Heavy Artillery Husband (3 page)

BOOK: Heavy Artillery Husband
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False or not, death had parted them, and he'd left her alone to find her own way through the consequences of his mistakes. “You know I can keep a secret,” she said, hating the tremor in her voice. “You had no right to keep the truth from me.”

“I know.” He stretched a hand toward her as he used to do on road trips. “I'm so sorry,
dolcezza
.”

She didn't take that hand, though refusing it cost her. She wanted to touch him so badly. “You're going to tell me the whole story.” He'd never been a fan of her using an inflection that carried the same gravity and certainty of his general's tone of command, but if any situation required it, this was the one.

“I am,” he replied, with both hands on the steering wheel once more. “You're not going to like it.”

“I already don't like it, Frank.”

He'd saved her life tonight. In theory, anyway. For all she knew, he'd hired the driver to run her off the road so he could look like a hero. She gave herself a mental shake. Regardless of circumstances, she couldn't believe he would willfully risk her safety under any circumstances.

“Give me one thing,” she said. “One detail to go on, or I will call Victoria and Frankie and tell them you've kidnapped me.”

He muttered an oath, knowing she would follow through. Between the Colby Agency and Leo Solutions, Frank wouldn't have anywhere to hide if they knew he was alive.

“The man following you was one of the top snipers in the Afghanistan military. One word from his boss and your life is over.”

She sucked in a breath. “Why?” Who would make her a target?

“That's one detail. I swear to you, as soon as I'm sure we're out of harm's way, I'll tell you everything.”

“Harm's way or not, you'll tell me everything tonight.” He wasn't the only one who could issue orders.

With a short nod, he rolled his broad shoulders, shifting in the seat as he followed the signs toward Chicago Midway International Airport.

She remembered the feel of those shoulders under her hands after a tough day at work when she'd help him work out the kinks...or late at night in the heat of passion. Oh, how she wanted to trust him, to be sure she could trust him. It scared her—more than being run off the road—just how much she wanted to believe in Frank Leone again.

Chapter Three

When Frank was convinced they hadn't been followed, he decided on a mid-priced hotel near the airport. If they didn't take cash, he had a credit card that matched his false ID. Although Sophia probably wouldn't have complained about the dirt-cheap place where he'd been staying, he didn't want to risk taking her there. If the enemy was this close, anything could happen.

Besides, he couldn't imagine the woman he loved so dearly, with her timeless sense of style, in that flea-bitten decor. The discussion ahead of him would be difficult enough without any guilt over the accommodations. He was distracted plenty by her amazing body. He'd missed her so much. She deserved the best life could offer. Whether she wanted to accept protection from him right now or not, he had to make sure she stayed safe.

Knowing his wife, he suspected their marriage was beyond salvaging. He'd never win back her trust—not in the ways that mattered most. Over three decades ago he'd marveled that the smartest, prettiest girl in the world had fallen in love with him and stuck by him through an army career that carried them around the globe. There had never been any real secrets between them until those last two years. This entire mess rested on his shoulders.
All of it was his fault.

No avoiding the hard reality of truth. He could offer explanations and apologies—and he would—even knowing it wouldn't make any difference in the long run. He'd started this journey with the best of intentions and it had backfired completely. His mistakes had already cost him the love of his life; he'd never forgive himself if his mistakes got her and their daughter hurt or killed.

Two years ago, she'd sensed the distance he had created to shelter her. Worse, he'd sensed her doubts. That unexpected result had hurt him the most. The wariness he'd seen in her eyes during their last visit, after the guilty verdict had been announced, had plagued him through every lonely day since he'd disappeared.

He parked at the back of the building and came around to open her door, taking her suitcase as she exited the SUV. Finally, he indulged himself with an up-close study of her. Sophia created a fashion statement in any circumstance. Her black sweater and perfectly tailored slacks graced her curves. The long necklace she wore shimmered against the black and he noticed she'd changed from the heels she'd worn to dinner to sleek flats. His arms ached to gather her into a hug, to hold her close and never let go. Without the heels, the top of her head would tuck perfectly under his chin. Despite the memories of how comforting that embrace would be, he managed to keep his distance.

When they were safe behind the locked door of the rented room, he breathed a little easier. If they were lucky, they would survive the night and he could get her on a plane to the tropics tomorrow. He wanted her far away from the inevitable conflict on the horizon.

He dropped her suitcase on the bed, ignoring that potential minefield, while she strolled on by and pulled a chair away from the table. He heard her fidgeting a bit, settling in while she waited for him to explain himself. He didn't have to look to know she had her right leg crossed over her left, her hands linked in her lap.

Where to begin? He studied his hands, not quite ready to face her. “Do you want a drink?”

“No, thank you.”

Her voice was cool, aloof, and he could feel her big brown eyes studying him. He sighed. It shouldn't be this hard to talk to his
wife
. On some level he believed she might understand. Too bad that level was smothered by guilt.

“Just get on with it,” she urged in the unflappable tone that had guided professional and family meetings with equal efficiency. “I want the truth. The whole truth.” She shook her head, the one visible concession to her anger and frustration. “Some sort of reasonable explanation for what you've done to us.”

He closed his eyes a moment, pushing a hand through hair that felt too long since he'd abandoned the shorter army regulation cut. “I doubt much of what I'm about to say will sound reasonable.”

The silence stretched between them like a high wire over the Grand Canyon, and he was walking without a net. There'd been no training or experience to prepare him for this crisis. “I did what I believed was necessary to protect you and Frankie.” He'd allowed his professional life to destroy his family. No excuses would suffice and none of the words in his mind felt adequate to the task. On a deep breath, he perched on the side of the bed closer to her chair. “It started before we moved to Washington,” he began, watching the awareness come into her lovely eyes. “Keeping you out of it was essential.”

“Because you planned to become a traitor?”

“Never.” He winced. “Though I knew it was possible my actions would look that way.”

She caught her full lower lip between her teeth. “Your daughter never believed you were capable of treason,” she said. “Unfortunately, by that time, I didn't share her confidence.”

He deserved that for how poorly he'd handled the situation. “I wanted to explain, to reassure you.” The risks had been too great. Any out-of-character reaction from Sophia would have tipped off the criminals the army had been trying to root out. “You couldn't have helped me. I looked at it from every angle. If I'd told you anything at all, if you'd reacted too much or not enough, if you'd changed your analysis or assessment, it would've gotten all three of us killed.”

“What happened?” She hurled the words at him. “Names and dates, Frank.” She leaned forward, pinned him with those wary eyes. “Give me a clear and accurate picture. Did you know Frankie believed I willfully helped convict you?”

“No!” He pushed to his feet, striding as far from her as the room allowed. He hadn't understood why his daughter had wound up working in Savannah when Sophia launched the new business in Seattle, but he couldn't risk getting close enough to either of them to find out. “How could she believe such a thing?”

“You can ask her yourself. Now keep talking,” she said. “Hold back now and I'll walk right out that door and in my heart you'll stay dead forever.”

Sophia didn't make idle threats. If she walked out of this room without the details, without his protection, she'd be dead within the week. Frankie, too. “It's too dangerous. Please, believe that if nothing else.”

She drummed her fingertips impatiently on her knee.

He crossed the room again, forcing himself to sit down at the table. He could slow down and do this right. “First, I'm not a traitor.” He stopped right there as the emotion choked him. He didn't know quite how to beg her forgiveness, to uproot the terrible seeds of doubts he'd planted. “The Army Criminal Investigations Command approached me just over two years ago.” Though he knew all deals were off, his voice cracked on exposing her to the black stain that had ended his career. “Before that last deployment. Equipment had gone missing. Locals claimed army personnel were helping move drug shipments. High-value targets disappeared without a trace. While that sounds logical with the honeycomb of hideouts in Afghanistan, no rumors or sightings were getting out. CID asked me to go undercover and appear amenable to cooperating with one particular drug lord. I did what was required of me, as always.”

She gasped, her eyes wide and sad. “The CID didn't back you up?”

“That was
before
the treason charge.” He knew she was thinking about the lives lost on that last busted mission. “Cooperating with the drug lord was a test to earn the trust of the criminals CID wanted to net. What I didn't realize at the time was that by passing that test I put you and Frankie in danger.” He hitched his shoulders against the impossible burden. “Smoothing the way for that drug shipment earned me a rare invitation to Hellfire, an elite circle of retired military personnel that CID had been trying to dismantle for more than five years.”

She stared at him in disbelief. “They named themselves after a missile?”

He nodded. “They're cocky. Considering what they've gotten away with and how they've managed to line their pockets, they've earned the moniker. As a general willing to cross the line for personal gain, I was a shoo-in. Once I was in, my real goal was to identify the Hellfire leadership and gather evidence against them.”

“Which meant working with them in the short-term,” she said quietly.

“Yes.” He swallowed the lump of guilt in his throat. Good men had died for bad reasons that day. Undercover or not, he'd been ready to serve time as a penance. “And it eventually led to the treason charge.” He cracked his knuckles. “There was a bank account in the Caymans that would've made you blush.” His stilted laughter didn't hold any humor. “Doing bad things for the right reasons is no excuse. I should've found another way.”

The CID special agent running his part of the operation assured him there hadn't been another way, but he would carry those terrible memories forever. On his feet again, Frank paced to the door and back, his mind lost in that cursed patch of dirt and the acrid scents of burning fuel and explosives roiling through the desert air.

With both hands fisting helplessly at his sides, he forced himself to tell her the rest. “We figured out after that fiasco, I wasn't the only CID recruit. Another team was tracking the drug shipment. Somehow Hellfire learned the shipment would be seized and used the opportunity to blame it on me.”

“Moving illegal drugs is a crime, yes. That doesn't explain the treason charge.”

He rubbed one thumb hard into the palm of his other hand. “Hellfire scrubbed the op rather than risk exposure. As Hellfire's newest member, I took the rap for the whole deal, letting the real traitors get away clean, their drug money gushing again like crude oil from a new well less than a week later.”

“Frank, if what you say is true, it wasn't your fault.”

Of course it was.
He looked down to find she'd moved too close, her hands holding his. He wasn't worthy of her sympathy. Reluctantly, he shifted out of her reach. “The treason charge was manufactured just to ruin me, in case I was inclined to flip on Hellfire.”

“I didn't want to believe you'd sold information about troop movements and weapons in Kabul, but who else could have leaked those facts?”

Only another general and his cronies
, Frank kept to himself. As an analyst, she would've assessed and reported on the intel provided. That was the trouble. With Hellfire railroading him and manipulating the intel, the only possible verdict was guilty.

“I had to do something. Behind bars, I'd never get to the bottom of this, if they even let me live. My CID contact, Special Agent J.D. Torres, came to see me after the verdict and we devised a plan to fake my death. Once I escaped, I knew enough to keep gathering evidence against them without worrying that they'd go after my family.”

“And yet here we are, almost a year later.” She sank back into the chair.

“Yes.” His worst nightmare coming true in full color and in real time. “Based on what I learned during my brief time within Hellfire, I've been piecing parts of the puzzle together. I've learned how the drugs come into the country and I know the top three players in the group. I even managed to stop a drug shipment last month.”

“That's progress, I guess. What did Torres have to say?”

He recognized that look. She was shifting gears, playing devil's advocate. He was about to preempt that move. “Torres was the only person who knew about me. I reached out to him to turn in my latest report and let him know where I stashed Hellfire's drugs for the CID to clean up. He didn't respond. I discovered he died in a single-car wreck last month. He'd gone missing more than forty-eight hours before police found the car torched, just off his normal route to and from work. Taking that shipment managed to get another man killed and put you and Frankie in the crosshairs.”

“How can they possibly know you were responsible?”

“Process of elimination,” he replied. “I'm the only one who understands how the money and drugs move through their sick, private retirement fund. I can't be sure when they learned I'm alive. They must have tortured Torres to discover how we stayed in contact.”

“They threatened Frankie and me to draw you out?” She closed her eyes, her fingers sliding the pendant of her necklace along the chain. “How did they tell you?”

“It was a private message on a social media account. They sent me a picture of you, then followed that with the kill order.” When she let loose a string of Italian curses for Hellfire, he couldn't have agreed more. “I can't quit now. If I don't stop them, who knows how many more people will get hurt or die while they get richer?”

Her gaze was distant, thoughtful, as she resumed her place at the very edge of her chair. “I felt someone watching me in Chicago.”

“Yes,” he said with a nod. “I've been shadowing the man they put on you since you arrived this morning. I had to move fast before the sniper could set up the shot.”

“So you pulled me out of harm's way.”

“It almost worked perfectly.” His heart had stopped when they'd forced her off the road. “I'm not sure why they ran you off the road, unless they wanted your death to look like an accident.”

“What about Frankie?”

The edge of panic in her voice slid as deep as a blade between his ribs. “I'm hoping this fiancé of hers can watch her back, but the sooner I wrap this up, the better for everyone.” Once he eliminated Hellfire and knew his girls were safe, he could think about what to do with the rest of his lonely life.

Sophia nodded, her face pinched as she laced her fingers together in her lap. There had been a time when they'd faced bad news hand in hand. He never should have kept any of this from her. “Is he a good man?”

She lifted her gaze to meet his, blinking as she tried to put his question into the proper context. “Aidan? He's the best. Did you know he was a Colby investigator?”

BOOK: Heavy Artillery Husband
9.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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