“Where are you?” Navy Captain Aidan Sullivan asked in a groggy voice. The bedroom in the small French Quarter apartment that overlooked a secluded courtyard had the French doors open, letting in a breeze even though it was July. After eleven in the morning, the air conditioner came on, no matter how romantic the view was.
“I’m making coffee, and you’re supposed to still be sleeping,” Navy Commander Berkley Levine said from what sounded like the kitchen.
“I’m awake in an empty bed.” Aidan rolled over, stared at the ceiling, and combed her blond hair back as she yawned. “You know the rules, Levine.”
Berkley appeared in the doorway completely naked, so Aidan focused on her tall, fit body, hoping Berkley wasn’t too set on having coffee anytime soon. “Do you plan to get up, or do you need an incentive?” Her straight posture with her hands on her hips looked quintessentially naval aviator—a little cocky and a hell of a lot sexy.
“If you come over here you can incentivize me all you want, baby.” She tossed the sheet off and smiled at the thought of how long Berkley would hold out. “You can make up for not being here when I woke up.”
“I didn’t break any rules—I washere when you woke up.” Berkley knelt on the bed and fell forward, stopping herself at the last moment before she completely collapsed on her. “And we don’t have time for any kind of incentives.” Aidan frowned when Berkley kissed her nose and started to get up. “Your parents arrive today, and I don’t want to be late picking them up.”
She wrapped her legs around Berkley to keep her in place, amazed that Berkley lifted her off the bed and held her while she kissed her on the lips this time. She should be used to the instant arousal by now, but it still stole her reason and had from the beginning.
They’d met in Hawaii nine years prior, and she’d tossed her carefully held caution in all things overboard and gone out with the young, good-looking aviator, only to sleep with her on their first date. That, she still couldn’t believe, but Berkley did things to the rational part of her brain, as in turning it off so her primal desires could take over.
“Do you remember our first date?” she asked when Berkley ended their kiss so she could lay her back down.
“I do,” Berkley said, lowering her head to suck on her nipple until it puckered steel hard. “That Chinese place you ordered from had fantastic egg rolls.”
“You suck,” she deadpanned.
“I sure do.” Berkley laughed as she made her way down Aidan’s body and spread her legs. All she could do was buck up into Berkley’s mouth when she sucked her clit in and ran her tongue over it. She’d wanted it to last, but she couldn’t possibly curb her need to come.
“Baby, please.” She grabbed Berkley’s head and tugged her closer. “Put your fingers in,” she said before groaning loud enough to feel a reverberation in her chest. Berkley slowed down, which was maddening. “I need you,” she said, sounding way out of breath and desperate, but Berkley gave her what she wanted. She slid two fingers in and sucked harder until she came with another loud moan.
“You’d better pray Mr. Comeaux isn’t out there watering his lilies,” Berkley said as she came up and held her as her heart rate slowed
They’d rented the place for a month enjoying the first vacation either of them had taken in years. Granted, they’d met years before, but Aidan had made the worst mistake of her life by choosing the navy over Berkley, leading them to four years apart. Thankfully, Berkley had forgiven her and not only taken her back, but volunteered to join her on the carrier Aidan had been given the helm of.
Their first mission together had almost ended in disaster when Berkley had been shot down over North Korea because of David “Blazer” Morris, a traitorous little shit who was part of her flight team, but she’d miraculously made it out, her backseat, Lieutenant Harvey “Junior” Whittle, in tow with a broken leg. It had been a wake-up call for both of them, so they’d stopped wasting time and admitted what they both wanted in a future together.
“I love you,” she said as she threw her leg over Berkley’s thighs.
“I love you too, and I was kidding before,” Berkley said, holding her tight enough that she moved to lie on her. “Our first date is one of my favorite memories.”
“Really?” When Berkley looked at her so adoringly, she felt like she was falling in love all over again.
“Why in the world would you doubt that?” Berkley asked as she wiped her tears, surprising her that she was crying. “You were the most beautiful woman I’d ever laid eyes on, and I didn’t figure I had a chance no matter what I tried. You threw me by saying yes.”
“You were pretty dashing, stud, so it wasn’t a hardship.” She leaned down and kissed Berkley until she held her tighter.
“What brought on your question?”
She put her head on Berkley’s chest and closed her eyes. “This last year has been completely different from what I thought it’d be, and I’m incredibly lucky you let me back in.”
“Now that wasn’t a hardship at all, baby.” Berkley repeated what she’d said. “Besides, you can’t really ever lose what’s yours for life.”
Hawaii, Nine Years Earlier
“Are you asking me out?” Aidan asked, shielding her eyes from the sun. The sweat from her run was dripping down her back and pooling in the waistband of her shorts. The tall pilot she’d shot down in yesterday’s exercise had stopped her, and she almost kept going because of the woman’s teasing last night about her height. It was a bad idea, but the fly god was trying extra hard to be charming.
“Are you going to report me if I say yes?”
Aidan definitely remembered the woman’s smile from the night before, and she deserved some if not all of that swagger. The woman was truly stunning. “Okay, but it’s too late in the day for coffee, so it’s either dinner or wait until morning, when I’m ready to drink coffee again.”
“Dinner it is.”
“Are you going to introduce yourself, or were you raised by wolves?”
“No wolves in my family tree that I know of, and I apologize, but maybe I was trying to wait on the chance you’d turn me in. Berkley Levine.” Berkley held her hand out.
“Aidan Sullivan.” She took Berkley’s hand, not lowering her other one since the sun was still in her eyes. “Do you know where the Beach Grove complex is?”
“No. I don’t. I got here yesterday.” Berkley moved her around before letting go of her so she’d be standing in her shadow. “Seven sound okay?”
“I get off duty at six, so seven sounds great.” The easy smile on Berkley’s face made her not only more attractive, but also kind of roguish as she took her hand and wrote her address on her palm with the pen hanging off her ID badge. “I’m in 5B.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Berkley said and saluted, which seemed strange until she saw the two officers close by. The salute was sharp, and then Berkley continued her run with a stride that made Aidan think she could keep it up for miles.
“That’s trouble all wrapped up in a gorgeous package,” she whispered as she kept to the path she was on.
That thought grew exponentially throughout the day until she drove herself nearly insane enough to call Berkley and cancel, only she didn’t have her number or any way of contacting her. She was in her underwear, trying not to freak out, when she heard a knock at the door. It was only six thirty, so no way was it Berkley, but she needed to get rid of whoever it was, not wanting company when she ditched her date soon.
“Shit,” she whispered when she looked through the peephole, finding an even better-appearing Berkley in a white shirt and jeans. She took a deep breath and pulled her robe tie before opening the door. “Hi. You’re way early.”
“I wanted to make a good impression, and these are for you.” The bouquet of tropical flowers and orchids was beautiful, and that Berkley had thought to bring them made her waver about cutting this short.
“Thank you, and please come in. I got stuck with some last-minute things today and was late getting home.” Her one and only vase was in the cabinet over the refrigerator, and Berkley got it down for her when she followed her in there. “Do you mind waiting for me a few minutes?”
“Take your time,” Berkley said, watching her deal with the flowers.
“There’s wine and beer in the fridge if you want either.” She tried to be a good hostess but quickly made it to her bedroom and closed the door before Berkley decided to follow her in there as well.
Since Berkley wasn’t in uniform, she put on a pair of shorts and a peasant blouse she’d bought in Mexico, figuring they were going somewhere casual. Berkley was sitting on one of her stools at the kitchen counter when she came back out in her bare feet, but stood and slid her hands into her pockets when she saw her.
“Do you want me to go?” Berkley asked, having lost her smile somewhere between the door and her getting dressed. She just needed to say yes, and the rest of the night would be hers problem free.
“Why do you ask?” Curiosity postponed the smart play.
“You look either nervous or apprehensive,” Berkley said softly, “and you’re probably not the type to be either. If you are, it’s me making you that way, and if I am, I’ll go.”
Anyone who thought to say something like that was someone who deserved her time and attention. “I’m nervous because I’ve never done this before.”
“You’ve never gone out on a date?” Berkley went from resigned to incredulous in a flash, which made her laugh.
“I’m not that hideous, am I?” She dropped her shoes and sat on the sofa, patting the spot next to her. “I’ve been on plenty of dates—just not many where I could get court-martialed if anyone found out.”
“No one’s getting court-martialed.” Berkley sat and leaned back, getting comfortable. “It’s only dinner, maybe a movie, and maybe…maybe a good-night kiss on the cheek like I’m your sister, if I’m lucky.”
“Are you usually lucky?” Berkley Levine was lucky in probably everything she tried, from girls to planes.
“I’m out of practice when it comes to lucky,” Berkley said, her smile back. “The military puts you through all kinds of hell before they let you take a really expensive plane out for a spin. I’ve concentrated on flying for what seems like forever, since Commander Corbin Levine would’ve been mighty disappointed if I’d failed to make the cut.”
“Your father?” Berkley nodded. “I totally understand that.”
“I doubt yours is as demanding,” Berkley said, making Aidan snort. Her date obviously didn’t know who her father was, which was refreshing. “How about some food, we skip the movie and the kiss, and you decide if we do this again?”
“Are you open to negotiation?” She folded her legs under her and smiled, deciding to gamble.
“What are your terms?”
“We order in and watch a movie here.” If they stayed in she could enjoy Berkley’s undivided attention all night.
“And the good-night kiss?” Berkley leaned toward her but stopped, leaving plenty of room between them to decide the next move without feeling pressured.
“We should get that out of the way.” She leaned in as well and knew she’d made the right decision when Berkley kissed her softly at first. Then somehow she ended up straddling Berkley when things got heated. “Are you hungry right this minute?” The question came out of her mouth, and she wondered what the hell was happening to her, but at that moment she had to be naked.
“Famished,” Berkley said and carried her into the bedroom.
“You were going to cancel on me?” Berkley picked Aiden up and carried her to the shower. The place they’d rented was small, but it had a surprisingly large bathroom, with a claw-foot tub and a rain shower coming from the ceiling.
“I thought you were a bad idea, and then I saw you.” Aidan sat on the counter while Berkley adjusted the water, and the sight of her made Berkley forget about her self-imposed timeline. “You proved my point, but you were so gorgeous I couldn’t help myself.”
“I’m happy you decided to chance it, and after we make some headway on this crap we’ve been working on, it’s time to retire.” She went back for Aidan and kissed her when she wrapped her legs around her waist. “It doesn’t matter where we live, but it’s time we get a place for our dog and the couple of kids I’m putting in an order for.”
“Really?” The way Aidan pulled her hair made her stop before getting under the spray. “You really want that?”
They’d talked vaguely about the future but hadn’t made plans other than enjoying their time together and rebuilding their relationship. Aidan might’ve left her in Hawaii to pursue her career as a naval officer, but Berkley’s heart hadn’t flinched when she’d completely forgiven her. The only way to heal the heartbreak of Aidan’s loss was to believe she was back for good.
“What, the house or the kids?” She turned the water off. “I want both, and I don’t want to wait much longer.”
“Why?” Aidan asked, squeezing her legs tighter around her.
“Because I want to experience the wonder of seeing you pregnant with our baby, and I want to have a place where I don’t have to hide who you are to me.” Honesty was best, her father always said, but it was a scary notion if the person you were with didn’t want the same things.
“God, yes,” Aidan said before kissing her. “We talked about it years ago, but I thought you might’ve changed your mind.”
“Let’s make a deal that we’ll talk about all this stuff from now on, instead of trying to guess what we want.” She headed back to the bedroom and sat on the bed with Aidan on her lap. “No matter our mistakes, going forward, we’ll make them together no matter what.”
“I’ll gladly agree to that deal, and I’m tired of putting my biological clock on snooze.”
She laughed and ran her hands up Aidan’s back. “Anything else on your mind?”
“We haven’t gotten anywhere with our investigation,” Aidan said, resting her head on her shoulder and sighing.
“The cockroaches have done a good job of scattering and hiding, for sure, but they’ll surface. They have too much invested to back down now.”
The initial voyage of the USS Jefferson, Aidan’s first command, had been a mission to destroy two nuclear sites in North Korea. It had also been the beginning of a mutiny by some supposed patriots, who’d formed a militia group called New Horizons, led by former Vice President Dick Chandler. The men who’d joined Chandler, and were willing to die for his cause, had stolen millions from the defense budget to finance their war to bring down the current government, and they’d recruited both retired and active military to do the job.
New Horizons and its leaders had a problem with the election of the current president, Peter Khalid, and his choice for vice president, Olivia Michaels. The changes they’d instituted, like placing Aidan at the helm of the Jeffersonand her in command of the flight crew, were in their opinion the death of the America they loved.
“If NSA, the CIA, and the FBI can’t find Chandler, how the hell are we going to? We’ve given enough, honey, and I’m ready to be happy and pregnant.” Aidan was hard to argue with, but so was her dedication to duty, and Berkley hated leaving something undone.
“We have a couple of weeks off, with plenty of family time planned, so let’s talk about it.”
“I do as long as you promise not to believe everything my sisters say about me.”
Retired US Army General Homer Lapry sat in the fighting chair of the fishing boat he’d hired on the northern coast of South Korea and stared out at the large expanse of water. The contact had been sent to him while he was on vacation, and he’d been thrilled to finally be noticed. His retirement had been shoved down his throat, and he’d been livid from the moment he’d been escorted from his office. President Peter Khalid was on a mission to bring down every military institution and twist it into his perverted view of the future. It was sickening to watch.
“Two boats closing fast, sir,” the charter captain said as he brought the engines to idle.
Homer picked up his reel, in case it wasn’t who he thought it was, and put his cigar back in his mouth. “You sure you’ve done this before?”
“Yes, sir, and you have to go with the northern soldiers to get to who you want. That might make you nervous, but it’s the only way.”
The military boats with multiple weapons in front and back seemed to be overloaded with men, but the one alone at the back was evidently in charge. The man stood ramrod straight and issued orders as the two boats were tied together. “You come.”
Homer placed the rod in the holder and moved, the thought of how crazy this was playing in a loop in his head. They’d bombed these people the year before and destroyed their nuclear facilities, and here they were welcoming him into the country. At least, that’s what he hoped this was.
“Please sit, General,” the man said after shaking his hand.
The trip wasn’t as long as he figured, and on shore a helicopter with a sun rising over a mountain was waiting on him. He guessed it was rising and not setting, since the logo was the same as on the initial letter he’d received from what he’d believed was a new Washington lobbying group, New Horizons. The names listed as board members along the side were impressive, but now a number of them were dead or locked away for treason.
Congress had started an investigation almost from the second former Vice President Dick Chandler’s home blew up, killing the head of the FBI and four of his agents. The US government was trying to root out those loyal to Chandler and the open rebellion he was waging against what he saw as the downfall of America, being led by Khalid and his bitch Vice President Olivia Michaels.
“Sir, welcome to North Korea,” the young man with blond hair and a pristine black uniform with the logo on the pocket said as he saluted. “I’ll be your pilot today. If you’re ready, we’ll take off.”
The flight lasted only twelve minutes, but Homer realized why it was necessary as they traveled away from the coast over thick vegetation with no visible roads. “Is this the only way in?”
“There are actually two roads—one that leads to Mongumpóby the coast where you landed, and the other inland toward the capital—but it takes over an hour of rough riding.” The pilot circled the large compound and landed on one of the pads close to the forest. “Please follow me, sir.”
Over a thousand people, all wearing the same black uniform, were walking around performing different tasks, and they all appeared American. The house at the edge of the main compound was large, beautiful, and strangely out of place. By all accounts this backward country was poor and struggling under crushing sanctions, but this facility made Homer wonder about the truth of that perception.
“Sir.” He stood at attention and saluted before taking the hand Dick Chandler held out. “It’s a pleasure.”
“Thank you for coming, General. Let’s sit.” Dick led him to a beautiful table outside on the wide porch and sat. “We’ve got a lot to talk about.”
Gromwell Enterprises’ private jet came to a halt inside the hangar at the end of their private airstrip. According to the manifest, it was returning from their offices in Montana, so there was no need for customs agents to board. The defense contractor had been one of former President George Butler’s biggest supporters, and their loyalty and generosity to the ticket had been well compensated with enough government contracts to last years.
The CEO, Tom Bristol, was waiting for the arrival of his guests, since he was curious as to why all the cloak-and-dagger shit his old friend Dick had insisted on. He’d tried to get some information out of Marine Major Franklin Porche, who’d showed up to wait with him, but asking the man anything was like talking to a corpse.
Rachel Chandler was the first one out, followed by her brother Jeffery and a few other guys Tom didn’t recognize. “Rachel, welcome.” He held his hand out. “How’s your father?”
“He’s fine, and thank you for helping us today. Is there someplace where we can talk to Major Porche in private?”
“Sure, but what exactly is going on?”
“I’ll fill you in while my sister talks to Franklin,” Jeffery said.
He led them all to the offices, and the guy who appeared heavily armed followed them into an empty space while Rachel took the small conference room. Suddenly the small favor for an old friend didn’t seem so simple.
“What’s all this about, Jeffery? We still have government contracts, so if you’re in some kind of trouble, I can’t be involved.” All the news coverage on Dick’s crimes against the government that he’d chalked up to being farfetched had a ring of truth now that it was too late to get out of the mistake he’d made.
“Tom, I need you to sit and be quiet. By helping us get into the country illegally, you’re now complicit. That alone will get you some jail time and the loss of all your contracts.” Jeffery nodded in the other man’s direction, and the guy pushed him into a chair. “Your part is done for today, so hit the road. Think before you don’t take any more calls from my father though.” Jeffery knocked on the desk with his knuckles, making him look up. “You know him well enough to realize he’ll take pleasure in destroying you.”
Rachel glanced at the door when Jeffery came in with Kevin Skinner. The trip over had been long with all the refueling stops, and they all appeared exhausted, but they didn’t have much time to finalize their plans.
“My father put the big pieces of this together,” Rachel said to Franklin Porche, and the man nodded without a hair on his head moving because of the severe marine haircut.
“I swore to Mr. Chandler he’d have my complete cooperation and loyalty, but what’s the end game?” Franklin asked, his eyes momentarily going from her to Kevin and the other man with him.
“The old ways of government are too hardwired to completely overthrow what people know, but there’s another way to replace it with something that works better.”
Franklin ran his hand over the top of his head and laughed. “That’s the kind of bull crap the recruiting office tells you, Ms. Chandler. What’s the end game?”
“This is our plan for now.” She started talking, and Franklin leaned in as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “The time for backing out is over, Franklin. You’re in this.”
“I owe a lot to your father, and I’ll spend the rest of my life paying him back. You have no worries on my end.”
“Good.” Rachel stood but didn’t head for the door. “I’ll be in touch.”
“I guess we’ll know in a few minutes how loyal these guys are,” Jeffery said and laughed. “If they get on the phone to the FBI we’re fucked.”
“Do you want to review everything before we go?” she asked, ignoring Jeffery’s sarcasm. Their brother Robyn had stayed behind to help their father, so she was stuck with the reluctant one.
“I’m a marine, remember? We’re always prepared. Besides, dear ole dad has a spare. I’m sure Robyn will be happy to pitch in if something happens to me.”
“It’s not too late for me to send someone else.”
“Forget it. I’ll be fine.”
“Remember to stick to the plan, and I’ll see you at the safe house once you’re done.”
“Sure, if we do that, what could go wrong?” He kissed her forehead before leaving for the place outside the beltway.
“Plenty can go wrong, little brother, so hopefully your head’s in the game.”
“Wait out here, and I’ll go in and find them,” Aidan said as Berkley drove slowly through the arrival and baggage area of the New Orleans airport.
“Your father’s going to think I’m an asshole for not helping with the luggage.”
“I’ll get a porter, baby, and you can impress him later when you carry it all up the stairs. Or I can tell him you were busy making love to me, so we didn’t have time to park.” Aidan gave Berkley a quick kiss before hopping out and disappearing into the cool space crowded with passengers ready for the July fourth holiday weekend. “Daddy,” she said, putting her arms around retired Admiral Preston “Triton” Sullivan and kissing his cheek.
“Where’s Cletus?” he asked gruffly but squeezed her before letting her go. “Your mama packed like we’re moving here.”
“I made her late, so no giving her a bad time, and I’ll get a porter.” Her mom joined them a few minutes later when she exited the restroom, and they laughed together as Preston pointed to numerous bags that needed to be loaded. “Come on. Berkley’s waiting outside.”
Aidan relinquished the front seat to her father and shook her head practically all the way back to the Quarter as her father gave Berkley a hard time about everything he could think of. Berkley’s string of “yes, sirs” meant nothing he said would rattle her, but it seemed to be an important part of their relationship.
It took five trips for Berkley to carry all the bags up from the car to the place next to theirs, but her parents were staying considerably longer to scope out the city that might become their permanent home. “Will you promise not to kill my father if I take my mom shopping for a little while?” Aidan asked, putting her arms around Berkley’s waist.
“She packed everything she owns. What could she possibly need?” Berkley asked softly as her parents changed in the bedroom into something cooler.
“A few things, but I promise we won’t be long.”
Berkley slid her hands down to Aidan’s ass as she kissed her. They were back to the solid belief that nothing would ever come between them, and that made it impossible to keep their hands off each other.
“Get your hands off my daughter’s backside,” Preston said loudly, making Berkley lift her hands and take three steps back.
“Behave, or I’ll have her put all that stuff back in the car and ship you home,” Aidan said, shaking her finger at Preston. “Do I need to separate you two while we go shopping?”
“Shopping? For what? Your mother packed everything she owns. What could she possibly need?” Preston asked, and Berkley laughed until he glared at her.
“That’s too scary to think about,” Aidan said and kissed her father on the cheek before she kissed Berkley. “Try not to pick up any more bad habits before I get back,” Aidan said and pinched her side.
“Can I buy you a beer, sir?” Preston smiled as he placed a cigar in his mouth and offered her one. “I’d like to talk to you about something.”
“Lead the way.” Preston lit hers before following her out, and she hoped she had time to brush her teeth before Aidan got back. This definitely counted as a bad habit, she was guessing.
They picked a place where they could sit outside to finish their smokes and enjoy the beers they’d ordered. “What’s on your mind, Cletus?”
“As you know, we took the assignment the president offered, and after we’ve put in the time, we were planning to retire. With the change in ‘don’t ask don’t tell,’ it’s made things easier, but Aidan is still my commanding officer, so I’m not about to advertise our relationship.” He nodded and took a large swallow of beer. “To our families, though, I want to declare what Aidan means to me.”
“I’ve got no doubts or fears when it comes to what you feel for my daughter, and I couldn’t have asked for better when it comes to her future.”
“Thank you, sir, and I hope you mean that. I’d like your blessing to ask her to marry me. The ceremony might need to wait some, but I don’t want to postpone making the promises I swear to keep.”
Preston put his cigar down and stood, waving her up. “I’m damn proud and happy to give you that,” he said, hugging her. “Welcome to our family.”
“I have to get her to say yes first.” She tapped her glass against his when he sat and raised his.
“I’m sure you’re up for the job.” He ordered another round before pointing his cigar at her. “Remember to always love her, and that I’ll kill you and dump you at sea if you don’t.”
“I’d never break a promise to the son of Poseidon, sir.”
Dick Chandler watched his troops go through different drills, pleased by how well they were working together since he’d recruited them from different military branches. He’d reluctantly sent Rachel and Jeffery to undertake the next part of his master plan, and it was too late to call them back and send someone else.
“Sir, we received Khalid’s most up-to-date calendar a few minutes ago, so we’re clear for our mission.” Robyn, his son, read from the notebook in his hand, and Dick was long used to Robyn’s need for perfection. “Now that Jeffery and Rachel are there, we can start thinking about the next phase.”
“What have I told you about rushing?” He saluted a few of the men who were looking his way before turning to face his eldest child. “We have to make sure everything is in place before we move on. If we skip anything, nothing else will fall in line.”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“Stop being sorry and learn. Did you speak to your brother before he left?” Robyn had wanted nothing to do with the military, but Jeffery had enlisted in the marines without telling him. It was like his youngest didn’t want anything to do with him or his entire family.
“He promised to be good,” Robyn said with a smile. “He was looking forward to putting his training to the test.”
“All he needs to do is supervise,” he said, thinking it’d been a mistake sending Jeffery. Rachel knew how to follow orders as well as give them. “You need to keep talking to him and telling him we’re doing all this for the country and our family.”
“You know how he is. Jeffery has his own mind.” Robyn sat after him and put away all his prepared statements. “I think you’re trying to accomplish a good thing, but I had to really think about what I was doing. We had to sacrifice plenty to follow you.”
He let out a loud bark of laughter. “You gave up a grunt job at the National Gallery. How exactly is that a sacrifice?”
“It was my chance to do what I loved, but I gave it up for you. The least you can do is respect that choice.”
“You and Jeffery are just like your mother.” He’d said that from the moment Robyn had learned to walk. The boy was too soft, and he’d never ventured into his personal life only because he was afraid of what he’d find. Jeffery wasn’t soft, but his head was too thick to achieve anything in life. “Get back to work and finalize the next part of the plan for review later.”
“Yes, sir,” Robyn said, and he sounded as if their talk had deflated him. But they didn’t have time to worry over a few hurt feelings.
“Are you ready?” he asked into the phone since it was immediately answered.
“I’ve done jobs harder than this, sir, so it should be easy if your people came through.”
“Good to hear, and don’t worry about anyone on my end. I’ve got a few more jobs for you when this one is complete, so I want you back here when you’re done, unless I tell you otherwise.”
“The price is the same.”
“So are the jobs.” Dick hung up and glanced over the schedule Robyn had brought in. “You brought this on yourself, Khalid, and when I’m done, people aren’t going to believe how easy you made it for me.”
The cell walls should’ve been cool. Cinderblock was, after all, sterile, cold, and something that all institutions had in common. These weren’t though. The damn beige blocks were warm to the touch, which made sense—the air in this place was always hot, humid, and fucking uncomfortable. It was far away from the life Erika Gibson had before the bitch she worked for had sent her here. She’d been Captain Aidan Sullivan’s second for a few years until Commander Berkley Levine had come along. Then she was working in the mess hall before landing in this pit.
All the months she’d been here were like an endless repetitive misery that reminded her of the movie Groundhog Day,only without the comic relief and ice-sculpting lessons. The day after day of this fucking heat was like an enveloping wool coat meant to drive you insane because you could never take it off.
“Hey, I demand a shower,” she’d screamed, followed by a yell to try to bleed out the insanity that clawed the inside of her skull like a badger in a field burrowing a den. The only out was tying her bed sheet to the bars and hanging herself, but she was constantly monitored, and her jailers would probably end up tying her to the bed.
“You need something, Ms. Gibson?” Walby Edwards, head CIA interrogator, asked, standing outside and appearing like he was ready for eighteen holes of golf.
“I want a shower.” She’d have no problem wrapping her hands around this guy’s neck and would gladly watch the life drain out of him.
“Come with me,” Edwards said when a guard joined him and waited for the door to unlock. This wasn’t something she fought anymore since the guards didn’t tolerate noncompliance at all.
They walked to a new section of the facility, and she looked up and down the hall to get a hint of where she was going. Hopefully it was outside, and along with the sun, a firing squad would be there to put an end to the heat and the long stretch of identical days she knew would drive her over the edge.
“What’s this about?” she asked, her pesky desire to live kicking in.
Walby opened the door at the end of the hall, and she held back a sob as the cold air brushed over her skin better than any lover she’d ever had. “Sit.” Walby stood behind her chair, holding a glass with ice in it.
Funny how the very small things in life stood out when they were gone. She often thought of ice water and chips. “Are you going to answer my question? What’s this about?”
“It’s been a year, Erika. A year of heat, of bad food, of listening to the other prisoners, and most importantly, a year without your family.” The clink of the ice against her glass made her think of the mundane days she’d wasted in her life and wished God would give them back. “Don’t you think it’s time to start answering questions?”
“What do you think I can tell you?” He refilled her glass after she drained the first one. “I’m innocent, yet you’ve kept me here without charging me or letting me talk to anyone who can legally help me.”
“Drink up then, Ms. Gibson. If that’s how you want to play it, we won’t play at all.”
She savored the cold water but didn’t smile, but oh she wanted to. “Good.”
“Since you want progress, we’ll accommodate you.”
“Good,” she repeated, finishing her second glass, but Walby didn’t refill it again. “You have all misjudged me.”
“You decided to play for the wrong team, and the military is ready to press charges. That’s what I meant.” He took the glass before she was able to slide a piece of ice into her mouth and dumped it into the trash. “Trust me. You’re not getting out of this, and more importantly, you’re never leaving here.”
“I simply talked to that bastard Blazer. I talked to him and Skinner,” she said of Hattie Skinner, another crewmember on the Jefferson’s first mission. “Aidan totally misunderstood.”
“Captain Sullivan, Ms. Gibson,” he said, enunciating Aidan’s title, “caught you and Ms. Skinner in an act of treason. That’s what she’ll testify to, and continuing to downplay your part will not show the court you have an ounce of remorse.” Walby poured himself a Coke and seemed to enjoy the fizz when it hit the ice in his own glass.
“Why don’t you believe me? It’s the truth.”
“You aren’t acquainted with the truth, but your small apartment and bunk area tell a different story. Electronic trails leave enough rope to hang you with.”
She stared at him and truly detested him. “You can fuck off, and you can tell Aidan the same thing. That big bitch she’s creaming her pants for isn’t going to save her forever.”
That was it then. Her outburst would seal her fate, so all she had left to do was wait and trust she’d be rewarded with freedom for her part of General Chandler’s plan. With any luck, Chandler would leave her here, only she’d be in Walby’s chair watching him slowly lose his mind.
“So clichéd, Ms. Gibson.”
“Not if it’s a promise. You and the rest have no idea what’s coming. Enjoy the cold drink. It’s only a matter of time before you’ll be standing in hell.”
“You’ve already beaten me there,” Walby said and laughed. Something in her finally fractured, and she stood and ran for him, but he only laughed harder when he put her in a hold she couldn’t escape.
The guard took over, and the wall of heat hit her like an open oven on broil. Walby was right. “Oh, God.”
She wasin hell.
Aidan and Mary Beth arrived a half an hour after Berkley and Preston, and they separated with plans for dinner in an hour. Berkley and Aidan shared a shower, and Berkley dressed while Aidan put on makeup, then got thrown out of the bedroom so Aidan could get ready. “I want to surprise you, so lose the pout, fly girl.”
The time alone in the front room gave Berkley a chance to make sure she was ready, and she was both nervous and anxious to get going. There was no way to make up for the years they’d lost after they broke up, but tonight was the first step in assuring it would never happen again.
It took another twenty minutes before Aidan opened the door and stepped out in a midnight-blue dress that left Berkley speechless. “My god—you’re so beautiful,” she finally got out, holding Aidan’s hands and not able to stop looking Aidan up and down. “Truly stunning.”
“Thank you, and you should remember this the next time you complain about shopping.” Aidan pulled her down by her jacket lapels and kissed her. “I love you.”
“I love you too, and I’m going to have a hard time not rushing through dinner.”
“My mother has been reading about this place for months after your mom mentioned it, so you might be out of luck when it comes to quick, baby. Later on, though, I hope to have the same problem when I get you all to myself.” Aidan kissed her again before smoothing her jacket back in place. “You’re too sexy for words in this suit, and I’m planning to take my time peeling it off you later.”
“You’re a cruel woman, my love, but damn if I don’t love your torture techniques.”
Preston didn’t mind sitting in the back this time, and she gladly held Aidan’s hand all the way to Blanchard’s in the Garden District. The hostess greeted Berkley with a hug before leading them to the upstairs dining room, since she’d been here often with her parents. Someone from the kitchen staff came up before they ordered drinks and asked if she and Aidan minded coming down to talk to their head chef for a few minutes.
“You two go ahead,” Preston said, taking Mary Beth’s hand. “I love your company but wouldn’t mind getting my girl alone for a few minutes.”
She held Aidan’s hand as they descended the back stairs that led to the kitchen, and they did spend some time talking to Keegan Blanchard, who seemed happy to help with what Berkley had called about earlier. “Thank you both for your service, guys, but there’s one more spot you need to see before I get to feed you. Berkley, you know the way, right?” Keegan asked.
“Thanks, and yes, I do.” She led Aidan outside from the kitchen door and to the garden by the outdoor seating space.
“This is a beautiful spot,” Aidan said, sitting on the bench under the big oak. “It’s like a secret garden.”
She sat next to her and nodded. “This is a special spot.” She had to stop and take a few breaths to calm down. The box in her pocket had been in her travel kit for three months, but she’d waited until they were in this place, on this bench. “The Blanchards are old friends of my mom and her family, and have been since Della Blanchard, the current owner, went to school with my grandmother.”
“Really? It’s nice they still keep in touch. You must’ve come here often.”
“I have, and I’m glad your parents accepted my invitation. Tonight I wanted to share an old family tradition with you.”
“If it’s making out under this great tree, my father will eventually hunt you down and drag you back inside.” The teasing made Berkley smile, and Aidan kissed her.
“Maybe later, when I’m not under Triton’s gun,” she said, taking Aidan’s hand. “And that’s not the tradition I’m talking about.”
“If it involves you putting your hands under this dress, you can forget it.” Aidan tapped her on the nose and laughed.
“Such heathens you think the Levines to be.” She kissed Aidan again and couldn’t wait any longer to ask. “My father proposed to my mother here,” she said softly, and Aidan’s fingers tightened around hers. “That proposal was one of many, and I thought all those yeses would bring me luck.”
“Bring you luck?” Aidan asked, sounding out of breath.
She moved down to one knee and took the box out of her pocket. “You are the love of my life, and I think that’s been true from the moment I showed up at your door with flowers. You’re beautiful, but so much more than that.” She opened the box, took out the ring her mom and sisters had helped her shop for, and held it up. “We may not know where life will take us, what our futures hold, or what we’ll face, but I never want to do it without you by my side. Will you marry me?”
Aidan had pressed her hands to her mouth and had been nodding as she spoke, but then she stopped and simply said, “Yes.” They kissed, and she’d never experienced this level of happiness. “I love you.”
“This means you’re stuck with me,” she joked as she placed the ring on Aidan’s finger.
“There’s no place I’d rather be, my love, and wow.” Aidan held up her hand and studied her finger. “Thank you for sharing your family’s traditions with me and for this. It’s beautiful.”
“I understand that, until we’re out of the service, you won’t get to wear it every day.” She reached into her coat pocket and took out a platinum chain. “But knowing you might want to keep it close, I got you this. Thank you for saying yes.”
“God, baby, I’m so ready for the picket fence you promised me,” Aidan said and kissed her again.
“I know exactly what you mean. Let’s go celebrate, and you can tell Triton I didn’t screw it up.”
“You realize he’s going to be as happy as I am, don’t you?”
“He seemed pretty happy when I talked to him today. I think he just doubts my romantic abilities.”
“If he only knew…he’d kill you slowly and with a lot of pain…but it would put that fear to rest.”
Berkley gave Keegan a thumbs-up when they went back in, and she promised to send something up to toast the occasion. The celebration and hugs started when Aidan lifted her hand and Mary Beth slapped hers together.
“Remember everything I said,” Preston said when he hugged Berkley tightly.
“I will. You have my word, sir.”
“I’ve got no worries, and congratulations. I’m damn proud to call you family.” Preston released her and swiped at his eyes. For all his gruffness, he was a softy at heart.
“Thank you, sir.”
“No, thank you for loving our little girl, Berkley. I’m always going to worry about her, but it’ll be nice to share the load with you.”
“She’s in good hands, ma’am, but then so am I,” Berkley said, and Aidan caressed her thigh. “Now we have to work on you guys moving down here, and we can enjoy retirement together.”
“You’re really thinking of retiring?” Preston asked.
“We can’t just yet, but hopefully soon, Daddy. Tonight, though, isn’t for talking about that.”
“No. Tonight is for eating fast so I can get this beautiful woman home,” Berkley said, and Aidan slapped her arm. Preston simply laughed, making her think it was okay to order. “Waiter.”
President Peter Khalid stopped talking until the White House staff finished serving dinner. He’d gone to the residence to see his family for a bit, but these dinner meetings with Vice President Olivia Michaels, Defense Secretary Drew Orr, NSA Director Calvin Vaughn, CIA Director Marcus Newton, new FBI Director Jonas Chapman, and head of security for the Pentagon, Commander Mark “Rooster” Palmer, happened once a week. He’d been in office just over a year, and so far, he’d spent a lot of his presidency trying to weed out traitors who’d been sprinkled throughout government by the previous vice president.
“Any new leads?” Peter asked, glancing at Calvin.
“Chandler has effectively disappeared and left no trail of where he could be. We have every one of our allies working on this search as well, which leads us to conclude he’s fled to a rogue state.” Calvin shook his head in apparent disgust, and Peter shared the sentiment. “This man was a heartbeat away from the highest office, and this is what he was doing. It’s the most treasonous act in our history, sir.”
“No ideas or guesses?” Peter asked, wondering what a rogue nation would gain from harboring Chandler.
“Sir, we have too much at stake to guess,” Drew said. “We’ve started a complete investigation of every branch of the military, searching for any connection to New Horizons and anyone serving, no matter their rank. The number of folks in custody is growing, but we’ll keep at it until we reach everyone.”
“Anyone talk so far?” Olivia asked, beating Peter to it.
“The only cooperating person so far is Jerry Teague’s assistant, who swears on a stack he didn’t know what he was getting into,” Rooster said and snorted. “He’s full of it, but the heat down at Gitmo is starting to twist his brain. Walby Edwards has been interrogating the others, but so far all they’re doing is screaming their name, rank, and serial number as well as how unfair we’re treating them. Erika Gibson and the other woman, Skinner, are complaining about the heat.”
“This is a war of their own making, and if they hadn’t joined, they wouldn’t be hot. It’s pretty simple,” Peter said, taking a sip of his beer. “We need some breakthroughs on this, but I appreciate your hard work.”
“You all have done great work, but are we ready for our next phase?” Olivia asked.
“The excuse they’ve used up to now for their actions has been Captain Sullivan and Commander Levine, and they’re on board with what we’ve asked of them so far. We don’t foresee any problems,” Marcus said. “From my understanding, they’re ready to return to sea, even if that means becoming a target for these fools. They’re also okay with having some of my guys on board once the Jeffersonsets sail.”
“Is that totally necessary?” Jonas asked.
“It’s important for me to know what’s happening on that ship,” Marcus said staring at Jonas like he was some irritating fly trying to land on him. “Sullivan will answer to Command and might not have time for us, and I for one don’t want to be out of the loop.”
“Just as long as they don’t get in Aidan’s way,” Olivia said.
“Give me more credit than that.” Marcus tried to bleed the sarcasm from his tone, but from Olivia’s expression, he’d failed miserably.
“Thank you all, and I expect you all tomorrow with your guests, but if you’ll excuse me, I’ll leave you with Olivia to finish this.” Everyone stood with him, and he walked with his Secret-Service agent back to the Oval Office. “How’s the family?” he asked Agent Lainey Willcott.
“My son has a summer cold, but aside from that, all’s well, sir.” Lainey filled in some nights when the lead of the president’s security detail, Shimmy Laurel, needed her. “I’ll be waiting outside the door if you need anything, sir.”
“How about some good luck?”
“Luck then, Mr. President,” Lainey said, opening the door to his office, prompting his secretary Judy Harper to excuse herself.
The man waiting on him appeared comfortable, but then the space had been his office for the eight years before Peter arrived. President George Butler had been in office only nine months when the terrorists had attacked on American soil, and he’d become a wartime president for the rest of his term. It was a quagmire Peter was still trying to navigate a way out of, but it was time to bring George in on their investigation.
“George, thank you for coming.” He walked in and shook hands with the former president before George embraced him. They might’ve disagreed on almost everything politically, except for keeping the American people safe, but he couldn’t help but like George and his good-ole-boy demeanor. “How are your parents and family?”
“Dad is as ornery as ever, but my mama is too, so it balances out. Victoria and the girls are great after leaving the glare of this fishbowl, and I can’t disagree on that sentiment.” George nodded when he pointed to the coffee service Peter had brought in, since his predecessor didn’t drink any alcohol. “And I was glad to come,” George said, then laughed. “Hopefully it’s not for you to beat me with a hose over this Chandler business.”
“There’s no way in hell you had anything to do with this, so you’ve got no hoses in your future.” They sat across from each other and chuckled. “I am, though, going to ask you for your help.”
“Mr. President, how can you be so sure? That I’m not involved, I mean.”
“You and your father served our nation when called to do so, and I, as well as every American, thank you for your service. No man or woman who enlisted during wartime would try to destroy what they fought to defend. Granted, I have plenty of enlisted men and women in custody right now, but I in no way think of you betraying something you love.”
“You’re damn right,” George said with conviction.
“Then stop with the Mr. President and help me solve this.”
“I’ll be happy to, Peter. Dick Chandler was my mistake, and I’d like to be a part of bringing his ass in to answer for his crimes. You give me a job, and I’ll do my best to find him and serve him up to whatever court you want him to face.”
“It would send a strong message if you’d join the team we have working on this. You’re the only one I can think of, aside from Chandler’s family, who knows him better.”
George stared at him as if he’d lost his sanity by asking him that. “Dick was a con man who blinded me with his line about his connections in the oil and gas industry. It’s the world I come from. My goal was to bring us to oil independency, and he said he was the best man for that job.” The sudden honesty was a clue George regretted his first and most important decision. “Once we were elected under a cloud of doubt because we lost the popular vote, he showed his hand. He wanted the power I could wield but knew he could never win on his own.”
“Thank you for sharing that.” He reached over and placed his hand on George’s knee. “I understand now more than ever what you said about legacy. I really don’t want another civil war on my watch.”
“Believe me, they’ll blame us both. You tell me what you want, and I’ll give you all I’ve got.” George spoke with such passion, Peter thought he’d won an important battle that’d be crucial in flushing more of Chandler’s minions out of government.
“Let’s get to work.”