Authors: Gennita Low
“It’s all about choice, Liam. She understands they’re after her and she makes a choice to go back to rescue those women, who must be like our own teammates to us. You got to admire that. Hell, I’d go for a woman like that myself too.”
Liam frowned. “You go look for one of your own,” he said, noting even while he spoke those words how quickly he’d cut
idea down. “May you get your own warrior woman who will drive you nuts when she runs headlong into danger.”
Wolf laughed. “I hope so.” He changed the subject. “So you’re going to call Hawk with the deets?”
“Yes, you want to talk to him?”
“Nah. Maybe after the operation. But do tell him the back up better come soon, since we’re about to start.”
Liam looked at the sky. “We’ll drive until we’re close enough for Cookie to walk to a safe place and still get our mic signals.”
Wolf sighed. “Convincing him to stay put is going to be a pain.”
“He knows he can’t walk fast and any climbing is going to be slow and painful,” Liam pointed out. “Tell him to wait for the signal to come in when we get the entrance opened. He can rush in guns a-blazing.”
“I’ll talk to him,” Wolf said. “Or Abe will. Abe’s talent is talking sense into us all when we get a little too cocky.”
Liam grinned and looked over at Abe. “He’s a good guy. I like him.”
Wolf held out a hand. “We’ll get this done. We’re a team now. One for all and all for one.”
Liam grabbed the hand, their elbows touching, and squeezed. “That’s not Shakespeare, but it’ll do,” he said, with a small smile.
* * *
an I have quick private word with you before you make that call?” Ella tapped Liam on the back.
He turned, and suddenly, he seemed to be standing too close. The sensation made her lose her train of thought, as she became distracted by the play of muscles flexing, where he’d rolled up his sleeves. She wanted to see if the rest of him was just as muscular.
Ella would have smacked herself, but that would betray her thoughts to the guy. “I’d be grateful if you could pass a message to Sean through your contact,” she said. “Tell him to access my stuff in the cloud storage. I’m destroying my laptop...in case...you know.”
She shrugged. In case they got caught. In case the enemy got hold of the vehicle and found her stuff.
He studied her for a long moment, his dark eyes uncomfortably assessing her face. She wondered if he could see her fear, her feeling that maybe she wasn’t ready for this kind of danger. She was fighting the slow rise of panic, telling herself every soldier felt like this before going out into the “theatre”, as her brother told her it was called.
“That’s a good idea, Fitz,” he finally said. “You sure about going along? There’s time to change your mind. You can drive the M-ATV to the other checkpoint after dropping us for the night.”
Ella stared at him. “Not gonna happen. I’m not abandoning my team!” she said, hotly.
“It won’t be taken like that. Those attackers were also after you and anyway, the other women wanted you to escape in the first place because they knew you were a target, even though they didn’t know all the facts.”
“True, but I also promised to get help.” She straightened to her fullest height. Not that it mattered, since he was still much taller than her. “That was Plan A. Then you showed up. Now there’s a Plan B. The help was a lot closer than driving all the way to the other checkpoint and I’ve decided we’re doing it. I don’t want to go back to Plan A or start a Plan C. What kind of soldier would abandon her pals?”
The moment those words left her mouth, she sensed an immediate difference in his attitude. He didn’t show it outwardly, but his body tensed up, and the lines bracketing his mouth had deepened as he clenched his jaw. Ella frowned, her journalist instincts telling her there was something she was missing.
“What?” she asked. “What’s wrong?”
He blinked, then one corner of his mouth curled up. “Nothing. Every fucking thing. A crazy redheaded reporter with two months’ boot camp training wants to run with the SEALs on an op. Despite my going along with this idea, my head’s telling me to tie you up and leave you here instead. That’s my Plan C.”
“That’s crazy talk!” Ella exclaimed. “And cave man!”
He jutted out his jaw. “I know, but that’s what up here is ordering me to do.” He pointed to his forehead before continuing, “Everything could go to hell with this assignment and you’re my responsibility. I can’t have anything happen to you. This is exactly why I left—”
Ella tilted her head sideways when he stopped. She was good at picking up clues and knew Liam’s explanation was some kind of confession, a revelation of something from his past.
“Why you left the SEALs?” She finished his sentence softly. “Sean said you’re a former SEAL. I’m right, aren’t I? Something happened on a mission and then you left the Navy. You’re feeling angry because you don’t want to fail protecting your charge. Did something happen and—”
Before she could finish, big male hands cupped her shoulders and pulled her close to the male heat. Angry male heat. And her heart went pitter-pat again when he dipped his head and put his face close to hers. His scent invaded her senses.
“Lady, don’t psychoanalyze me with your reporter BS. I want you back with Sean in one piece. His order was very specific. Make sure you’re safe from harm. Simple as that.”
“So damn simple, you look mad enough to kiss me,” she murmured, feeling reckless. What the hell. Today was all about being reckless. “Sean told you to kiss me too?”
He stared down at her, his dark eyes so intense with need, she wanted to stand on tiptoe and drag those lips down onto hers. Except that there was an audience somewhere back there who was probably pretending not to overhear their exchange. Words tended to carry in the desert air, after all, even very softly-spoken ones.
He released her. “I’m going to call Hawk and pass on your message and number,” Liam told her. “And then we’re going to this party and getting it over with. I’m going to ask Sean if I could tie you up so I could deliver you to him in one piece.”
She watched him stalk away. Still feeling reckless, she called after him, “Maybe you can ask Sean permission to kiss me.” Damn. Now they all heard that. She didn’t care. “Since I’m like a package you’re delivering these days, you’d better treat me right or you won’t get paid.”
Those broad shoulders stiffened as he continued his way. His reply was a cool, menacing promise. “Not to worry. The kissing and spanking will come later.”
Ella made a face and turned around. Five pairs of eyes were on her. Three of the men gave her thumbs-ups. Zainab looked mildly shocked.
“That went well,” Ella addressed them all, feeling remarkably pleased she’d gotten under Liam’s skin.
“Like you said, he’s been securing and delivering ‘packages’ for over a year. About time someone like you shakes him up and brings him back to reality,” Abe said. He nodded toward the man she’d been baiting. “Once a SEAL, always a SEAL. He’s lost a lot, including his way, so be gentle with him, Ella.”
She nodded. One thing was for sure in this day full of uncertainty. If she came out of this in one piece, Liam McMillan was going to be her next project.
he evening desert sun was comfortable, not like the stifling heat when they were making their escape from the check point. Liam stared out the window into the expanse of arid semi-desert landscape as their M-ATV rolled on.
He wasn’t angry. Okay, a little. Not at Ella, anyway. At himself. He didn’t want any of his past emotional baggage clouding his mind and that woman had tied him up in knots with mere
. He tightened his hold of the weapon in his right hand. All these months, he’d allowed constant action and movement, a crazy wild ride of going in and out of danger zones, doing what he did best, but
on his own.
No one but himself in danger, and then...some chick named Ella Fitzgerald pounds through his impenetrable mental wall...with words. How ironic, right, because he loved quoting Shakespeare so much, his teammates had made fun of him and called him Player.
He admired Ella’s bravery. No matter how hard one trained for it, it wasn’t easy to look at death in the eye. However, she was new at this and hasn’t suffered true loss yet. That kind of experience left an indelible mark. Hell, look at him.
His satellite phone buzzed and he pulled it out of his pocket. This must be an emergency. Hawk and he had already talked earlier.
“We’re on the road, Hawk. No way this signal is going to last,” he said, without preliminary. “Make it quick. Is there a change of plans?”
That would be the most likely reason why Hawk would call so soon after his last update. He’d shared with the others what Hawk and he had agreed on and they had made quick changes in their initial plan to accommodate the timing. Hawk’s men were hurrying towards their target. Like them, they would take the quiet route because of the prisoners involved. The element of surprise was important.
“I have new satellite pictures,” Hawk said. “Your hostiles are waiting for a convoy to arrive. Apparently, they want to keep the check point as a stronghold for a while. What with so many prisoners, we’re concluding they’ve decided take advantage of the stalemate and use the check point to get their supply lines across the border to their territory.”
“That must be the new orders from their higher-ups,” Liam surmised, “since their initial mission failed.”
“Yes. Not a bad decision, since the last time they’d attacked, the Iraqi army practically ran away.”
Hawk didn’t say it, but Liam could almost imagine the expression on his cousin’s face. The Iraqis, trained by American special operatives, had turned and abandoned an entire city. The event had become the biggest news item among the spec. op. teams as well as the entire region. Different militant and small armies headed by warlords had laughed and mocked. The spec. op. teams had sighed, grimly acknowledging there was nothing they could do to salvage the situation. Meanwhile, an entire city had, overnight, become virtual prisoners to their captors, who had threatened, pillaged, tortured and raped at will.
Not this time, Liam vowed. Not under his watch. “Can you take care of the convoy?” He asked.
“Yes, but you must make sure the timing is right so they can’t exchange communications with the convoy. Admiral Madison sends you a message.”
Caught by surprise, Liam didn’t say anything for a second. He hadn’t expected the Admiral to even remember him.
“Yeah, signal is getting weaker,” Liam said.
“I’m going to repeat it verbatim. Mad Dog says to tell you, ‘We’ll take care of the convoy and we’ll be there to help out this time. There will be no betrayals because I’m going to personally oversee this task. Tell him this is for the fallen team.’ That’s it. Liam, Mad Dog is getting his hands dirty for you and Wolf’s men. Do you copy?”
Liam swallowed hard. “Yeah, I understand. I won’t let the past cloud my focus.”
“Signal’s very weak. Tell Fitz, Sean got her instructions. Player, keep safe. Over.”
“Will do. Over.”
The others looked at him expectantly as he put away the satellite phone.
“What’s new?” Wolf asked.
“Convoy heading to the check point,” Liam replied, and gave them the details.
Mozart whistled. “Mad Dog in it? Whoa.”
“Is that good or bad?” Ella asked.
“That isn’t it,” Liam said, and explained further. “Admiral Madison is a legend among SEALs because of his past. With his presence, we usually expect black op forces like DEVGRU troops and the Air Force’s 24
Special Tactics Squadron.”
Ella raised her brows at him. “Is that good or bad?” she asked again and made a gesture. “Come on. I’m new with military chitchat. One day, I’ll talk like you boys, I promise.”
He felt a reluctant tug of his lips. “DEVGRU has spec ops teams such as DELTA force. Perhaps you’ve heard of them?” She nodded. “And there are other special SEAL cells too. They all specialized in counter-terrorist and hostage retrieval operations. The 24
STS works with these teams because of their air power capabilities.”
“Okay, now I know that’s good,” Ella said. She squeezed Zainab’s shoulder. “SEALs and DELTA operatives and
freedom fighters. We can’t lose.”
Zainab returned a slight smile. “They are—what you say before at camp? They are slaughtered meat.”
“No, dead. They’re dead meat,” Ella corrected.
The other men chuckled.
“Close enough,” Abe said.
The others joined in with a few choice phrases of their own. Through the ride, the conversation lulled and someone would have a question and then, silence again. Liam stared at the passing scenery. The desert was beautiful and horrible at the same time, depending on his mood, but the monotony of nothing but sand and shadows was a good way to settle his thoughts. Everyone was in prep mode, thinking ahead. As a SEAL, he’d mentally prepared by thinking through the plan, his mind going through the steps and doing his job. He even had a few monologues from Shakespeare’s war plays that he would recite to stir his emotions or his teammates’, if they needed a talk-to.
Admiral Madison at the helm. No betrayals this time, he’d said in his message through Hawk. It held a personal promise Liam appreciated.
The admiral had a way to steady people with words and action. He’d remembered the man who had left the teams and had somehow known Liam needed those words. It was a promise he needed to hear. Today, the general was telling him, no one would sell his team out, like it’d happened to his old one. Today, he and the others wouldn’t be walking into a trap where no one came out alive.
Not like the last time, when no one came out of that hell hole. No one except him, that was.
* * *
he hike was intense. There was electricity in the air as they quietly made their way in the evening light. Only Cookie, the injured SEAL, stayed in the M-ATV, waiting for the signal to charge through the entrance. Ella could tell from the man’s expression he wasn’t happy about it, but he followed the direct order with just a few protests.