Authors: Lora Leigh
In memory of those who can never come home.
The warriors, the men and women whose courage and determination, whose loyalty and dedication to their country demanded the ultimate sacrifice.
My prayers for your loved ones, your wives, parents, children, and friends are whispered nightly. My dream that your sacrifice was not in vain is an ever-present thought.
Your blood was precious, your laughter is missed, and your dreams, though not realized, will never be forgotten.
You are the ultimate heroes, and your precious light will shine forever in the minds, the hearts, and the lives of freedom you have provided for us.
May heaven hold you in its embrace, as we shall always hold you in our hearts.
To Lisa Cesa, thanks for all the help and advice. It’s not always easy to find someone willing to give their time and friendship as you have, and it’s greatly appreciated.
Uncle Ronnie and Aunt Sug. I’ve missed you more than you know, and having you in my life once again is a gift I’ll never forget.
And to Bret. You’re growing up too fast, becoming a man too soon. But my pride and joy in you knows no bounds. Thanks for understanding, for supporting, and most of all, for just being you.
Elite Operations Base
She was a vision of beauty.
Too fucking young, but her eyes weren’t those of a twenty-four-year-old. They were the eyes of a woman who had seen too much, who had known too much danger, too much pain.
Jordan watched as she went through the strenuous training maneuvers the Elite Operations backup team was putting her through and wondered how the hell he was going to say no to her.
She wasn’t strong enough to match the Elite Operations agents in physical strength or endurance, but she was more than a match for them in speed and ingenuity.
“She has no place to go, Jordan. She’s spent her life running from her father and her brother. She doesn’t have the education or the job skills to step out of this life. This is all she has.” Kira Richards stood beside him, the former CIA asset somber, persuasive, as she attempted to smooth over the anger Jordan knew he wasn’t hiding.
He’d arrived at the training facility to check the status of his nephew, now known as Noah Blake, as well as the other operatives that were part of his Elite Operations command. He hadn’t expected to find this tiny sprite of a woman with masses of red hair, haunted green eyes, and a too sad face sparring with the nephew in question.
“Elite Operations isn’t an orphanage, Kira,” he reminded her, careful to keep his tone cold, emotionless.
He couldn’t show the chink he knew this young woman had put in his defenses the first time he had met her two years before in Aruba during the Diego Fuentes operation. The operation involving Kira’s now husband, Ian, and his father, Diego Fuentes, had been rife with danger. And there the girl had been, desperate to end the life of death and misery her father had been waging to find her for nearly twenty years.
Her eyes had been shattered then, filled with desperation and fear that the plot to bring down the terrorist Sorrel wouldn’t succeed.
But she had been game. She’d thrown everything she had into revealing the identity of the man who had destroyed her mother and who had tried to destroy her.
“Elite Operations isn’t an orphanage, but we owe her,” Kira reminded him forcefully. “You know we do. Besides, she would be perfect in base operations. She knows communications, she knows how to organize things. Give her a chance.”
He glanced at the woman at his side. It wasn’t a request, it was an order. Make it happen. That was what she was saying. Just make it happen.
“You’re a contract asset for the Ops, Kira,” he reminded her. “This isn’t your decision to make. Nor is it up to those men out there.” He waved his hand at the training room viewed through the two-way mirror he stood behind.
“The whole team has more or less adopted her, Jordan,” she informed him. “You can’t get out of this. If you don’t take her, then the backup team will.”
Hell, he had very little control over the Elite backup team. He couldn’t order Reno or Clint to do shit and he knew it. But he owed them, and he knew that as well. Just as he knew that if she were working with them, it would be a damned sight more dangerous than being confined to the Elite Operations base would be.
“She would fit in perfectly as your personal assistant, as well as mine, in communications,” Kira went on to say. “We’ve been in operation long enough that you know we need someone to fill that spot. Give her a chance, that’s all she needs.”
She would be perfect to make him crazy, that was what he knew. The few times he had been in contact with her, his blood pressure had nearly gone through the damned roof, and his cock had nearly burst from his jeans.
The need to fuck her had been so damned overwhelming that for the first time in years Jordan had considered breaking his own rule. Never fuck or become close to his female operatives. He knew better, just as he knew the outcome if the past remained true.
Losing one of them posed the risk of too much distraction. It was a distraction he could ill afford when the lives of the entire team depended on his ability to think straight.
She was eight years younger than he was, she was looking for a life, for a battle to replace the one she had fought for so many years. The battle to bring her terrorist father to justice. But he knew the dangers of not letting her in, the danger to her, and that terrified him.
Sorrel’s allies would find her and exact vengeance for the terrorist and white slaver’s death. The thought of the hell they would put her through before they killed her was enough to give him nightmares.
He knew the risk to himself as well as the team in letting her become involved. She was young, she had no official training, other than what she had received in her desperation to survive over the years. She was an impulsive redhead, and she was weakness personified.
“She’s not Catherine, Jordan. She’s not a field agent, and she has no desire to be one.”
And of course Kira would know exactly why he didn’t want her there.
Jordan turned away from her. She had known Catherine, though not very well. Hell, they had worked for the same damned agency in the same line of work. Except Catherine hadn’t survived it, because of him. Because he hadn’t been able to protect her and the unborn child she and her husband had dreamed of having. Because she had been a close friend, and when she had placed herself in a situation he hadn’t been prepared for, he’d dropped the ball.
“I never said she was Catherine,” he stated coldly. “I said we’re not an orphanage. Bringing her in would be a risk.”
“But you’ll bring her in,” she demanded, but with just enough respect that he couldn’t deny the request out of pride. She was right, Tehya was a perfect fit for the Elite Ops, but she was a distraction to him. And that made her a danger.
Jordan sighed heavily. The knowledge of the debt he owed Kira, her husband, Ian, and Ian’s SEAL team was never lost on him, either.
Together, they had saved his nephew, dragged him out of hell, and even now they worked to heal the wounds inflicted on Noah’s soul.
Besides that, there was also the fact that they were a working unit now. Elite Operations and its backup team was a cohesive unit, and throwing a wrench in the works over their choice of a base member wasn’t in his best interests.
It was the woman in question, and the risk she posed, not so much to the unit, but to his own self-control. The woman who had haunted him since he’d met her in Aruba two years before.
“Bring her in.” He heard his voice harden and he knew that the fact that he didn’t agree with the choice wouldn’t be lost on Kira.
“That’s all I needed.” Satisfaction filled her voice, and when he turned to look at her, he saw the amusement in her soft gray eyes.
“This is a mistake, Kira,” he informed her, knowing the anger was slipping past his careful control.
She stared back at him, her lips quirking as an unholy gleam of wicked laughter sparked in her gaze. “Why? Because you get hard for her? Think of it this way, Jordan, she’ll add a little spice to your life.” Despite the flippancy in her tone, understanding filled her gaze.
“I don’t need spice in my life.”
“Sometimes, that’s exactly what you need to live again,” she said gently. “You’re like Noah, almost dead inside. Catherine wouldn’t have wanted that for you, and I know her husband, Killian doesn’t. She was your friend, Jordan, not your albatross.”
As he watched her walk away he felt the familiar guilt, reminding himself that even Kira didn’t know the truth.
He was the reason Catherine was dead. And he would never let himself forget that. Because of it, he refused to involve himself in the lives of his agents refused to allow himself a lover he worked with. Especially Tehya. Because she did make him hard. Harder, faster than any other woman in his life.
He turned back to the two-way mirror that provided a view into the training room and watched Tehya again. He had let her into the Ops, but he would never let her into his bed, or into his life.
And he swore he would never let her into his heart. Though, his fear was, she was already there.
Six years later
Riordan Malone Sr. looked up from the marble gravestone and his silent good night, his fingers caressing the sun-warmed stone as though he could reach the woman fate had taken from him so many decades before.
Wild Irish and soft as a summer morn, his Erin had given his life meaning, then she had given him two sons that a man could be proud of.
Courageous, brave, strong sons.
His eldest, Grant, may have been forced to appear less than honorable, less than courageous for a while, but he had done it to protect his own sons, and the sacrifices he had made were no less than Riordan Sr. would make himself.
His youngest son, however, the one his wee Erin had called her mini-Rory, he was the one Riordan was perhaps the most proud of.
“Jordan.” A smile tugged at Riordan’s lips. His son always approached him as though he were never certain of his reception. As though he were unaware of the power of a father’s love.
He watched as Jordan moved across the small cemetery, his long-legged, powerful form tall and strong as he walked up to his mother’s grave.
Riordan watched as Jordan touched the top of the stone lightly as he had done for so many years. In the gesture, Riordan saw things, sensed things he knew his son would never be comfortable with him knowing.
He saw a son’s regret, a man’s aching loneliness, but even harder to observe was the flash of weariness. Jordan was growing tired, and that was dangerous for a warrior.
“I miss her.” Riordan patted the stone gently as he turned his gaze from his son and stared at the marble instead.
She was his talisman, his Erin. She had been his boyhood dream, his teenage love, and finally, she had become his wife. The mother of his sons, the foundation of his soul. She’d made him swear to linger on this earth without her to see to the happiness and safety of her boys. And he’d done as she asked. He had pushed himself through each day with only that purpose in mind.