear all the more vulnerable.

Throat unexpectedly tight, he fought a nostalgic rush—not only memories of good times shared, but the agonizing finality of learning his pregnant wife’s fate.

Thirty yards behind him, a twig snapped.

He froze, then ducked behind the pool equipment shed to wait for a two-man guard team to pass. The guy nearest him smoked. The acrid scent warred with the swamp’s mossy, fungal smells.

The pool pump kicked on.

Once the men passed, Nash used the noise to his advantage, masking his steps across the pea gravel pool surround.

With Maisey’s room exposed, he entered the house through one of the darkened rooms. She’d understandably be happy to see him, but he couldn’t risk that scene being played out in front of her guards.

The French door’s lock was easy enough to pick.

Inside, the artificially-cooled air hit him like a wall. It took a moment to adjust after the swamp’s stifling heat. Nash assumed the dark space would be empty—wrong. The courtyard’s dim lights showed an off-duty goon stretched across the bed, his black fatigues and boots out of place on the floral spread.

Holding his breath, Nash crept to the door, eking it open. Once his vision adjusted to the brightly lit hall, he searched for signs of life.

Finding no one, he turned left, reining in his hammering pulse. He’d been on far more dicey missions, yet this was personal. In an odd twist of fate, he’d been given the opportunity to save his wife and unborn child all over again and he wouldn’t let them down.

Only, you already did.

Nash squashed the negative voice in his head to focus on how to best approach Maisey without inducing an emotional show. He had to keep her cool. He couldn’t risk her alerting guards within her view.

Holding his breath, he entered what for all practical purposes was Maisey’s cell.

She appeared to be sleeping, but taking no chances, he kept to the room’s edge. If he shut the curtains before she woke, he could privately brief her on the escape plan. Otherwise, to assure they had no audience, he’d duck behind her bed.

Three feet from his goal, she bolted upright. “Who are you?”

“Mais,” he whispered, removing his combat helmet, “it’s me—Nash.”

“Who?” Narrowed pale blue eyes spoke of her confusion. “Nash? From high school? You work for Vicente?”

“No. Your mom asked me to find you.”

His peripheral vision caught a glint from outside. If Vicente’s men caught him now, he’d be in a shitstorm. Ducking beside a dresser, he put his finger to his lips. “Don’t look at me. I’m not here.”

Not only did she not follow his instructions, she waved toward whoever was outside.

“Knock it off,” he ground from between clenched teeth. “What’s wrong with you?”

“You have to leave or Vicente will kill us both.”

Leave?” He shook his head. “Woman, I’m here to rescue you.”

A knock sounded on the French door. A muffled voice asked from outside, “Miss Maisey, you okay?”

Mouth dry, Nash readied his Glock for action.

“I-I’m fine,” she called. In an awkward scoot from the bed, she approached the drapery, then jerked it shut. “Thanks for checking in.”

Nash took the luxury of exhaling, then lit into her. “What the hell’s wrong with you? You’re treating your jailers like friends.”

“I have no choice.” Seated on an upholstered side chair, she hugged her hands to her belly, whispering, “Vicente made it clear. Either I play by his rules, or he’ll kill me.” Voice trembling, she said, “I-I saw him shoot a supposed friend—a man we’d shared meals with—in the head. For my baby’s sake, I have to do as he says. More than anything, he wants a son. He won’t hurt me as long as I’m carrying his child.”

“Key words . . .” Kneeling in front of her, Nash searched for the right message to make her see reason. “As long as you’re carrying his baby, you’re safe. What happens after your son’s delivery? Do you honestly think, having witnessed Vicente murder on a whim, he’ll keep you around?” He gestured to her cuffed hands. “He’s restrained the mother of his child. Who does that?”

“I know.” Her expression clouded. Tears pooled in her eyes. “I’m in a bad spot, but I have to trust that everything’s going to be okay.”

Rocking back on his heels, Nash closed his eyes and groaned. “This is the most busted-ass rescue mission ever. Any second, Vicente’s goons could rush in here, killing us both, and you’re in a unicorn and rainbow fog. Wake up, Maisey. We’ve got to get out of here—now.”

Her soft cries only steeled his resolve.

“No time for tears. Sorry your marriage went bad. But—”

“We’re n-not even married. H-he lied to me. He already h-has a wife, but she’s in Columbia. She can’t have children, but he told me he’ll never divorce her because of his faith.” Her once light tears were now borderline hysterics. “His faith! What about mine? A-all my life I’ve struggled to be good, yet here I am, the unwed mother of a drug lord’s b-baby.”

Nash should’ve reached out to Maisey, drawing her into a hug while whispering sweet assurances into her hair, but he was no longer capable of that level of compassion. Losing his wife and son had changed him. Steeled him. Now, he was a machine calibrated to one goal—keeping this woman safe.

“Get your act together.” Grasping her wrists, he made quick work of popping the locks on her cuffs. “Sixty seconds, we’re ghosts.”

“I can’t,” she said on the heels of a wail. “Where would we even go?”

“Trust me. I’ve got a plan.” Nash rose to his full height, and slapped his helmet back on. “I don’t mean to be cruel, but wise up and realize Hubby views you as nothing more than his own personal incubator, which is why we’ve got to bounce.”

He scooped her into his arms.

“Put me down!” Bucking against his hold, she made it a nightmare for Nash to kill the room’s overhead lights, then gauge between a crack in the drapes if their friends were within eyeshot. “You don’t know what you’re doing. Vicente will kill us both.”

“No biggee . . .” Jaw clenched, Nash forced a breath before opening the door leading to the hall. “If you don’t stop fighting me, we’re already dead.”

2



MAISEY BLAKE BUCKED and kicked and did everything within her power to escape Nash’s binding hold. The one thing she didn’t do was scream. Why? The last thing she wanted was to attract attention. What didn’t Nash get about the fact that as long as she was pregnant, she held all the power? As soon as she went into labor, Vicente would get her and their son safely to a hospital. Once there, she’d solicit help. While she adored her mother for sending out her own personal cavalry, if Vicente or one of his men caught her trying to escape, there would only be more trouble.

“Stop fighting,” Nash demanded.

“I will if you put me down. I have a plan for after the baby’s born. I know I can get Vicente to see reason and let me share in raising our son.”

“What happened to you, Mais?” Nash kept right on charging down the endless corridor. He passed a light switch and flicked it off. “Back when I knew you, you weren’t this clueless.”

She struggled all the harder, writhing to pummel his chest. “Put me down!”

“Hey!” called a voice from the dark. Maisey winced against the sudden glare of lights.

“Miss Maisey?” The guard sounded confused.

“Boss told me we’re moving her,” Nash said in an authoritative tone.

“I haven’t heard. Mr. Rodriguez briefs everyone regarding his woman.” Eyes narrowed, he asked, “Who are you?”

“Set me down.” Throughout the exchange, Maisey’s heart beat faster. Afraid runaway blood pressure could harm her baby, she tugged Nash’s sleeve. “I’m fine walking on my own.”

“Sure?” The warmth in his voice feigned concern. In reality, if Nash cared one iota, he would never have interfered in her business. All the same, he set her to her feet, never loosening his hold on her upper arm.

“Both of you stay put.” The guard took a walkie-talkie from his belt. “Mr. Rodriguez, this is Manuel. I’ve got a situation with Miss Maisey. I need to verify you gave the okay for her transport?”

“Negative,” said Vicente, his voice tinny over the radio. “Shoot to kill whoever she’s with and disable her—just don’t aim for my child.”

In the moment it took Maisey to grasp the fact that the man she’d once loved had ordered his associate to hurt her, any illusions she might have had for her pregnancy to have a happy ending were shattered.

Nash was right.

She’d been a fool in not doing everything in her power to escape.

Run!” Nash delivered two blows to the guard, dropping him to his knees. After taking the injured man’s weapon, Nash steered Maisey into the night.

“Shoot her!” The booming voice unmistakably belonged to the man she’d once believed to be her husband. “Aim for her legs! Don’t hurt my son!”

“I’ll cover,” Nash pushed her ahead. “Get out that side door. I’m right behind you.”

Gunfire erupted.

This time, she didn’t question his orders. Why hadn’t she listened before? If she’d left peacefully, it might have been hours before anyone had noticed she’d gone.

She wrenched open the deadbolt, then darted into the dark, muggy night. Thick air gripped her as tightly as her fear, making it hard to think or breathe. As Nash had directed, she should have kept moving, but where would she even go?

Bullets exploded against the lawn where she stood, forcing her to run blindly. She wore a flimsy nightgown and slippers. Dirt hit her exposed arms and cheeks with such force she couldn’t be sure whether or not she’d been shot.

“Hurry!” Fingers once again digging into her upper arm, Nash propelled her off of the manicured lawn and into the swamp. Vines tangled about her feet and thorns clawed her hands. Warm mud oozed into the soles of thin satin house shoes. “Faster!”

“I’m trying,” she snapped, barely able to catch her breath. Pulse racing, love for her baby propelled her ever deeper into the night. As much as she tried telling herself this could only be a nightmare from which she’d soon wake, the continued pop of gunshots shattered all illusion, drumming into her head their horrifying reality.

“I-I can’t do this,” she cried, on the verge of throwing up. Though this was hardly the time for a hormonal breakdown, once tears started they refused to stop.

“Yes, you can.”

When she slowed, Nash hefted her into his arms, somehow impossibly still trudging forward through mud and riotous vegetation.

The gunshots had stopped, but Vicente’s bark carried on the thick, moldy-smelling air. Find her!

“We’ll never escape him,” Maisey cried against Nash’s chest. “He’ll never give up.”

“Neither will we.”

He carried her for what she guessed was another fifteen minutes before they came to a clearing and a small, sandy beach.

“Son of a . . .” After setting her down, he flicked on a light on his helmet to inspect a section of rope tied to a cypress. “Looks like it’s been cut. See how clean the break is? The markings in the sand?”

“Yes.” By faint moonlight, she noticed footprints and a wide indentation where it looked as if something heavy had been dragged.

“Looks like Hubby’s friends circled around us, and helped themselves to our ride. Not sure why they didn’t just wait for us to show up, but I’m not complaining.”

“Don’t call him that.”

“Huh?” He cocked his head.

“Vicente. Don’t refer to him as my husband. And what does any of this mean?” She gestured to the disturbed sand. “You have another plan, right?”

He sighed. “Sure. Assuming we reach that boat before they do.”


3



HOURS LATER, WHEN Nash no longer heard the shouts of Vicente’s men, he gave himself permission to stop.

Though cloaked in hundred percent humidity and heat, Maisey’s teeth chattered. Shock? From a basic first aid kit he carried in one of many pockets on his black cargo pants, he took a metallic survival wrap. Wouldn’t do as much for her as a nice fire, but at least it’d keep her from losing additional body heat. As for that fire, he couldn’t take the risk of smoke leading Vicente’s men right to them.

“T-thank you,” she managed through her latest violent shiver.

“No problem.” He’d set her at the base of a cypress. Moonlight did nothing to sugarcoat the toll their adventure had already taken. For him, what they’d been through was all in a day’s work—physically easier than some of the missions he’d had to endure. For her, with her delicate features dirt-smudged, blond curls laced with leaves and small vines, shoulders sagging in defeat, she wore the dull-eyed mask of hopelessness he’d often seen on refugees.

While his training told him to secure their perimeter with booby traps designed to give a few precious seconds notice in case they were found, he couldn’t in good conscience leave his pregnant friend alone and shivering.

“You gotta relax.” Seated alongside her, he pulled her against him, intent on sharing his warmth. “We’ve got this.”

As if operating on instinct, she snuggled closer. Leaning into him with what little remained of her strength.

For the first time in forever, he felt every inch a protector. Ironic that he was feeling now. It was his inability to feel that had his teammates worried. His friend and business partner, Harding, had forced him to take some time off, told him to get his shit together. The pain of losing his wife and son had been indescribable. So bad that he’d found it best to construct a wall around that part of his life, compartmentalizing it in a corner of his heart that would never again see daylight.

When Maisey stopped shivering, Nash reached into another pocket for a protein bar. “Eat.”

She took it, but asked, “What about you?”

“I’m good. There’s more. Plus, come daylight, I’ll go shopping.”

“Shopping?” She lifted her brows.

“Guess scrounging might be a better word. There’s plenty of food out here. We just have to find it.”

“Please,” holding the bar in front of his mouth, she urged, “you have some, too. I don’t feel right hogging it all for myself.”

To get her off his case, he bit a corner, then pushed it away. “Happy?”

“You always were stubborn.”

True. His tenacity served him well. The only thing he’d ever given up on was his love for this woman.

Having chewed the last bite of her mini-meal, she said, “You told me my mom sent you. How did she know where I was? For her own safety, I begged her to stay out of my business.”

“You and your mom used to be tight. What happened that you wouldn’t ask her for help?”

She took a long time answering. “Vicente. From the first time I mentioned him, her warning bells rang. She had no trouble advising me to stay away.”

Maisey had stopped shivering. Wanting to keep her talking, to keep her mind from their less than ideal location and situation, Nash asked, “Why didn’t you see the same signs?”

“I wanted the fairy tale. For the first time in my life, I felt special. This man made me feel like I was the most amazing woman in the world.”

“Thanks.” Her comment struck like a sucker punch. Didn’t matter that it’d been almost a decade since their last kiss, or that he’d already found and lost his wife, Maisey’s long ago rejection still stung. “Good to know how much you cared.”

“Really?” she asked with a put upon sigh. “We hadn’t even graduated high school. Did you honestly, for one second, think I’d marry you? Signing on for a lonely life of living on some remote Navy base while you were off getting yourself killed? Or worse—behaving like my father? No, thanks.”

He forced a chuckle. “Let me get this straight, life with me would’ve been worse than a sham marriage to a drug lord?”

Covering her face with her hands, she shook her head. “That’s not at all what I mean, you’re mixing—”

“Don’t move . . .” A long, dark rope slithered from their tree.


4



“FREEZE . . .”

“What? Why?” She started to look over her shoulder, but Nash slowly reached for a mean-looking knife. Forehead furrowed, his narrowed eyes and pressed lips told her he wasn’t fooling.

“Don’t. Move. An inch.”

Palms sweating, pulse racing, Maisey wasn’t sure her heart could take much more.

“No matter what . . . stay still.”

Afraid to even nod, she swallowed hard, assuming Nash knew she understood.

Painstakingly slow, he raised his arm, menacing knife held at the ready. Drawing his lower lip into his mouth, he inched closer, and then lunged, swinging at whatever was behind her with such force she heard his knife’s swoosh alongside her ear.

When that something thumped against her back, she screamed, scrambling to her feet with newfound superhuman strength.

Writhing on the dirt were two halves of a cottonmouth.

Growing up in Florida, she’d been schooled on which snakes to steer clear of and this one topped the list.

Hands clutched to her chest, she couldn’t breathe past the wall of panic rising in her throat. Would this night ever end? The man she’d loved ordered thugs to shoot her, and now she faced venomous snakes?

“What are you doing?” she asked.

Nash had sliced off the snake’s head and was now stripping the skin. “Making breakfast.”

She retched.

“You might feel that way now,” he said with a chuckle, “but pardon the rhyme—the meat is sweet. It’d really be good deep-fried with beer batter, but we’ll have to make do.”

“You’re crazy. Get me out of here.”

“That’s the plan.” He used a small stick to spear the snake lengthwise like on a spit. “But last I checked my GPS, we’re off course by a good five miles.”

“So you do have somewhere specific in mind for us to be?”

“Yeah.” He gathered brush and small twigs, dropping them onto a pile. “And if you hadn’t fought me back at Hubby’s—sorry, Vicente’s—you’d have already been home in a nice, soft bed.”

Legs too rubbery from the snake incident to stand, Maisey crumpled to her former nest against the tree. Before leaning back, she glanced up and found the shadowy branches snake-free. Settled and as comfortable as she could be given her current location, she said, “I don’t have a home.”

“Trust me, your mom would like nothing better than for you and your baby to live with her.” Using a sparking device, Nash lit the small fire. On his knees, he blew on the struggling flame. “I shouldn’t be doing this, but you’re going to need protein for our morning hike.”

“I’m not eating that snake.”

“And you call me stubborn?” He made quick work of raising a stick rack on which to rest their meal.

“Who are you, MacGyver?” Was there anything the man couldn’t do?

“Close.” He dragged a log closer to the fire, then had a seat. “I’m a SEAL—at least, I used to be.”

“Like the ones in movies?”

He shrugged. “I guess.”

“How can you be so blasé? That’s a big deal. Your mom must be proud.”

Stoking the fire, he said, “Point of fact, she hated it. Now, I’m more like a bodyguard and she’s all the time asking when I plan to retire or take a safe job selling cars.”

For whatever reason, the fact that Nash’s mom wasn’t proud of her son’s achievements made Maisey sad. For as long as she’d known him, he’d wanted to be in the Navy—like his dad. “I assume your mom’s feelings have more to do with her already having spent a lifetime worrying about your father?”

“You remember?” Their gazes met and in the fire’s glow, she saw him for the man he’d become.

I remember everything. “I was sorry to hear he’d passed.”

Most especially, she remembered how much it hurt letting Nash go. Growing up in a broken home had been at times a nightmare. There had been constant bickering and her mother’s tears. Nash’s house had been her haven. His dad served in the Navy, too. He’d never cheated, but was deployed a huge chunk of his time. When Nash announced he’d enlisted, then proposed, Maisey’s gut reaction had been that she wanted no part of being a military wife.

Like your drug lord was so much better?

For the first time since Nash had blown back into her life like a category five storm, she appraised him. He was classically handsome. Square-jawed with a nose crooked from when he’d been hit with a baseball the summer between their junior and senior year. When he was mad, his gray eyes sometimes took on the color of clouds on a stormy day. He used to wear his dark hair on the long side, but he now sported a messy military buzz. After all these years apart, he still took her breath away.

“Mais?” She barely heard him over the fire’s crackle and a tree frog determined to steal the show. “What are you thinking?”

“About the night my mom found out about Dad’s first affair. I was so upset, that you came over to sleep on our sofa. Mom made us Rice Krispies Treats and we watched the Wizard of Oz. We were in fifth grade and quizzed each other on spelling words during commercials.”

His laugh flip-flopped her tummy in a way she hadn’t felt since she’d first met Vicente. “Mmm . . . Your mom truly has a way with Rice Krispies Treats. She made me a batch while we talked about bringing you home.”

“She always liked you.”

“Feeling’s mutual.” He rotated his snake and despite her misgivings, she had to admit the delicious scent had her mouth watering.

“How strange is it that here we are, all these years later, about to share a cottonmouth meal in the middle of a swamp?”

“You’re going to eat?” His half-smile filled her with the oddest sense that maybe, just maybe, they would be okay.

Then she heard gunshots.


5



“I KNOW THERE’S a gator eyeing us for a snack.”

“No chance. You’re too salty.”

“Ha ha.”

It had been hours since they’d heard shots. Dawn streaked the sky with slashes of orange and purple, yet Nash wasn’t taking chances. To hide their heat signatures in the event Vicente’s men had thermal scopes, Nash doused the fire and took Maisey into the black water alongside their camp. Her teeth hadn’t stopped chattering since. He wouldn’t tell her, but though he wasn’t too concerned about biting creatures sharing their patch of watery real estate, what spooked him was the prospect of Maisey’s core temp getting too low. A while back he’d read about four Army Ranger candidates dying during training in a Florida panhandle swamp. The water then had been in the low fifties. Lucky for Maisey and him, August water temps in the Everglades pushed ninety, meaning they shouldn’t be in immediate danger from the elements.

She squashed a whiny mosquito on her cheek. “Is this the worst jam you’ve ever been in?”

“Not even close.” Striving for a casual tone, he said, “One time, my team and I were dropped off by Bandar Beyla along the Indian Ocean coast. High winds killed our jump plan. We ended up twenty miles out to sea in a storm so bad I could hardly see my hand in front of my face. Oh—and let’s not forget the live nuke we were chasing.”

“What happened?” she asked with rapt interest.

“Fifteen hours later, we made shore and completed our mission.”

“Which w-was?”

He winked. “If I told you, I’d have to kill you. Ready to get out of here?”

“Think it’s s-safe?”

“Come on . . .” I’ll make it safe. He took her hand, leading her back to their previous camp. Again came the sensation that for once in a very long time he was needed. “But try sloshing as little as possible on the way out.”

“O-okay . . .”

With her seated at the base of her cypress, Nash made quick work of restarting the fire. Maisey was soaked and no doubt dehydrated. After cleaning a tin can he’d found along their trek, he rigged it to set over the fire to use for boiling water. The CamelBak vest he wore that had held more than enough water to last for days had been shot. Another fact he preferred to keep to himself.

Her shivering slowed and she held her hands in front of the crackling fire. “A while back, your mom told me you were married and your wife was pregnant. She also told me you . . . lost them.”

Not sure what to say—preferring not to discuss his family at all, Nash turned the snake he’d set aside when they’d been interrupted.

“I’m sorry.”

“Me, too.” More than she’d ever know.

“I always like to think there’s a reason for everything, but with your family, and now Vicente, it’s hard.”

Tensed, he said, “With all due respect, there is no fathomable reason I can see for my beautiful wife and baby to have been taken. For you to suggest there was . . .” A muscle ticked in his jaw. He squeezed his hands into fists, trying to work through the grief her probing raised.

Give him gunfire. Snakes. Bombs. None of it came close to making bile rise in his throat the way talk of his past did.

“Sorry, Nash.” He’d crouched in front of the fire and when she placed her hand on his bare forearm, he jolted as if her touch had stung. “Really. In time, you’ll—”

“Enough, okay?” The snake meat had turned white, signifying it was fully cooked. He took a third for himself, handing the rest on the spit to her. “Eat. Once you get past what it is, you’ll find the taste good.”

“You take more.”

“Maisey . . .” Never again would he accept a mission involving a female.

“All right. Thanks.”

He nodded.

Once she’d finished her portion, he made her drink. Satisfied she and her baby were as adequately nourished as he could manage, he said, “Get some sleep. I’ll keep watch.”

She opened her mouth—to argue? As if guessing bickering about the request would get her nowhere, she turned to her side, settling in for a rest.

“Here . . .” He gave her a folded rain poncho. Lots of times in less than ideal places, he’d used it as a pillow. Kneeling, he placed it between her head and the tree’s rough outer surface. The feel of her soft curls beneath his rough fingertips knotted his throat. Stupid, but how long had it been since he’d performed such a seemingly insignificant act as touching a woman’s hair?

Backing away from his charge, he took his seat on the log in front of the fire, glad for the distance between them. For safety from Vicente and his men, as soon as she drifted off, he’d douse the flames. But for now, for morale, she needed them.

“Thank you for this,” she said of the makeshift cushion.

“Sure.” He liked to think he’d have done the same for anyone, but how many nights had he spent in the field with his teammates and never felt the need to share? “Rest. We’ll head out in a few hours—oh, and use this.” From another pocket, he withdrew a rolled mosquito net, floating it over her head.

“You really do think of everything.”

“Kind of my job.”

“Still, thanks.” She reached up to take his hand, giving him a light squeeze. “No one’s ever done anything like this for me—putting your life on the line to . . .” Tears welled in her eyes. “. . . How did I let things get to this point?”

“I’m guessing you went into the relationship with your heart wide open. Granted, there may have been warning signs, but who’s looking for those when everything’s going good?”

“True.” A sad laugh escaped her. “Once I’m back home, my plan is to steer clear of all men . . .” She patted her belly. “Except for this little guy.”

“Sounds reasonable.” An image of his wife, Hope, prepping the nursery for their newborn son hit from nowhere. She’d been a space buff and ordered a shuttle mobile to hang over the crib. He hadn’t been able to find the right screwdriver to assemble it, and scoured the house in his search. Turned out she’d had it in her back pocket the whole time. He’d razzed her about it for weeks. Now, the pain of losing her was so great, he had to look away. He could literally stand anything other than feeling. Remembering all he’d once had and lost.

Ten minutes later, Maisey drifted off.

Accustomed to going long spells without sleep, Nash wasn’t especially tired. He’d planned on dousing the fire. Instead, he repaired the hole in his CamelBak, then set about boiling enough water to see them through the next day.

Humidity and a gunshot had his GPS wonky. Not a major worry as he’d been well trained in old-school compass reading. To prep this mission, he’d plotted escape routes using satellite photos. In a perfect world, calculating a travel time of thirty minutes a mile, come morning they’d make it well before nightfall to the secondary jon boat he’d brought and concealed. From there, it was a four-hour ride to where he’d parked his truck.

Finished with chores, he had two hours till dawn.

Maisey lightly snored.

The heat was still oppressive, but bearable.

Spying a patch of saw palmettos, he filled his free time keeping busy. He wove Maisey a frond mat that might make her rest stops more comfortable and bug free. He also made her a fan with a smooth cypress handle. Crude sandals to reinforce her slippers. It had been a screw-up, not packing her a change of clothes and shoes—just like not anticipating that she wouldn’t want to be rescued. He hadn’t seen that coming.

He should have anticipated that potential. Like the fire that had taken his wife and unborn child, though he’d been told the faulty wiring in their fixer-upper sparking a flame had been a fluke, it had been preventable. If only he’d had an electrician replace every inch of wiring. If only he’d insured nothing flammable had been anywhere near the master bedroom or that Hope had worn flame retardant PJs to bed instead of one of his T-shirts.

He dropped the palm fronds to press his fingers to his throbbing forehead.

Having reached the expert level on the If Only game, he knew the drill. A killer headache typically set in, followed by hours of nausea-inducing guilt. He’d down a half-dozen beers, sleep it off, then wake to a new day.

Here, with Maisey’s safety his responsibility, he didn’t have the luxury of nursing his pain. He needed to snap out of it and get his head back in the game. But that was kind of hard, considering Maisey’s baby bump constantly reminded him of all he’d lost.

Was he jealous that her son was still alive? Hell, yeah. But he was also that much more determined to keep him that way. He’d already lost one woman and child he had promised to protect, and it would never happen again.

As for the personal history between Maisey and him? Old news never to be revisited.

Nash forced himself to focus on his projects.

The insect chatter had a rise and fall rhythm to which he matched his inhalations. Slow breathing helped get his runaway emotions in check. Hope and their unborn son were in a better place, being looked after by a power far more capable than him. As for Maisey, she’d soon be back with her mother—although not in their hometown of Jacksonville as she’d planned. Until Vicente was dead or locked behind bars, Nash feared Maisey and her son might never be truly safe.

But then realistically, could anyone ever be one hundred percent safe?

Lord knew, he’d been a fool for thinking they could.


6



“I’VE GOT TO rest.” Maisey hated being physically weak, but two hours into their trek to the backup boat Nash had hidden, every inch of her body ached. Muscles she hadn’t even known existed screamed for relief—even better, a soak in a nice, hot bath.

“You’ve got five minutes,” Nash said. He presented her with the plastic tube from which she’d seen him drinking. Silly, but sharing the mouthpiece struck her as overly intimate.

The last time her lips touched his had been in high school.

She drank, but in the process, inadvertently locked her gaze with his. To her over-sensitized nerves, the sensation was akin to a kiss. Sharply looking away, she drank her fill, then returned the tube.

With her cheeks flushed from the brush of his fingers against hers, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to use the fan Nash had made her.

“Eat this.” From the fathomless pits of his cargo pants pockets, he took a protein bar. While it was misshapen and partially melted, never had food tasted so good.

“What about you?”

Kneeling alongside a decaying log with his back to her, he fished for an insect that his pose kept her from seeing. Popping it in his mouth, he chewed.

Fighting not to retch, Maisey asked, “How can you do that?”

“It’s called survival. Don’t knock it. If we’re out here much longer, you might also be dining on grubs.”

“Never,” she assured with a shudder, fanning all the harder.

“Watch what you say, or you’ll jinx us.” His smile lit his eyes—gray and crinkled at the corners from time in the sun. She couldn’t imagine the kinds of things he’d seen. Didn’t want to. But because of him, she was alive. Uncomfortable, but safe. She owed him everything.

Extending her his hand, he helped her back to her feet—no easy task this far into her pregnancy. As if protesting her sudden motion, her baby jolted.

She grimaced.

“What’s wrong? You okay?”

Nodding, she said, “This little guy has a way of kicking my ribs that seriously hurts. Wanna feel? He’s really on the move.”

He reached out, but then drew back. “I’m good. Thanks for the offer, though.”

“When your wife was pregnant, did you ever watch her belly?” Realizing that regardless of Nash’s answer, the question could be construed as cruel, she covered awkward silence with more of her own chatter. “A few months ago, before learning the kind of man I’d married—correction, thought I’d married—Vicente used to be fascinated with studying our son. Sometimes our baby’s tiny foot would arc all the way across my belly and Vicente would stare as if he’d never seen a better show. I don’t get it. How a man can be two people at once. To me—at least before I’d told him I was leaving—he’d been kind and gentle and caring. Upon realizing I’d not only witnessed him killing his associate but intended to tell police, he transformed to a monster. Sounds corny, but when we married, I’d never felt more vibrant and alive. Now, I feel like the ghost of someone I used to know.”

“Ready?” Nash tapped his watch.

“Seriously?” Maisey wasn’t sure what she’d expected from Nash after she’d poured out the most intimate details of the life she’d once shared with a madman, but acting as if she’d merely commented on the weather wasn’t it. “That’s all you have to say?”

Using his machete, he slashed a path for her to follow through thick vegetation. “Sorry for what Vicente put you through, but I asked you last night to stay out of my personal business. Asking me about my dead wife’s baby bump?” He slashed harder at the vines blocking their course. “Not cool.”

“For what it’s worth,” she struggled to keep up with his powerful pace, “the second the question left my mouth, I regretted it. Please don’t be angry. I—”

“I’m not angry.” He stopped alongside a water oak. Arched his neck. He wore a heavy helmet with night vision goggles on top. Sweat dampened his tan complexion and she could only imagine how hot he was under his equipment. Regret weighed heavy on her conscience for making what was already a bad time, worse. “What burns me is how you, my mom, my so-called friends—even your mom—all feel entitled to talk about a private, painful part of my life I’d rather lock in a vault.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“That’s another thing—” his renewed slashing took on a desperate feel “—I’m sick of folks telling me what I mean. How I should feel. Get it through your head, what happened to Hope and our unborn son is something I can’t even begin to process—don’t want to. They meant everything to me, and . . .” He froze.

“What?” she whispered, fearing another snake.

“Listen . . .”

From an impossible to judge distance came unmistakable baying. Dogs. “Think they’re out here for us?”

“Can’t say for sure, but if I were a bad guy, tracking my pregnant woman through an impassable swamp, seems like a reasonable way to go.”

7



JUST WHEN NASH thought his day couldn’t get worse . . .

With hounds baying from what couldn’t be more than a mile away, he surveyed the bullet-riddled aluminum jon boat. Stomach fisted, he eyed Maisey who barely had strength to stand. With Vicente having ruined their last best hope of a quick escape, this supposedly simple in-and-out mission had become infinitely more complex.

“Y-you have another backup plan, right?” Her complexion had turned unnaturally pale.

“Sure.” Of course, he had a plan, he just hadn’t voiced it yet—or, even thought of it. But for sure it was germinating. He hoped.

Removing his helmet, he used his forearm to wipe sweat from his brow. The day’s heat and humidity were brutal. Had he known they’d face this dilemma, he’d have taken the day to rest, opting to travel by night.

“Mind sharing?”

He glanced her way. “What?”

“The plan? Those dogs sound awfully close.”

True. “Sorry, but to mask our scent, we’re gonna have to hit the water.”

Nose wrinkled, she asked, “The black, mossy, foul-smelling water we’ve counted six hungry gators eyeballing us from?”

“One and the same.”

The dog’s barks grew more frantic.

Nash took the camo netting from the useless boat, then stood alongside Maisey, wrapping it around them both. “Let’s go.”

Spying a clump of alligator weed, he broke two lengths of the hollow stems.

Handing one to Maisey, Nash said, “If I give you the signal, as quietly as possible, duck underwater. Use this as a snorkel.”

She folded her arms and scowled. “I can’t put my head under water. You know that. Remember Allysa Franklin’s thirteenth birthday? She had a pool party and Johnny Preston dunked me? I almost drowned.”

“Stop the histrionics. And for the record, I saved you.” Judging by the frantic baying, the hounds couldn’t have been more than a quarter mile away. Nash considered himself unflappable, but his usual companions were SEALs. Without question, they did what needed to be done. Maisey was a delicate unknown. He not only had her to worry about, but her baby. The closer the dogs came, the more he feared he might not be up for this challenge. Palms sweating, pulse racing, he shook off his nerves. This was no time to fold. “When I say, you will put that stem in your mouth and duck. Not only your life, but your baby’s depends on you following my instructions to the letter. Understand?”

Her doe-eyed stare left him regretting his rough demeanor.

Hand on the small of her back, he led her slowly into the water. When he’d initially covered the boat, he’d laced the camo netting with reeds and grasses. Honestly, he was surprised Vicente hadn’t assigned hired guns to wait for them at each boat. It would have been a logical move. The fact that he hadn’t made Nash wonder just how adept his team was at hunting human targets. “This waterway looks like it has a slight current. We’re going to ride it with this mini-island over our heads. You’ll be able to breathe, but I'm not gonna lie—it won’t be pleasant. To Vicente’s men, we’ll look like debris.”

The barking and baying was near enough to raise the hair on the back of Nash’s neck.

“The bad guys are close, Maisey. This is basic snorkeling. Piece of cake.”

Though her eyes read pure panic, she again nodded. With her teeth already chattering, Nash placed their odds at about fifty/fifty in making a clean escape. Toss in the gator/snake/hypothermia/wild-card factor and it was shaping up to be a seriously lousy day.

Having reached the center of the narrow channel’s flow, Nash adjusted the net in time to spot a hound alternately baying and lapping at the algae-covered water’s edge.

Maisey whispered, “He doesn’t look like he wants to kill us, does he?”

“All he wants is to find our scent.”

Crashing foliage and a deep, Southern drawl alerted Nash that the dog’s master wasn’t far behind. “Stupid mutt. Told Vicente to search with a heli, but he said it would draw too much attention.”

“Ask me,” a new voice sounded through tall grasses, “Vicente’s pretty little thing is long gone. This search is a waste of time.” Approaching a second frantically barking dog, the man patted him between his ears. “What’re you all excited about?”

“Got your snorkel ready?” Nash whispered in Maisey’s ear. The current was painstakingly slow in clearing them from danger.

Fingers trembling, she held it for him to see.

“Good girl. On the count of three, we’re both going to slowly descend. Got it?”

“Uh huh . . .”

“One . . .”

“Hey, there, fella. See something?” one of the men called to his dog.

A bald hulk of a man sporting full sleeve tattoos and a goatee, stared right at them. Nash had taken special care weaving plants through the netting and knew to the men onshore they looked like a floating isle of weeds, but that didn’t stop the event from being unnerving.

“Two . . .”

Having entered upstream of where their hunters had emerged from dense undergrowth, Nash and Maisey were ten yards from being dead even with them. If his pulse raced much faster, he feared passing out. On his own or with his team, there was no emotion—only adrenaline in its purest form, something that sharpened frayed nerves. Now, he was consumed by what if scenarios and concern for Maisey that he couldn’t control.

“Popcorn, what the heck are you—”

Before Nash could give Maisey her signal to duck, an eight-foot gator erupted from the shoreline’s thick algae, snapping off the nearest hound’s right front leg. Before the dog’s handler fully grasped what was happening, the gator returned to finish his meal, dragging the howling canine into the water until the swamp fell eerily silent.

“That slimy fucker killed my best hunting hound!”

“This is voodoo. I’m out of here.”

Breathing shallow, Nash could only imagine the riot raging in Maisey’s chest. He wanted to comfort her, but couldn’t risk the movement. No matter how distracted Vicente’s men might currently be, there was no guarantee they might not look up to discover their intended targets right before them.

Maisey silently cried. Lips pressed tight, silvery tears streaked mud on her cheeks. He admired her for holding her emotions in check, but he’d be lying if he said he didn’t wish for the right thing to say to calm her.

“I’m gonna kill you, stupid sumbitch!” The dog’s owner used an M16 to shoot wildly at the water.

Though mini-explosions formed a wake and turned algae into projectiles, Nash held firm to Maisey. She, in turn, clung to him so tightly he wouldn’t be surprised to find bruises. Which was all right. Whatever she needed to get her through.

Over and over the guy fired his weapon, not stopping until running out of ammo.

Ten feet upstream, the gator rose belly-up to the surface.

What remained of the dog followed.

Maisey tensed alongside him. Little convulsions told him she wasn’t in a good way.

“Relax,” he whispered in her ear. “Everything’s going to be fine.

“No. No, it’s not.” Though she’d spoken so softly he’d hardly heard her words, the panic in her eyes and complexion’s pall said more than she ever could to describe her terror.

“Shh . . .” Temporarily releasing her to bracket her face with his hands, he begged, “Trust me. We’re almost home free.” For a moment, he lost himself in her achingly familiar blue gaze. They were no longer in a swamp, but on her mom’s back porch, on the verge of sharing a kiss. What was wrong with his mind that it had chosen now for a trek down memory lane?

“Nash?” She licked her lips. Her pupils widened, and if possible, her eyes grew even wider.

“Yeah?” He didn’t even know the asshole inside him who couldn’t look away from her plump mouth.

“In case we don’t make it, thank you for trying.”

“Stop. We’ll be fine.” Assuming I forget the way things used to be between us long enough to focus on the task at hand.

Then, the unthinkable happened when the dog’s owner crashed into the water. The dog’s body had floated into the current and was now a mere five feet from Nash and Maisey.

“Leave him!” The guy still on shore urged.

No! He was a good dog and deserves a decent burial.” Who knew? A thug with heart.

Nash’s adrenaline spiked. “I need both hands. Think you can hold on to me?”

Maisey’s answer was to hug his chest.

“Good girl . . .”

Hands free, with their hunter fifteen feet away and the dog practically on top of them, Nash withdrew his Glock that he’d already outfitted with a sound suppressor. Given luck, the goon would be too focused on his dog to inspect floating grass.

“Stupid waste of life,” Vicente’s man mumbled on his approach to his dog.

Nash pushed past his latest swell of nerves.

“He was a good boy.”

The dog was now three feet from Nash.

Maisey tucked herself behind him.

His pulse thundered in his ears.

The guy was now in water over his head. His thrashing strokes surged the dog’s body against the grass-covered mat. Unless the man was fully focused on his pet, there was no possible way he and Maisey wouldn’t be discovered.

“Sorry, boy. You shouldn’t have—”

In his struggle to tread water, the guy kicked Nash. Time froze for the instant it took him to realize he wasn’t alone. He tossed the netting aside, shouting to his friend on shore, “Hey! Found them!”

Bullets ripped the water.

With no way to escape, Nash did what he’d been trained to do—double-tap the forehead of the man shooting at them from shore.

Maisey screamed.

The guy in the water grabbed for Nash, but lacked the swimming strength to stay afloat. Nash lunged for him, but the guy had been smart enough to swim underwater for shallower ground. Once able to stand, he sloshed for shore, snatching up his weapon with one hand and radio with the other. Simultaneously, he radioed for back-up and shot wildly at the water.

“Duck!” Nash shouted to Maisey.

The guy had lost it, firing dozens of rounds to the accompaniment of his own roar. When he was forced to stop shooting long enough to reload, Nash made his second kill of the day.

Maisey had floated further downstream and now cried hysterically. “You killed him!”

“What else was I supposed to do?” Nash shouted back. “It was us or them, and sorry, but I’m not in the mood to die.”

Having reached her, he tried lightly grasping her in a lifeguard-style hold, but she wasn’t having it. “Let me go! I can’t take this anymore!”

Ignoring her protests in favor of getting her safely ashore, Nash grabbed the back of her shirt, dragging her as best he could.

From over the dead guy’s radio, a tinny voice asked, “LeFlour, copy? You there?” Was that Vicente on the other end? “Did I hear right and you caught the intended targets? LeFlour? Come in! What’s your location?”

Once Nash delivered Maisey to the muddy shore, he started to gut the radio, but then thought better. Information could be gleaned from chatter.

Nash put his hand over his mouth to muffle his voice. “False alarm. I repeat false alarm.”

“We heard shots.”

“Wildlife kill. No sign of your lady, sir.”

“Keep looking!”

“You’re no better than Vicente.” Maisey sat up, hugging her massive belly. Rocking and crying with her hands over her face. “You shot those men right between their eyes.”

“Woman, are you crazy?” Searching the dead for usable equipment, Nash could scarcely contain his rage. “I killed those two men for our safety—your baby’s. They shot at us first. Dozens of rounds. It’s a miracle we’re even alive.”

She was back to shivering. Teeth chattering, she continued sobbing.

“You and me?” Kneeling before her, he tucked his fingertips beneath her chin, forcing her to meet his gaze. “We’re in a war. People are going to die. The goal is for those people to not be us.”

She nodded.

“No,” he again forced her gaze to his. “Look me in the eyes and tell me you understand I’m not a stone-cold killer like your ex.”

“I do, but this is all too much.”

“Agreed.” He took a bandana from a pocket, then cleaned it with drinking water. “Things got dicey there for a sec, but all’s good now.”

Good?” Her sad laugh rode the fringe of madness. “Oh—our situation is far from good. I’m cold and hungry and tired and thirsty and that dead man won’t stop staring at me.” Hand trembling, she pointed at the nearest corpse. “Plus, Vicente said over the radio he heard gunfire. That means he’s not far behind.”

As tenderly as he could, Nash wiped tear-streaked mud from Maisey’s cheeks. He stroked it from her forehead and nose and chin. When she closed her eyes and exhaled, he cleaned her brows and the smile lines at the corners of her eyes. And when she opened those eyes, he leaned forward, resting his forehead against hers. “I will protect you.”

“I know.” For the first time that day, her voice rang strong. Sincere. Her trust further heightened his resolve to see her and her baby safely through.

She exhaled. Her warm breath hit his lips, tightening his stomach in a way he hadn’t felt in well over the year his wife had been gone. While the sensation was far from unpleasant, it was also unwelcome. Retreating to a safe distance, he asked, “Hungry?”

“Very. What’s on the menu? Snake? Gator?”

“Actually . . .” Nash eyed the still-fresh gator kill lying on the shore. “Seems a shame for the little guy to have died in vain.”

“Little guy?” She laughed. “That alligator is longer than I am.”


8



AN HOUR LATER, while Maisey sat in relative comfort on a log, using her new palm frond fan, she watched with awe as Nash performed yet another crafty task. Using vines and sticks and a vicious knife, he’d constructed a rack on which he’d hung chunks of meat. He’d stripped the alligator and butchered it and already had a nice, juicy section roasting over a fire.

While he’d buried the bad guys in shallow graves, her job was to listen and observe. The slightest change in bird calls or a cracked twig. Gunfire. Baying dogs. Anything outside of their current norm.

“Nash?” She slowed her fanning.

“Yes, ma’am?” Like back when they’d been in high school, his stoic expression was entirely too mesmerizing. Too brimming with the kind of innate self-assurance that was earned. If possible, he seemed more at ease here in the middle of a swamp than he ever had back in Jacksonville. He wasn’t just in his element, but seemed to have invented it.

“What do you think happened to the other hound? Is he okay?”

He paused in his digging with a collapsible shovel to frown. “My fear is that he ran straight home to his food dish and comfy bed. Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs as much as the next guy, but when he returned without his doggy friend or two handlers, it’s not that great a leap for whoever’s on the other end to realize there was trouble.”


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