Authors: SE Jakes
This one’s for my fabulous editor, Jennifer Miller, who loved the story as much as I did.
It was too dark to see, the air so humid it threatened to drown him in the enclosed space. His head throbbed, his body had gone numb weeks ago. And there was no end in sight.
He couldn’t stand—the cell was maybe four feet tall and eight feet wide, at best, and the claustrophobia closed in on him minute by minute, so much so that he’d started to look forward to the beatings because at least he was freed then. And upright, strapped to a T-bar while he was whipped, questions screamed at him in between that he never goddamned answered.
You don’t know how much you can handle until you’re forced to handle it.
That statement had too much truth to it. Especially when his captors dangled the eternal carrot in front of him and his teammates, day in and day out.
“If you help us, your friends can go.”
Night after night, he pondered the truth in that statement when he knew there really was none. But lack of food and sleep did strange things to a man, and no amount of training could’ve ever thoroughly prepared him for this.
For this kind of torture, you were either able to make it through or you weren’t. Simple as that. It was a mental game…unless your body broke down physically. After that, all bets were off.
None of them wanted to scream but sometimes the screams slipped out. He’d listen for other signs of suffering—the fast breathing, the grunts that came out involuntarily after being hit too hard.
The terrorists with ties to the FARC were looking for the same intel they’d killed a CIA agent for—wanted a terrorist released from prison in exchange for the second agent’s life. He knew that because his team had been sent in to rescue that agent.
There was no sign of the agent, not before or after the SEAL team had been captured.
He looked up, stared into the face of his captor.
“You will cooperate.”
“No,” he managed.
“One of your friends is already dead because you wouldn’t cooperate.”
He couldn’t answer that. Wouldn’t. He was dragged out, but far less roughly. His head spun. His body was too weak, and the men half carried him into a small room he’d never been let into before. And they hadn’t taken him past his teammates’ cells this time.
He had no idea if they were getting out of this alive.
He did know that if they did, they’d never be the same.
There were a lot of people looking to get laid in the packed bar that night, and Lucky wanted to be one of them. The lights were low, music screamed in his ears and his body moved unconsciously to the beat as he poured drinks and flirted easily with the regulars.
Emme waved him down. “Luck, give me four lemon-drop shots.” Emme always called him Luck, short for Lucky, because she’d been the one to name him that after finding him washed up on the beach in the middle of the night.
“I tripped over you and I screamed,” Emme told him all the time. “First, I thought it was a dead whale. And then I thought you were just dead.”
, he always thought when she told that part.
Dead and reborn Lucky on that wet sand on the Easter Cape beach almost four years earlier. He didn’t even know how old he was. Didn’t know his real name, if his parents were dead or alive.
But the scars that striped across his back and the backs of his thighs told him he’d been through a terrible ordeal. He’d incorporated that into his made-up past, told the doctors and Emme’s family—the Bains—that his name was Doug, that he’d been abused as a teen and that he’d emancipated himself and was traveling, doing odd jobs and determined to live life on his terms.
The last part was true enough. He’d told the Bains that he’d gone out too far and the riptide had yanked him.
The thing was, the riptide
been there, but he’d instinctively known to swim along with it, parallel to the shore instead of trying to fight it. This was where his memory started—a terrifying moment of waking up submerged in the dark water. He’d been lucky he hadn’t inhaled, which spoke of luck.
Or maybe experience.
He’d discovered he knew how to swim seconds after being dumped into the Indian Ocean that night. And he had swum—it had been more sophisticated than panicked survival instinct. Because he hadn’t panicked. He’d been exhausted but he’d finally found a place where the current broke and had swum until he hit sand. He’d lain on the beach, freezing, until the Bains had found him. His first instinct on meeting Emme and her parents had been to lie. That had worked out well for him, and he’d remained in South Africa ever since.
He was most likely American, but had no passport, no social security number to prove that, so leaving wasn’t on his highest list of priorities. And this pace of life had suited him, at least at first.
Lately, he’d been restless. He guessed having no choices would do that to a man eventually.
“Here you go.” He slid the shots down the bar, one by one toward the waiting women. They laughed as they caught the glasses and thanked him. One, a tall, pretty brunette, held up her shot and toasted him before moving to be closer to where he was working. She flirted with him for a few minutes—he returned the banter but he was too busy for anything more.
That was all right—she wasn’t his type anyway.
“Hey, can I grab a Jack and Coke?”
Lucky looked up into the face of the man who’d placed the order and nodded. “Coming right up.”
The guy did a double take. He was good-looking, but Lucky had immediately pegged him for straight. He waited a beat, but the guy suddenly reached across the bar for him, saying, “Josh? Holy fuck—is that really you?”
Lucky put his hands up and backed away.
The name Josh didn’t set off any alarm bells, but Lucky would be lying if he hadn’t thought about a moment like this constantly. Some days he looked over his shoulder more than others.
Tonight, his defenses had been down. His gut told him to move this away from the bar, take it outside so Emme wouldn’t see it happening. He pushed out, calling, “Taking ten,” and didn’t wait to hear her agree.
The big blond guy followed him. When Lucky turned to face him under the lights in the adjacent alleyway, he noted the guy looked like he’d seen a ghost. “How the hell did you escape?”
“I’m not Josh,” he said.
“You’re Josh Kent. Come on, I’d know you anywhere,” the guy started again, softer this time, like one might talk to a wounded animal. He kept his hands to himself, tucked them into his jeans pockets to make himself appear less threatening.
But Lucky was threatened. Half of him fought a tremble but the other half was ready to throw down. Instinct made him react, forced him to keep a wide berth between the two of them. “You’ve got the wrong guy.”
But he persisted. “Josh, it’s Nate. We served together.”
Fuck. Served together. He’d long suspected he’d been in the military, but he played dumb instead, hoping it was all a case of mistaken identity. “Served drinks?”
“In the Navy.”
“My name’s Lucky, not Josh. Sorry.” He went to turn away but Nate grabbed his upper arm forcefully and spun him around.
“Four years, Josh. We all thought you died. We watched you…fuck…we watched you die and now you’re hanging out bartending?” Nate let go of him, put his hands up as if apologizing. “If you don’t remember…”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Lucky pushed at him, his palms against the big guy’s shoulders, and Nate stumbled back.
“Strong as ever, you dumb fuck. Why the hell are you hiding here?”
“You need to leave,” Lucky said, but Nate was charging for him, angry now. He braced but Nate stopped when another man stepped in between them.
That guy was also big and broad, and for a horrible second, Lucky thought he was on Nate’s side. But he put himself in front of Lucky and told Nate, “You need to back off.”
“You don’t understand—I know him,” Nate said.
“He doesn’t know you. He’s said so. Chalk it up to a case of mistaken identity.”
“It’s not,” Nate insisted. “I’ll leave now—but I’ll be back with proof. You’re Josh Kent.” He pointed at Lucky and then stormed off.
Lucky walked over to the nearest car and sat on the hood. Sweat trickled down his back and he took a deep breath. He’d built a web of lies about who he was. All this time, he hadn’t told anyone he couldn’t remember shit about his past. And really, how would they know?
He didn’t tell them because they’d make him deal with it, and he was pretty damned sure he didn’t want to go there again. Ever.
“He scared the hell out of you,” his savior said, his voice rough. So was his hand that reached out to touch him, but the good rough that made Lucky feel something. The calming hand rested on the back of his neck, centered him, allowed him to simply bow his head and take a deep breath.
The hand remained there for what seemed like hours but was really just minutes. He finally raised his head and the guy’s hand slid off.
Lucky missed the contact. “I’m okay. I’ve been fighting a flu,” he lied, because that’s apparently what he did best. “Thanks for that—I just wasn’t up to dealing with a stalker.”
“Is that what he was?”
He looked into the pale blue eyes that seemed to want truth and barely managed, “Yeah.”
“Well, any employee of my family’s bar is typically like family.”
He blinked. “You’re Dashiell.”
In all these years, he’d never met Emme’s brother, an award-winning photographer. Emme said he always avoided being photographed himself, just let his work speak for him. There were a lot of his prints around Lucky’s apartment, haunting pictures of people and places in third-world countries. Lucky was always drawn to them as though he’d been there, looking over his shoulder as the pictures were taken. Like he had a connection to Dash, which was ridiculous.
“I’ve seen your photographs. Great stuff.” He sounded like an idiot. Blamed Nate for riling him up and tried to calm down. “Emme always brags about you.”
“She’s good for that,” Dash agreed. He wore his blond hair long, tied back. The stubble on his face looked like it would be rough too if Lucky rubbed his hand against it. There was a scar on his chin that Lucky wanted to trace down to his neck. Looked dressed down, like he’d blend in anywhere. But he was just handsome enough to be memorable.
Lucky didn’t know why he did that—catalogued people quickly, studied, looking and assessing for strengths and weaknesses—but he did it all the damned time.
You were in the Navy.
“Speaking of Emme, I need to get back in there.” Lucky slid off the car, and Dash put a hand on his shoulder, as if to steady him. Whether he’d needed it or not, he liked the way it felt.
Dash walked into his family’s bar a step behind Lucky, tamping down the adrenaline that threatened to take over his body. For a second before he entered, he closed his eyes and mentally compared the old picture from the file to the man he’d had his hands on.
It was hard not to reach out and touch the guy again, and he cursed himself for even doing so in the first place. It wasn’t the reaction he’d pictured having when he’d finally been proven correct in believing that Josh Kent—aka “Lucky”—was alive.
Alive, with a possible terrorist connection and living with your family.
Lucky didn’t even turn around after he jumped behind the bar and began taking drink orders. Emme went to say something to him but spotted Dash and ran over to him instead. He noted that Lucky looked relieved. “Finally! I was beginning to think you’d disowned us.”
He hugged her back. “Sorry—work’s been keeping me busy.”
“I know. I collect your work, remember?” She swatted him with the towel she’d had tucked in her jeans and they walked to the back room where it was quieter. “Please tell me you’re sticking around for a little while.”
“At least a couple of days.”
“I see you met our best bartender.” She motioned over her shoulder at Lucky.
He took a deep breath and held back, because scaring the shit out of his sister—or letting Lucky know he was suspicious—was the last thing Dash wanted to do. “Yep. Lucky’s an unusual first name.”