Contract with a SEAL (Special Ops: Homefront Book 3)

BOOK: Contract with a SEAL (Special Ops: Homefront Book 3)
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Contract with a SEAL

By Kate Aster

 

Copyright 2014, Kate Aster

All Rights Reserved

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names,
characters, and events are products of the author’s imagination or are used
fictitiously and are not to be interpreted as real. Any similarity to real
events, locales, or people, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and not
intended by the author.

 

 

Cover design: The Killion Group, Inc.

 

 

DEDICATION

 

It was such a delight to me to receive so
many emails asking to hear Vi and Joe’s story. And you are right! If anyone
deserves a “happily ever after,” it is our hardened SEAL commander, someone
inspired by a very dear friend of mine.

 

This book is dedicated—and quite
literally written—for all of you who contacted me. Thank you.

 

Prologue

 

Twenty-three years ago

 

A single ray of dawn peeked in through
the bottom of the pink shades that covered her window. It didn’t wake her. Nine-year-old
Violet was already wide-awake, listening to her parents creep down the stairs
on the other side of her closed bedroom door.

Rolling over on her side, her eyes rested
on the image of her sister Lacey, also nine, in a blissful slumber. Dreaming of
the gifts that waited for them downstairs, no doubt, all shiny and colorful,
wrapped in full bows. Her parents always had them wrapped at the store, unable
to squeeze enough time from their work schedule to do the chore themselves. Vi
couldn’t really blame them. After all, now that Mom was promoted at the brokerage
house and Dad had published his second bestseller on retirement investment
planning, they were finally able to start looking for a new house, one with
separate bedrooms for her and her sister.

Hard work paid off.

For kids like Lacey, Vi knew today was
the pinnacle of the Christmas season, that treasured morning when they could
tear into a pile of gifts and see if their dreams had come true. Lacey would
likely get the video gaming system and the collectible doll with the equestrian
wardrobe she had asked for, sending her letter to the North Pole even though
she had known the whole thing was bogus for the past two years.

For Vi, since she hadn’t asked for the
skateboard she really wanted, the day would simply be a relief. No more holiday
parties where she had to stand at her sister’s side while their parents paraded
them in front of people Vi couldn’t even recognize.

“She looks so much like you,” one person would
say about Lacey to their parents.

“Lacey has your eyes.”

“Lacey, you even sound like your mother
these days. A few more years and I won’t be able to tell the two of you apart.”

No one meant any harm by the comments. Lacey
was, after all, the “spitting image” of their parents, as her grandparents always
put it. And the older Vi got, the less she looked like any of them. She wasn’t
shooting up in height like Lacey was. Vi’s nose turned up too much. Her hair
was darker, eyes rounder. Even her lips were getting fuller, meriting the new
nickname of “Ducklips” from Norman, the third grade class bully.

Every day, Vi looked less a part of the Owens
family.

Of course, that was because she wasn’t
part of the family. Not biologically, anyway. Unlike Lacey, Vi was adopted, a
fact that never bothered her except when she’d hear the careless comments of
adults—teachers, her parents’ co-workers, even the woman at the bank, who
had assumed since Lacey and Vi were the same age that they must be fraternal
twins.

Far from it.

But this year, Vi had taken control.

Each week when her parents would give
them their $2 allowances if they had done well in school, Vi would save it,
while Lacey would spend it on candy or cherry-scented lip balm.

Her parents had lavished praise on Vi.

And when she asked for a digital
calculator for her birthday so that she could have a more efficient lemonade
stand this year, they had bragged about her to their friends.

And this year at the Owen’s holiday
party, when someone asked what Vi wanted for Christmas, Vi didn’t say a peep
about the skateboard, instead responding, “I’d like a gold bullion bar,” adding
something she had heard her mom say on the phone to someone, “because gold’s
trading at a record low.”

Heads turned—smiling, laughing,
utterly delighted—and Vi was rewarded with words she had never heard
before:

“Vi, you are just like your parents.”

You are just like your parents.

Over and over, she said those words to
herself this morning, the best present she’d likely receive this year, since
she certainly would have preferred a skateboard. What
was
bullion
anyway? Wasn’t it that dried yellow powder that Mom put in chicken soup?

No matter.

She may not look like an Owens. But Vi
had found her own way of fitting into the family.

Chapter One

 

Today

 

She hated the holidays.

Standing in the street, Vi stared down at
the bright red envelope with the festive logo at the top of the return address.
Recognizing the same cheerful design they used last year, she didn’t even have to
open it to know what it was, hoping she’d gain some satisfaction when she tore
it to bits and tossed it into the recycle can.

Slamming the mailbox shut, she laid it
back on top of the stack of mail and trudged toward the house.

Maeve’s cheerful Cape Cod-style home seemed
a contradiction to Vi’s mood, welcoming her with its bright red door and flag
hanging patriotically from the front porch. One thick yellow ribbon was tied to
each of the two trees in the front yard, one for Maeve’s fiancée Jack and one
for Mick, Vi’s brother-in-law. Since they were both deployed on SEAL missions,
Vi had no idea where they were right now. She only knew they weren’t where they
were supposed to be.

It was the
holidays
. Shouldn’t
Jack be here with Maeve, and Mick be with Lacey in their new home in San Diego?

Such was life in the military. She was
only grateful she had the good sense to not fall for someone in uniform like
her sister had. Of course, remembering the rat-bastard Vi had just divorced, it
would have shown more good sense to simply not have fallen for anyone at all.

Even with the branches stripped bare and
a chilled, grey sky looming overhead, Vi’s heart warmed a little more with each
step toward the house. Sunlight filtered through the naked trees and the air
was saturated by the scent of burning firewood. Vi glanced up at the chimney
and noticed a thick trail of smoke headed upwards toward the muted pink clouds.

The house was exactly as Lacey had told
her it was—a small sanctuary on the Chesapeake Bay. Vi would only be
staying here for a couple months while she looked for a condo to buy in DC, and
had promised herself not to get too settled. But even after only having been
here a week, she felt herself easing into the casual way of life in Annapolis,
a place where people were more interested in what kind of boat you sailed
rather than what kind of car you drove.

Vi had worried it would be awkward, moving
into the room vacated by her sister after Lacey had married Mick a few months
ago, and living with Lacey’s former housemates Maeve and Bess, and Bess’s
toddler, Abigail. But her sister had been right. The cozy waterfront home was
much more welcoming than the short-term rentals or executive hotels that Vi had
considered as an alternative. And no one could feel awkward too long in this
house. It was an easy place to call “home.”

When she opened the door, chaos greeted
her in the form of dozens of open cardboard boxes strewn all over the living
room floor. Thick garlands of artificial pine and strings of Christmas lights
were stretched out across the floor and over the sofa. Ornaments protectively
wrapped in yards of bubble wrap sat on the coffee table.

Abigail, Bess’s daughter, broke away
momentarily from the TV and raced up to Vi. “Santa!” she said, jubilantly
hugging her. Abby was still a child of few words, and it warmed Vi’s heart that
she would spare one for her.

Vi cracked a smile as she set the stack
of mail on the console table. “No, I’m not Santa. Though I guess I have put on
a few pounds the past week. It’s all your mom’s good cooking.”

Sitting on the hardwood floor, Bess was unpacking
ornaments. “Hardly that. She’s just showing off her latest word. How was your
day?”

“Not bad,” Vi answered noncommittally as Abby
toddled back toward the TV, distracted by the sight of Rudolf on the screen. In
truth, Vi was growing to hate her new job in DC. Needing a change from Atlanta
after her very public divorce, she had snatched the first opportunity the
network had someplace else. She would have gratefully accepted a position in
Alaska to get away from her ex. Fortunately though, there wasn’t much of a need
for a financial correspondent that far north.

Vi turned, taking in the complete disarray
around her. “Are you two seriously putting up Christmas decorations? It’s not
even December yet.”

Holding the top third of an artificial
tree in her grasp, Maeve shrugged. “Thanksgiving is over, so it’s fair game.
Besides, this house needs some holiday cheer,” she countered, and seeing as
this was Maeve’s first holiday season without Jack in quite a while, there was
no way Vi was going to object.

 “This is late by my standards. I
think we should put them up the day after Halloween. That’s when the stores do
it. Why can’t we?” Bess handed Vi a wreath. “Can you hang this on the inside of
the front door?”

“Shouldn’t it go on the outside of the
door?”

“Not that one. We’ve got a different one
for the outside.”

Of course, they’d have more than one
wreath, Vi thought as she hung the adorned circle of pine. From the look of all
these boxes, it seemed like they had enough wreaths for every door in the
neighborhood.

Bess looked at her inquisitively. “When
did you and Lacey put up decorations in your house when you were growing up?”

“Two Saturdays before Christmas. We used
to get a real tree, and Mom said it would turn into a pile of pine needles by
Christmas if we bought it any earlier.”

Maeve darted a look at Bess. “See?”

“See what?”

“Bess wanted to get a real tree this
year.”

“I’ll have to side with Maeve on this
one. You’d be worried Abby would be eating pine needles all season. They get
everywhere.” Even after only being here a week, Vi had already noted that Abby
was at that stage when everything seemed to end up in her mouth.

“I hadn’t thought of that.” Bess pulled a
manger from a box and set it on the console table, taking a quick glance at the
stack of mail Vi had left there. “Is this today’s mail?”

“Yep,” Vi responded, unraveling bubble
wrap to reveal a glass icicle ornament.

“Ooh, looks like a Christmas card arrived
already.” Bess’s eyes widened as she lifted the red envelope from the pile.

“No,” Vi corrected. “It’s an invitation.
For me.”

Maeve glanced over. “They’re finally
forwarding your mail? ’Bout time it started showing up.”

Vi hung the ornament toward the top of
the tree, away from Abby’s inquisitive young reach. “Yeah, but now I’m wishing
it hadn’t.”

“Why? What is it?”

Sitting back down on the sofa, Vi pulled
off her heels. “Just an invitation to the Annual Financial Correspondents’ Gala
in DC.”

“Sounds fun.” Maeve said, instantly
distracted by Vi’s heels now lying on the floor. “Oh, hey, are these new? Can I
borrow them?”

“Yes to both questions.”

Bess eyed Vi. “So why is that a bad thing?
The invitation, I mean.”

“It’s kind of one of those
see-and-be-seen events in my business. I used to love going. But this year…” Vi
had practically done backflips the first time she was invited a few years ago. Then
last year she had attended with Josh, an influential producer who just happened
to be her new husband.

Now, the sight of the invitation caused
her stomach to roil.

Maeve sat next to her. “Oh, Dickwad will
be there. Is that it? Nothing like an ex-husband to spoil the party.”

Vi smiled. Maeve had the endearing habit of
always replacing Josh’s name with a more colorful epithet.

“It’s not just that Josh will be there. It
will be a ballroom of about three hundred people who know that he was cheating
on me. Half of them were at the wedding, you know. And when it broke up only a
few months later, it practically made headlines.” Vi massaged her aching feet.
“It was all over Twitter. Someone even started a hashtag for me: #JiltedVi. Do
you have any idea how humiliating that is?”

In the weeks after Josh very publicly apologized
for cheating on his new wife, Vi’s life had become a train wreck no one wanted
to take their eyes off of.

“But everyone took your side,” Bess
reminded her. “You said you gained at least 15,000 Twitter followers off of
it.”

“Yeah, and got 17 marriage proposals,
too. Weird world we live in.” A dull pressure built behind Vi’s eyes from the
memory. Some people, like her, simply weren’t ready to lead a public life. At
the pinnacle of her career, Vi had always pictured herself behind a desk
managing financial investments for a fund, or helping families to better
prepare for retirement. Maybe writing a financial book like her father,
watching it leap to the top of the bestseller list.

She hadn’t pictured her face on a TV
screen covered in cake makeup, and sharing her personal life with hundreds of
thousands of viewers. “If I show up at that gala alone, I’ll be Jilted Vi again
before the night is over. There’s no way I can go.”

Bess nodded, as Abigail plopped onto her
lap to show her a shiny ornament. “You’re right. Skip it. You left Atlanta to
get away from all that. This is a fresh start for you.”

“Or….” Maeve’s voice trailed. “You could
go with a date. Someone really hot to show them all that you aren’t jilted any
more.”

A face popping into her mind, Vi pondered
as she unwrapped another ornament, until she finally spoke. “I do know this
producer in New York who might be available. He’s pretty good-looking, and
probably looks even better in a tux. He’s kind of a friend.” Vi used the word “friend”
loosely, as she always did. Vi had business associates, not friends. Even her
housemates, as wonderful as they were, were more Lacey’s friends than her own,
taking on Vi as a sympathy case, like a lost dog looking for a temporary home. It
had always been that way.

 “No, no. Not another producer.” Maeve
curled up her nose. “Everyone will be comparing him to your ex. You need a
showstopper. Someone everyone will notice.”

Vi raised her eyebrows. “And where do I
find this guy? An escort service?”

“I won’t completely discount that option.
But do you know anyone who’s not connected to TV or the financial world?”

Vi shrugged. “Not really. I don’t get out
much. I work. I sleep. I work some more.”

The grin growing on Maeve’s face seemed
to have been caught by Bess as she chimed in. “Think, Vi. Someone hotter than
molten lava—”

Maeve sent Bess a wink. “—and can
make a girl’s panties sizzle,” she finished for her, sharing a conspiratorial
look.

Vi stared at them. “I’m drawing a blank.”

Shaking her head, Bess hung a homemade
ornament on the tree. “She’s hopeless. And coming from a single mom who hasn’t
had a date in two years, that’s really saying something.”


Joe
, Vi.” Maeve’s voice dripped with
exasperation. “Joe Shey. You danced all night with him at Lacey’s wedding.
Remember?”

Remember? How could Vi forget him? But it
was the worst idea she’d heard since she had considered marrying her producer. “Maeve.
Seriously? Joe? He’d never go to this with me. We haven’t even kept in touch since
that night.”

 “You lost touch with him?” Maeve
said in disbelief, firing a look to Bess. “You’re right, Bess. She is
hopeless.”

Bending over, Bess collected heaps of bubble
wrap and scrunched them into an empty box. “You didn’t even email the guy?”

Vi shook her head. “God, no. Why would I?
I practically made an ass of myself that night with him.”

“Language,” Bess’s eyes widened, glancing
over at Abby who was enraptured by a singing Rudolf on the television.

Vi winced. “Sorry.”

All ears, Maeve sat on the sofa. “How? What
happened?”

“Nothing. Literally nothing. I drank too
much, practically propositioned him, and all he did was drive me safely back to
my hotel.”

Bess grinned. “Aw, that’s sweet.”

“How is that sweet? Do you know what it
was like pressing myself against that rock-hard body of his on the dance floor
all night, and then basically getting a pat on the head at the end of the
night?”

Standing, Maeve pressed a hand to her
hip. “Yeah. How dare he be a gentleman. Son of a—”

“Maeve!” Bess cut her off, pointing to
the toddler sitting in a pile of pillows on the floor.

“—gun. I was going to say gun. Geez,
have a little confidence in me.”

Eyeing an unopened cardboard box, Bess began
to dig into it. “Seriously, think about it. By your own admission, you were
three sheets to the wind on champagne.” She stooped over and pulled out a snowflake
ornament.

“And shots,” Vi confessed. Lacey had
walked down the aisle only days after Josh had told her he was leaving her for
someone else. It might have been Joe Shey Vi had been dancing with, but Jack Daniels
had been the man she was most interested in that night. “It was a rough night
for me.”

“So, all the more reason for him to not
take advantage of you. He was being nice. How refreshing. Did he give you his
number?”

“Yes. But only so I’d call him the next
morning. He offered to pick me up and drive me to my car since I was too drunk
to drive it to the hotel.”

BOOK: Contract with a SEAL (Special Ops: Homefront Book 3)
5.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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