The Divas Pen: Author of Sensual and Dark Romance writing as Sienna Mynx and T.A. Ford

Before Sunrise

For military wife Kennedy Flanagan, starting over had not been easy. Learning to let go after the tragic killing of her Navy Seal husband in the Afghan War proved to be mission impossible. But after five long years and countless hours of tears and healing, Kennedy has moved on.

KIA? No. Liam Flanagan is alive! A Special Ops team uncovers the bunker he was held prisoner in and Liam has a second chance at life. However, five years is a long time. Soon life deals another blow. His wife has remarried and his daughter calling a man he hates daddy.

Caught between the past and the harsh realities of the present, both Liam and Kennedy fight for the love they’ve had and forgiveness for all they’ve lost. Before Sunrise promises to make you a believer in the happily ever after we all deserve.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

20 September 2001

“Liam?”

Kennedy dropped her purse on the sofa. The place smelled divine, like fried batter and roasted potatoes. It could only mean Liam had come early and was at it again. They’d only been in North Carolina a week and already it felt like home. She grinned in excitement. She had big news. First her GED, then her degree from William and Mary, now this, at last—law school.

“Hey, sexy.”

Liam walked out of the kitchen. She loved it when he wore his fatigues and combat boots. She wasn’t a freak (well, Liam said she was) but a man in fatigues got her panties moist. Liam’s fresh buzz cut revealed more of his handsome face. Over a square chin and strong jawline, the only facial hair he had was the light mustache over his top lip. But nothing held her focus more than Liam’s eyes. On some days when he kicked back they were blue-green; when his temper got the best of him they were dark as midnight, and when he was horny they were clear as ice. Women constantly commented on Liam’s eyes. Whenever she became predictably insecure, he told her he only wanted her.

Even now, seven years in, she never understood why he liked her. Sierra was much prettier, and back then Sierra had been the sure thing. Kennedy always thought of herself as too hippy. Her shape had always been very black-girl: thick thighs, bubble butt, small waist, and medium-sized breasts with overly ripe nipples that sometimes protruded through the cups of her bras. She’d been so embarrassed by them she always wore padding. But Liam seemed to love her body. Still did.

“Oh goodness, I bet my kitchen is a mess.” Kennedy chuckled at the flour swiped over his chin and the front of his shirt. She marched right around him and stopped at the entranceway. Her breath caught. Every cabinet had been flung open. Dishes were stacked a mile high in the sink. Flour covered the floor and the counter. Even the stove was messy with spills and drying grease. But a plate of Liam’s fried chicken would be the ultimate reward. He could only grill and fry. Her man did have skills.

Kennedy waved off the cloud of smoke that clogged her nostrils and stung her eyes. “Liam, did you cook for me?”

Liam stepped behind her. He slipped his arms around her waist and drew her up against his hard frame. Kennedy was five foot four. Liam stood five-foot eleven. He might not have been a giant of a man, but being held by him always proved to be an adventure.

“Damn right, I’m cooking for my pregnant wife.”

Kennedy grinned. She’d never known a man so turned on by the idea of being a father. She was only three months along and Liam couldn’t keep his hands off her. And the sex could be very demanding in the bedroom and had only become more so after he became a SEAL.

“Thank you, Liam.”

“Thank me better than that.” He turned her to face him.

“Hang on, I have news!” Her hands went to his chest.

He picked her up. “It’ll have to wait.”

“Liam, I’m serious. It’s important.”

She struggled, but he carried her out of the kitchen and down the short hall into the bedroom. He let her slide down the length of his body and was pulling his shirt over the back of his head before she could catch a breath. She wore a baby-doll top that gathered tightly around the bust, and dropped to mid-thigh. Liam lifted it to her breasts and growled to find she also wore white shorts underneath. He grabbed her left foot and started untying her sneaker.

Kennedy could tell him about her acceptance letter, and risk killing the mood. Yes, he’d be happy, but somehow he’d blame Phil Freeman for trying to get next to her when he was called away. His hatred and distrust of Phil had been unreasonable. Liam’s patience was even more strained after he learned Phil received orders for a transfer to Fort Bragg as well. It’s not like Phil had planned the terrorism that now threatened to upend their lives. He’d been a good friend to them.

The few times she’d invited Phil over to a cookout or for dinner, to make peace, the night always ended with disaster. Once, Eric had to pull Liam out of the room. No, she’d wait and tell Liam the news afterward.

Liam tugged at her shorts.

“Wait, baby. I have to unbutton them.” She giggled.

“I’ll help,” he grunted.

He dropped his knee on the bed. She pulled her top up over her head. Liam unclasped her bra and paused. He exhaled visibly and zeroed in on her breasts. They were the only noticeable change on her body and she guarded them constantly from Liam’s calloused, rough hands. She tried to buy better minimizing bras. Men would gawk at them often. She never told Liam this. With his jealousy, it would have sent him over the edge.

“Damn, babe, you’re beautiful.” He leaned her back on the bed.

“Liam, they’re tender, so not so hard, okay?” Kennedy pleaded, wary of the hungry glint of lust in the misty blue swirl of his irises. Her palms shot up to protect her nipples from an impending attack. He didn’t mean to hurt her. Of course he didn’t. Still, this pregnancy thing made her sensitive in places she hadn’t been before.

Liam lifted his left eyebrow as if to say he wouldn’t be denied. He scooted backward and put his head between her thighs, burying his nose in her pussy first and she hissed in a breath, feeling herself get hot and moist there. His powerful, strong hands gripped her thighs gently, pulling her downward, under him. He slid up over her. His dog tags, cool metal, grazed her belly as he inched up toward her breasts.

“I’ll be a good boy. Move your hands, Kay.” He moistened his lips.

Kennedy lowered her arms. Liam eyed her dark brown, swollen nipples. He dropped his tongue over one, rolling it sweetly until she started experiencing sharp tingles and spasms down between her thighs.

“Mmm, yes Liam. Like that. It feels good.”

His mouth closed over her nipple and she winced. He started to suck tighter and she winced once more. But him on her, easing a hand down to her slick center, was enough to relax her. He rubbed his fingers over her slit before inserting two. Kennedy wiggled, and he nipped her breast.

“Oww, Liam. You promised,” she groaned.

Liam released her nipple with a wet pop and immediately latched on to the other. All the while he loved her with two fingers, then three. Kennedy rolled her hips and released a strained breath. Liam sucked harder on her right nipple. She shuddered and threw her small hands up to his huge shoulders, trying to push him back. Her lips parted to beg him to go softer, but all that came out were puffs of air and gentle wheezes. Soon, she climaxed into the palm of his hand.

Liam lifted his head from her breast. Oh, it hurt so painfully sweet. She didn’t know if she wanted to smack him or kiss him. She heard the sound of his zipper. Her eyes opened.

“I’ll make it better later, babe. I’ve been needing you all day,” he grunted as he forced the first thick three inches into her swiftly.

Kennedy’s inner thighs shook. He lifted one of her legs over his shoulder so she opened to him fully and he sank deeper.

“Damn, babe, it’s good. You like it, don’t you, babe? Talk to me.”

“Yes, Liam…ye-ye-yes,” she panted.

Liam always knew instinctively how to touch her, even when worked up on adrenaline. He’d always been more concerned about her pleasure than his own. He moved inside her, giving her slow, measured thrusts, rocking his hips left and right as he plunged deeper. Liam bent to kiss the curve of her neck, and Kennedy groaned. She rolled her hips in response and her channel stretched sweetly to accept all of him. Firm, pliant lips grazed her collarbone, and then slid upward, seeking hers. He whispered words of love before his tongue dipped inside. Feral tension rode through them once he shifted, deepening their connection. With a slow, torturous sweep, he claimed her as his. She lifted her arms and locked them around his neck, running her hands over his neatly shaved buzz cut. She could die a happy woman beneath him, locked in his kiss, and the way he drove himself in and out of her only intensified that emotion.

Her body tensed and she clung to him in desperation. To her frustration, he withdrew from the kiss but kept moving in and out of her. He applied tender kisses under her chin and then down her neck before trailing them to her collarbone and lower. All the while he managed thrust after thrust that built up and released pleasure through her clenching channel.

“I love you,” he whispered, in a low breath that floated the curls away from her cheek.

She opened her eyes. She stared at the ceiling and knew the truth. This wonderful man was all hers, and here is where she belonged. Liam lifted his head from her nipple and she found his face tight with tension as well as pleasure. Their eyes met. The veins in his neck protruded and his lips were pressed into a thin, determined line. He could be gentle, ever so tender. His thrusts increased in frequency and his hands slipped under her to clench her buttocks unmercifully. When he was rough, no matter how good it felt, it meant something was wrong, as if he wanted desperately to disappear in her arms. This would be one of those times. Kennedy knew instinctively what to do. She arched her back and locked her legs around his hips. She kissed and sucked on his shoulder, running her hands down his spine.

“Damn, Kay. Fuck,” Liam moaned.

“Get it from the back, baby,” she said to him, knowing his true desire. Liam’s eyes flashed open and the raw, primal lust there sent a shiver of excitement through her. Kennedy rolled to her hands and knees. Liam wrapped his fingers into her hair and yanked it back until her scalp stung. He plunged into her with one determined motion. Holding her by the hair and the hip, he gave her quick, jerking thrusts. Kennedy grinned after each blow and slammed back into his pelvis for more.

“Fuck… love this pussy. I love you, Kay. I need this, babe. I’m sorry but I need this.”

She pushed back and he cursed. Letting go of her hair, he ran his hands between her thighs to keep them parted.

“Love you this way,” he sighed, angling them down into the mattress.

Kennedy’s face pressed into the pillow. Liam removed his hands and pushed her thighs shut with his own, then pumped harder and harder, grunting, until Kennedy felt the release of his precious seed all over the womb that securely held their child.

Liam moved a little more. He licked the beads of sweat off her shoulders and the center of her back. He muttered a few more curse words, then dropped over to her right.

Kennedy lifted on her elbows. She’d walk gap-legged for a few days after this. “What is it, Liam? Talk to me. Dinner and now this? What’s wrong?”

He rolled off the bed. He strode into the bathroom and slammed the door. Kennedy sighed. She fell back against the rumpled comforter. She knew what was wrong. Hell, she’d be an idiot not to. Twelve days ago some nasty, evil bastards decided to run hijacked jetliners into the World Trade Center. That act blew apart the safety and security of American life. What the ashen-faced civilians on CNN called terrorism was to the men and women and families of Fayetteville an unprovoked act of war. It also loomed over them like a dark storm cloud. In a matter of four days she had to pack and move. Not normal for a military wife, but Liam’s unit was special, and so was the treatment of their families when things changed fast. The world had changed overnight. Now they were barely settled and trying hard to pretend that this new place, new time in their life, would be normal. Angelina told her that Anthony had been acting strange, too. Together, they theorized their men would be leaving home.

Liam belonged to a counter-terrorism force. Like the Delta Force, he’d told her, but they didn’t worry so much about extractions. Or something like that. They went in first and did recon, which meant they weren’t there when the real shit went down. Those were his words; she’d repeated them to herself so often they were imprinted upon her heart. If they weren’t there when the real shit went down, it meant he wouldn’t be in harm’s way and he wouldn’t be gone long. Right? She prayed so.

The toilet flushed. She heard the tap running in the sink. Her body hurt. Mainly her coochie, but her nipples ached too. She could do nothing but lie there as Liam returned. He looked at her with the saddest eyes. It made her scared, more scared than she’d ever been. He opened his mouth to say something.

“What is it?”

“I-I’ll finish dinner, babe. You stay there,” he said, and was gone.

Kennedy sighed.

After a quick shower where she could let the cold water run over her tender, flaming flesh, she got dressed. She put on a strapless sundress and didn’t bother with underwear. Liam said he would make it up to her tonight, which meant there would definitely be a round two.

Kennedy nearly wept when she walked out into the living room. Liam had cleaned up as best he could. He stacked stuff in corners and on chairs. Somehow, he never knew where to put away any of their few possessions. But he’d turned down the lights and lit candles. The table had been dressed with a nice setting, the cloth napkins, just for them.

He brought out a bowl of instant mashed potatoes, and stopped when he saw her. “Come on, Beautiful. Dinner is served.”

Kennedy’s stomach grumbled. Strange. So far, she’d never had morning sickness, not even a burp. But she had the appetite. Liam grinned when he said she ate like a horse. She knew he thought it meant she’d have a boy.

“Yummy. This is so nice. I love it.”

“I want to hear all about your news.”

Kennedy paused at the table. She’d forgotten. Her heart skipped a beat. “Okay.”

Liam sat. He poured her juice from the carton then twisted the cap off his Budweiser. She stopped him with her hand when he picked up his fork. “Grace, Liam.”

“Oh, yeah. Whatever.”

Kennedy closed her eyes. “Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful blessing. We are grateful for your bountiful offering and the loving hands that prepared this. Please bless our country, and our soldiers currently being called to serve as we brace for your current test of perseverance. And bless those less fortunate than ourselves and fill their bellies with nourishment. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

Kennedy looked up and Liam winked. He dug in. When she made dinner, she fixed his plate and practically fed him, like it was a movie or something, but when he cooked, she was on her own. She stared down at her meal and touched her fingers to her temples, wondering where her head went. Liam cooking and trying to set the mood was a show of love. He couldn’t get any softer than he was right this moment.

“Okay, what’s this news?” He spoke with a mouth full of potatoes.

“School.”

Liam swallowed. “School? More school? We just got here.”

“Law school, silly. Phil thinks he can get me into UNC.”

Liam’s smile faded.

“Don’t be mad at him. This is what I want, Liam. I called him and asked about a recommendation, since we’re here and all…well, I thought it would be great to go to law school. Um, here. See, they have a great civil rights law program. Phil says he knows the dean.”

“So you and Phil discussing your future?” Liam asked through clenched teeth.

“No. Not like that. I did my own research. It’s hard to get accepted and it’s on me. Still, if I can use a recommendation….” Kennedy’s hand froze, her fork hovering over her plate. Was he angry? She checked his eyes for that switch of color she always noted. They remained clear blue. Then a grin slowly crept over his mouth.

“Well, I’ll be damned, babe. I’m proud of you.”

Kennedy laughed. “You are?”

“Hell, yes! You’re standing on your own.”

“And Phil?”

“Fuck him. I’m not jealous of him. I know what you’re doing. You’re taking control of your life.”

“I did. I wasn’t sure, and with the baby—”

“Bullshit. Come here. Of course you will attend. Come here,” he said, extending his hand. She got up and went around the table to him. He put her on his lap. “Do you know how much I love you right now? Do you?”

“Yes.” She grinned. “But slow down. I haven’t gotten accepted yet.”

“Gonna need me an attorney, to keep me from killing every young punk who shows up on my doorstep trying to get next to my baby girl.”

“You mean like you did when you took me from my daddy?” she kidded.

Liam bristled. “So you want to go there?”

“I’m just kidding. Besides, we don’t know if it’s a girl yet.”

“True, just hoping.” He grinned, chewing down the last of his food.

Kennedy laughed. She kissed him. “I was afraid you’d be mad.”

“What?”

“Well, the baby and everything. I know you worry. Besides, we just moved here, it means I’ll have to commute to Chapel Hill.”

“I’m happy. We can have two places. I’ll get you an apartment up there. Okay?”

“Two places? We can’t afford that, Liam.”

“Actually, it’s perfect. You can stay on campus maybe? Be a real college student.”

Kennedy frowned. She’d suffered greatly when he went off to school to get into the SEAL program. She’d commuted first to Tidewater Community College and then to Old Dominion. William and Mary was too long a drive. She had no desire to be away from him when he returned home after a deployment.

“Now we have a reason to celebrate, some good news to replace the sad.”

“What?” Kennedy frowned.

“I have to leave, babe. Me and Eric got our orders. Deployment’s in two days.”

“Two days? That’s not enough time!”

“Shhh.”

“No, Liam. Please. I need at least a week to get ready.”

“Hey, it’s all right, Kay. You know our rule.”

He always liked to hear her say it. She shut her eyes and tried to smile. “When I close my eyes on the day of your return, you will be home…before sunrise,” she repeated. It was from a short poem she’d written him and put in his bag on his first deployment. He told her later that’s what had gotten him through.

“My girl. Now let’s eat. Your man is starving.”

Kennedy picked up his fork and began feeding him. Liam smirked up at her. She couldn’t love him any more than she did.

Kennedy woke alone. She kicked back the covers and found her robe and walked out of her bedroom. The house had settled into a still quietness, but she felt a draft and looked over to the patio door. It was ajar. Her vision sharpened as she sought Liam through the shadows. He sat out in the yard, his dog tags glistening in the moonlight along with several empty bottles at his feet. He turned up the neck of his beer and took down big gulps, making his Adam’s apple bob in his throat.

“Liam?”

“Go back to bed, Kay.”

“Everything all right?”

He just stared at her. She walked out into the night and immediately regretted that she hadn’t put on her slippers. “Come back inside. Let me hold you until you go to sleep. Don’t drink, Liam.”

“I’m cool, Kay. Go back to bed.”

“No.”

Liam sighed. “Fine, come here.”

Kennedy went to him. He set all four legs of the deck chair back on the ground. She dropped into his lap. “What’s wrong?”

“I want you to send me e-mails of the sonogram and any news from the doctors, I don’t care what.”

His eyes were bloodshot. She rubbed the side of his face. “Okay.”

“Also I plan to ask Phil to look in on you.”

Kennedy froze. Liam hated Phil. This had to be some kind of mistake. “You what?”

“Oh, trust me, that motherfucker knows I’ll bury him if he ever touches you, steps out of line in any way, shape, or form.” Liam’s eyes flashed a deep blue as he ground out each word. “But I need someone who’s on their game. A man. I don’t want you having to go back to your mother. She fucking hates me, will talk shit about me to poison my kid before she ever gets here. And I can’t trust this truce with my mom. We cool now, but yeah, I can’t trust it. So as much as I fucking hate that sneaky dipshit, I know he’ll be on the job when it comes to my girl. And don’t forget, I got eyes behind my back. I just need a reason to throttle his ass.”

“Liam, you won’t be gone that long—”

“Listen, babe, we don’t know nothing for certain anymore. So let me handle this. Phil will check on you, help you get into law school. Then we work out how to set you up in Chapel Hill. I know he has this crush on you and I’m trying to set that aside. Trying to be secure here, not be the hothead everybody says I am.”

“No, he doesn’t.”

“Whatever. I also want you to stay with Angelina until we figure out the school stuff.”

“No.” Kennedy stood. “I won’t leave our house. No way.”

“Not open for debate. She’s going to be alone with those twin babies. My boy Ant is sick about it. Talking crazy shit about getting a psych leave to delay his deployment.” Liam looked her right in the eye. He made his disapproval of Vasquez’s plan perfectly clear. A psych leave meant Ant’s career would be over.

And then who will have Liam’s back? Kennedy nodded slowly and surely. Liam continued as though there had been no interruption. “So this will set both our minds at ease. You said you liked her. You two can be strong together. Get close. Do some knitting or something, what mothers do.”

Kennedy smacked him upside the head. He caught her by the wrist and yanked her toward him. She straddled his lap in a full pout.

“C’mon, Kay, don’t fight me on this. I need you to be okay.”

“How long? A few weeks, right?”

Liam sighed. “This time it’s different. The world is different, babe. I don’t know how soon I’ll be back.” He took her hand. “But go ahead and start the process for school. Maybe by the time you finish, this mess will be over. I think we can swing this. No, I know we can.”

“But how will we do that when you have to be on base? I need to be here when you return. Besides, the baby and everything, maybe school should wait. I’ll have to stop soon after anyway.”

“We can wait now or wait later, but you will be a lawyer. I’m going to make sure that you get all your dreams. I know your family thought I’d ruin your life when you left with me.”

“I’d do it all again, Liam. We’re going to have a baby. Law school can definitely wait.”

“If we can’t do them both, then we’ll deal. But right now, let’s try. Okay? You know I don’t give up.”

“I love you.” And she did. She cupped his cheek, staring him in the eyes. Their lips, like magnets, were instantly drawn to each other. The spark of Liam’s urgent need, his probing tongue, sent her head to swimming. He ran his calloused fingers down her back and she shivered through her robe. The night felt comfortably warm all of a sudden, or was that her blood? Kennedy eased up, reaching between them to release his cock from where it coiled behind his zipper. She was well practiced at this. The kiss became flicks of her tongue against his and nips to his succulent lips as she lowered on his erection.

Oh, it felt divine. Thick hardness filled her to the point of a scream. She dropped her head back and he peppered her neck with kisses. She stretched and adjusted to him. He hooked her legs over the bends of his arms so he could open her wider. His strong hands, twice the size of her own, cupped and separated the halves of her ass, lifting and dropping her on his cock. Kennedy held on to his shoulders. She worked her body as best she could, feeling him down to her curled toes. Suddenly, his movements grew frenzied. She bounced on his cock and dug her nails into his shoulders, holding on for the explosion. Then she came apart.

Liam held her. She went through two deep, climatic spasms with him buried inside of her. She wrapped her arms around his neck.

“Kay, I love you so much. I won’t be gone long. Trust me, babe, I’ll be back before you know it.

“Before sunrise?” she sighed.

“Before sunrise.”

Chapter Two

September 2006
Five years later.

Desert sand swirled into a frenzied funnel cloud. It made the night air impossible to breathe. During the day this would have been a telltale sign of the squad’s approach. However, in this part of the world, the night proved to be excellent cover. The descent of the stealthy black helicopter, hardly seen, and barely heard, hovered then plunged lower. Two four-man strike teams scaled down cables, swift, silent, and deadly, just as they’d been trained, then double-timed it to their checkpoints outside the compound of the high-value target.

Captain Anthony Vasquez watched the progress over a secure feed in the Forward Ops center. The moonless night blanketed his mission in complete darkness, but through the technological magic of his team’s helmet-mounted night-vision systems, he could see exactly what they saw.

So far nothing appeared.

Their orders were to find and eradicate any trace of the enemy off the desert banks of the Pahkthi Peninsula. They’d gotten false intelligence before. Possibly the unit had received more of the same. Vasquez knew there would be only one option: prosecute the information to the fullest. If it panned out, they’d have the wild card in their terrorism deck, none other than Taliban military strategist Amir Sarkhir. If Vasquez’s team brought this prick down, many young lives, both American and Afghan, would be saved.

“Captain Vasquez, sir.” Special Operator Jeffries, a man of barely twenty-four, short and stocky with his cover always pulled down over his eyes, appeared with a salute.

Vasquez lingered near the satellite monitors, his eyes glued to the screens. He looked up once the display returned to the start of the next cycle, and nodded at Jeffries. Before the interruption, the tent had been filled with tomblike silence. Vasquez preferred no idle chatter. Jeffries’ arrival meant news.

“At ease.” Contrary to his order, Jeffries stood upright, ramrod-straight.

“Sir. We have word from team two, sir.”

“Go on.”

“They have visual on the target. Ready to move on your orders, sir.”

Vasquez needed Sarkhir alive. This enemy behaved different. They lived by a code beyond his understanding. It wouldn’t be beneath Sarkhir to use women and children as human shields when they moved in. He’d seen it before. Better yet, intelligence warned Sarkhir would torch the camp and everything in it rather than surrender. He gave a perfunctory nod, knowing that each member of the team, hand-selected by him and Liam years before, understood the goal of this mission. “We need a total sweep.” He turned for his gear. “Once it’s confirmed, I’ll be there with team three.”

“Yes, sir,” came the response.

“We have a standing order from the top, Jeffries. Tell McKinley we are a go.”

“Yes, sir!”

The date was September 2nd, 2006, and Vasquez had reached his twenty-two days target for a return stateside to his pregnant wife and twin six-year-old sons. His request to lead the primary team on this mission had been flatly denied; he’d had to call in every favor owed to him just to put in with the follow-on squad and get there thirty minutes after all the action. But it was the best he could negotiate, and his presence the past few days had brought a tense energy to the men. They’d heard the tales of his tours after 9/11, and his unit’s successes, though never publicly acknowledged, had become the stuff of legends. Vasquez knew that some of the stories batted around were exaggerations at this point, but many of them weren’t.

Nonetheless, if the primary team succeeded, Vasquez and team three would be inside the compound, in prime position to see the capture of Amir Sarkhir. Over the monitors, Vasquez heard the sharp crackle of the first shots of gunfire. He turned and walked calmly toward the exit with his escort, Major Anders, on his heels. Hell had opened its gates and the strike team would be in full combat within seconds. Sarkhir’s men would presumably fight to the death, which fit Vasquez’s plans perfectly. Less shit for him to secure, after-the-fact.

Major Anders raced to keep up. “Sir, we can move in with the all-clear. Permission to speak freely, sir?”

“Go ahead,” Vasquez strode to the helicopter, which was spun-up and waited only for him. Anders hurried his steps to match, like some attention-starved child.

“Allow the men to confirm capture first before we move in,” he shouted. “I suggest another hour sweeping the outer sectors. Heat signatures indicate there are some underground bunkers and tunnels that head west into the mountains.”

Vasquez hopped into the bay door and found the last jump-seat along the wall. The lieutenant had no choice but to wait on the tarmac while the heavy bird lifted and held for an overlong moment, before it rose and rocketed toward the target. For the most part, Vasquez ignored the request. His heart beat madly in his chest. He’d missed the days of shoulder-to-shoulder in combat with men he respected, especially on a bitch of a mission like this. It reminded him of when he’d first joined, when he’d been part of the Wolf, a brotherhood of Marines, SEALs, and Delta Force all baked together as one, with Liam Flanagan guarding his back. Things had been different then.

Vasquez had never met a more skilled combatant. Liam’s temper had, at first, made Vasquez doubt him as a soldier, much less a Special Forces operator. But his friend soon proved him wrong. Vasquez knew few men who could take on the rigid CT training with the fearlessness that Liam possessed. He’d been top of his class, until his hair-trigger temper had nearly gotten him kicked out of the covert Wind Scorpion program. The infraction? He’d choked an instructor who’d made the unfortunate mistake of speaking ill of Liam’s young wife. Her name was Kennedy. The sweetest kid and the only person Vasquez had actually seen Liam soften with. A petite black girl with thick, curly hair she was always pushing back from her face. She had been quite spunky, too. The appeals board had taken into consideration that despite Liam being an Irish boy from the mean streets of Chicago, he’d never had a single reprimand. His interracial relationship had been the target of mocking by a trainer determined to break him. The board deemed the trainer’s action inappropriate and Liam’s unit learned quickly nothing was off limits, except Kennedy.

Vasquez smiled, remembering how the services found the perfect place for a soldier like Liam Flanagan: an off-the-grid counter-terrorism unit they’d named ‘Wolfpack’. Liam’s SEAL unit had met with the elite tactical force Vasquez led within the Marines and he had seen fit to bring Vasquez with him as his third-in-command. Thanks to the successful deployments of the Wolfpack, Vasquez got his bars. He fully believed that if Liam had lived, he’d have become even more of a legend.

As the bird traveled low and soundlessly over the flat desert sands, Vasquez itched for the takedown. Secretly he wished Sarkhir were out there in the desert cowering against a sand dune like a little bitch. The bastard had taken so many innocent lives. He wanted to drag him out like the mad dog he was and show these people he was nothing more than a murdering piece of shit, and not some messiah.

Now that the area had been secured, the bird set down just outside the compound and Hicks, the ground chief, met the team. Vasquez watched impassively as several of their men dragged terrorists and dropped them face down in the sand. The wounded were airlifted out. “How many of ours, Sergeant?” he called back over his shoulder.

“Six, sir.”

“Fuck me,” mumbled Vasquez. This had better bear fruit. He got out and marched over to where the captured were held. One by one, Hicks lifted each man by his shoulder and bound wrists so Vasquez could confirm their identities. Vasquez pointed out the three he would want questioned and immediately they were separated from the others.

“Sarkhir?” Vasquez asked the approaching Chief Operator.

“Sir, we have men being questioned now. They put up one bitch of a fight.”

Vasquez nodded to be shown. He promptly followed his men into a two-story building the color of the sand it had been erected upon. The windows were blown out. Vasquez’s gaze lifted to the roof. Several soldiers paced with their guns pointed downward.

He entered a room that reeked of gunpowder and shit. Pressed against the wall were two men in turbans. One of the men on his strike team yelled in Arabic at a mean-looking bastard who shouted the same repeated prayer, over and over. Vasquez scanned the weapons discharged and discarded. This couldn’t be the cell he’d been searching for. These men didn’t look to be held up with the same equipment as the other four. There were no computers here. Hell, the electricity didn’t even work. Still, something stuck in his craw. Why would they fight so hard if Sarkhir, or something of more value, wasn’t nearby?

“Sir!”

“What is it?”

“This one thinks we’re here for the Americans. He wants to trade for his release, sir.”

Vasquez’s throat went dry. “What Americans? Civilians?”

“I’m not sure, sir.” The sergeant swallowed. “He keeps saying the words for ‘army man’, sir, over and over, sir.”

Vasquez narrowed his eyes. The report made no sense. There were no missing units in this region, Army or Marine, and if there were some other CT force in theater, they’d have told him when he requested authorization for the op. Every man in the room vibrated with tension. The idea that there were fallen comrades in this compound had them itching to rip loose on the few surviving captives.

“Where? Where are they?” Vasquez asked in disbelief. He watched as the soldier pressed the deadly end of his assault rifle to the center of the man’s brow. He said a few words in Arabic. Vasquez’s hands clenched. He held his breath and waited. This could be bullshit, a diversion to get him off Sarkhir’s scent. POWs in his region? No fucking way. That lame lie had been the first thing they always threw at him, and Vasquez had learned not to chase those rumors. Not a single one had ever been true.

The man nodded and raised his hands, giving the universal sign of compliance. Vasquez ordered Hicks to ensure the place had been rigged with explosives. They walked out of the building with the prisoner leading the way. Several yards to the south of the building he stopped before a patch of sand, thinly covered with straw-like weeds. The man brushed the debris away with his hands to reveal a door. Flinging it open, he stepped back.

“It’s gotta be booby-trapped, sir,” shouted Hicks, who stepped bodily between Vasquez and the hole.

“Move.”

“Sir, let the men go in.”

“Move!”

Hicks shifted aside, then immediately followed Vasquez down the sand-covered steps into a dank, dark, cramped hole. The stench was so strong Vasquez fought back his gag reflex. Maybe Sarkhir was cowering in the corner with a grenade. He’d promised Angelina that he would return to her. That he would take no risks. But it was Sarkhir who’d sent a hand-launched missile into Liam’s airlift, killing Vasquez’s best friend and several others on their team. At the time, Vasquez had been stateside for the birth of his twins. Payback’s a bitch, and he’d go out firing his last round into the shitface scumbag before he let the bastard commit a suicide drop on him.

Hunkering down, he flipped on his night-vision unit, and then, in disbelief, the light attached to the scope of his weapon. Vasquez froze. To his horror, he saw three emaciated men chained to the walls. Two were white-skinned and very pale, the other probably Hispanic, or maybe Filipino, but in any case, these men were not locals. This tomb had been some kind of bunker five feet high and maybe eight feet wide. Piping dropped in to give minimal ventilation. The men appeared dead. But as he drew closer, one lifted his gaunt face. His hair, long and matted, covered most of it.

“It’s gonna be okay, soldier. We’re here.” Vasquez choked back the emotion that made his words come out in a low rumble. He approached the skeletal man, whose blue, unseeing eyes were bright even in the hellish conditions. Those eyes, piercing as they were, weren’t what shocked the captain to his core. The tattoo on the man’s dirty, scarred chest set Vasquez utterly on edge. It was the head of a wolf, a howling wolf, with a turquoise, five-pointed star in the center of one of its eyes.

Vasquez reached for the man, holding his face up and into the light.

“Sweet Jesus. Liam? Is it you? Sweet Jesus! Holy Fuck! Get him down! Get him down now!”

Chapter Three

One Month Later
Spring Lake, North Carolina

“Mommy.”

Kennedy moaned. Fatigue had settled in the pockets under her eyes. She managed to open one lid a fraction. A pair of hazel-browns, bright and wide in her four-year-old daughter’s cherubic face, hovered in close. Even now, Kennedy found her daughter’s irises to be a lovely contrast against her creamy mocha-brown skin.

“What is it, baby?” she swept Mackenzie’s long, dark locks back over her head so she could see her daughter’s face clearly. Phil turned to the sound of his stepdaughter’s voice. Mackenzie had crawled over him to get to her mother. Kennedy heard her husband groan, then sigh. Mackenzie did no wrong in his eyes.

“I can’t sweep,” Mackenzie pouted. “There’s a monster in my bed waiting for me.”

Kennedy sat up. “Come here.” She caught Mac by her arms and pulled her to her lap.

Phil eased up on his pillows and switched on the light of the lamp next to the bed. “You got court in the morning, Kennedy. Why don’t I put her back to bed?” He had been sweet to offer, especially since he got in late and had an early morning as well.

Mackenzie wrapped her arms around her mother’s waist, forcing her head under Kennedy’s chin. “No, I’ll take her. Go back to sleep. Don’t you have to get up soon and go on base?” she asked, scooting with Mac’s hold growing tighter around her waist.

“Yea, but anything for my girls. Damn, what time is it anyway?” Phil reached for his watch. Kennedy shook her head at his language. One thing about having a military man as your husband, the language was something you could never exorcise from his mouth.

Kennedy wheezed. As much as she hated to admit it, Mac as they called her, had grown too big to carry. She managed to rise from the bed with her pampered child in her arms and take her from the room.

Kennedy and Phil had only been married a year. Still, he’d been just as much a father to Mackenzie as if she were his own. Without his support and friendship she and Mac might not have come to the healthy and secure place they were in now. Grief can do many things to a person. For Kennedy, grief had almost cost her the life of her child.

She walked down the cold, dark hallway toward her daughter’s room, wishing she’d put on her slippers. Returning her daughter to her yellow-and-black bumblebee-decorated bedroom, she carried Mackenzie to her twin-sized canopy. She laid her down first, and then scooped under her legs to draw the covers over her.

“Now where’s this monster?”

“Over there,” Mackenzie’s tiny voice whispered. She pointed a small finger shakily toward the closet door that had been left ajar.

“You told mommy that he hid in your bed?”

Mackenzie nodded. “Yes, but he went into the closet when you came.”

“Ah. I see.” Kennedy turned to look again. She peered at the darkness beyond the door. To her surprise, tiny, beady eyes peered back out at her. She approached and reached for the doorknob.

“No, mommy! Don’t.” Mackenzie whined, yanking the covers over her head.

“It’s okay. I’m not afraid of no ugly ole monster.” Kennedy winked. She snatched the door open. A four-foot tall black Barbie dropped out. Phil had it especially made for Mackenzie’s third birthday.

“Aha!” Kennedy said. “So here’s the monster.”

Mackenzie lowered the sheet slowly. She blinked those long dark lashes over round brown eyes.

“Its just Lily. See?” Kennedy brought the doll to the bed.

Mackenzie’s smile lit her entire face. She put her tiny fingers over her mouth to cover her giggles. “Oh! Sorry, mommy. It’s just Lily,” came more giggles.

Kennedy shook her head, and her pink satin headscarf slipped back from her forehead. She reached behind her and tied the knot down securely. “Somebody has a birthday coming up soon,” Kennedy said, accepting the doll from her daughter, then placing it in the rocking chair where Phil usually read to Mackenzie.

“Yes, I’m gonna be five.” Mackenzie held up her five tiny fingers.

“You sure are. On Christmas Day, no less.”

“Do you think daddy knows I will be five, mommy?” Mackenzie yawned and pointed to the picture of Liam on her dresser. He wore khaki camouflage pants and a green T-shirt over a solid, muscled chest. He posed next to a Jeep in the middle of the desert somewhere. Even now, when her gaze fell upon his picture, love surfaced and made Kennedy’s heart turn over. The photo was the last sent by him before he died.

Liam’s sly grin and clear blue eyes glistened from under a camouflage cap. If it weren’t for her friends and Phil, she wouldn’t have survived her grief, especially since she’d been just three months pregnant when he’d been called away.

“Yes. Daddy knows, silly girl. Now give mommy a kiss goodnight.”

“Eskimo kiss, mommy!”

“You bet.” Mac giggled when Kennedy rubbed their noses together. She then kissed her brow. “Love you, baby. Sleep tight.”

“How old is daddy?”

Kennedy smiled. “Where are all these questions about daddy coming from?”

“I wanna know. He a hero, ain’t he? Heroes have birthdays, too? And Christmas? Heroes have Christmas.”

Kennedy stared at her daughter. She looked once more to the picture of Liam. Mac always talked about her father in the present tense. Her little girl even told a few fables over their imaginary relationship. But Kennedy never talked to her about Liam unless Mac asked. She worried over her daughter’s curiosity. Phil said it was normal. Maybe it was. Still, it pained her to think of Liam.

If she reasoned through it, she could guess the true source of her daughter’s curiosity. A soldier from Fort Bragg had recently visited Mackenzie’s class and her little girl had become a superstar when the soldier told the pre-K students that her dad had been a hero. Mackenzie came home and forced Kennedy to pull out every photo she had of Liam. Even Phil had joined in to tell the few stories he knew of him, which made Kennedy smile, because she knew the two men couldn’t stand each other the several times they’d crossed paths.

“Oh, daddy is about 34,” Kennedy said, smiling down at her.

“Ooooooo, he old!” her daughter said, her eyes round as saucers.

Kennedy laughed. “Yes, he’s pretty old…just like Daddy Phil is pretty old.”

Mackenzie grabbed her purple teddy bear and stuffed it under the covers with her. She turned over. “Okay, night mommy. I’m okay now.”

“Night, baby.” Kennedy smiled.

She walked over to Liam’s photo and picked up the silver picture frame. In the photo he had been off on one of those covert missions he could never talk about. He’d e-mailed her this picture and she had printed and framed it.

“You are pretty old, aren’t you sweetie?” Kennedy said. She kissed his image and gave a deep sigh. She set the picture down, then walked out of the room.

* * * * *

Aircraft Carrier ~ Mediterranean Sea

Liam swallowed roughly. His throat burned as if he were choking down shards of glass instead of saliva. It took some effort but he managed to open his eyes. Nothing made sense. He blinked. He blinked again. All he could make out were shadows and shapes, and a constant buzzing noise. So he closed his eyes and lay there perfectly still. He’d wait for darkness. He’d learned to love darkness. There was calm in darkness, peace. Liam used his mind over his body, and regulated his breathing, down to his heartbeat, until he felt it slow within his chest.

Liam became aware.

The cushion of the bed told an unexpected story. This wasn’t another hellhole to be tortured in. He had comfort. Liam opened his eyes. Focus returned. He recognized the shadow, as it took form, to be a nurse. Navy. He could tell by her uniform. Her hair was neatly pinned back under her cap. She had kind eyes and a sweet face, and that alone made him think he again had slipped into a dream. He felt her lift his wrist to check his pulse. She glanced up, then away, and then back. The nurse dropped his arm and backed away from his bed in shock.

Well, hell. She wasn’t the only one.

“Lieutenant! You startled me, sir. Welcome to the land of the living, sir,” she gushed.

Liam tried to speak. He couldn’t. The nurse immediately got on an intercom. He heard her give a quick report. During her short bursts of speech, Liam employed every sense he could control, trying to understand his surroundings. The pure, clean air had definitely been filtered, and cold; he didn’t smell the desert dry heat or the stench of his excrement. His vision sharpened on the details of his quarters. He’d been put on a ship. The cold in the room, the painted steel walls, the low ceiling and mounted medical apparatus looked distinctly military. Yes, he was on a ship. If he remained perfectly still he could feel the thrum of the engines, far below.

The time spent in captivity he’d lived almost entirely in his head. He’d imagined himself anywhere but the hell he actually dwelled in. Some days he convinced himself he swam in the cool ocean, or played golf with Eric and Vasquez. Even better, he’d be home on the tan-and-blue sofa, watching the Vikings and knocking back a brew while Kennedy slept underneath his arm. But none of those moments felt as real as this one. It confused him. He owned his fucking dreams. Dreams were the one thing they couldn’t take from him. In his dreams he had Kennedy, her sweet, soft body pressed to his as she made him repeat his promise that on his return date he’d be through the door before sunrise.

That promise he kept each and every time. Liam would roll her under him and she’d stare up at him with worship in her eyes. He hated to admit it, especially then, but he liked the undiluted, unwavering love he found with his lady. Not many people gave a shit about him in the world. Kennedy’s faith in him had been complete. She’d run away from her family at seventeen to go with him when he joined the Navy. Her devotion made him feel like a man, her man. Those moments were a constantly visited dream for him. And even though they could get vivid, loving her, kissing her, the moment he tried to hold her always felt hollow and disappointing.

The metal door clanged open. Liam’s head felt heavy, but he managed to cast his gaze in the direction of the arriving visitor, a captain. This was no dream. He’d know that scarred face anywhere. Get the fuck out of here! Boy’s a motherfucking Captain? Vasquez, or Ant as Liam called him, was the same height as Liam, with deep olive skin and dark, curled locks, and it spoke to his Chilean heritage. They’d sweated and bled under the same sun, kicking ass together in the desert. And look at this motherfucker now. Liam stared at the oak leaf on Vasquez’s lapel. Dressed in full uniform, he removed his cover and tucked it under his arm. He stared grimly down at the thickly bandaged lump that was Liam’s leg.

Fuck, I need to get out of this bed and kick your ass, Ant! Where the fuck am I? How the hell have you been? What took you so long to find me, motherfucker? Liam shouted in his head. All he could do was manage a weak smile at the sight of his friend. But his surprise didn’t end there. A tall, thin woman stepped into the narrow space alongside Vasquez. She wore a khaki suit jacket, with more bars on the lapel than there should have been, and her red hair was longer than he remembered. Even pulled back off her face, it almost touched her shoulders. Alex. She looked different; powerful in a way he couldn’t put a name to. It made him uneasy. Liam tried to focus on what exactly her collar insignia represented. Definitely wasn’t any Marine classification he knew. Last he saw her, she’d been a helo driver, holding a lower rate than Vasquez.

Liam lay there, stunned. Alexa Sinclair appeared beautiful as always; even he had to admit that. Her porcelain-white skin and pouty full lips used to drive the men in her unit nuts. But she’d castrate any man who dared to reduce her to a piece of ass. She had been tough beyond compare. She hadn’t been the first female helicopter pilot in the services, but one of the couple dozen who’d seen combat. Alexa was part of the elite group who’d survived hostile live-fire. He and Eric used to joke that she probably had teeth in her crotch, ready to shred a man’s cock before the first nut.

The truth he’d never shared with Eric burned his gut. Alexa tried to get on him a few times and more than once he’d been tempted. They’d been caught in some wicked shit. And what the hell, he was a man. Long months in the desert away from Kennedy made the beast in him thoughtless. He’d never crossed the line, though Alexa offering to get him off in his sleeping bag one night could be constituted as such. He’d almost gone for it—his utilities had gotten unzipped, something that made him feel like absolute shit right up to the present moment—but Liam could honestly say he turned the sex down. As far as he was concerned, why dine on a hamburger when you’ve grown accustomed to steak? No woman could get him like his Kennedy.

Next through the oblong door came Eric.

Eric Drake’s presence filled the room. This brother should have been a politician he was so smooth, even under extreme pressure. Nothing dimmed the spark in his eyes and his sly smile. Skin a dark Hershey-brown, head shaven, he was a chick magnet with his calm manner and slick tongue. Eric had come up to the unit from SEAL Team Four, same as he had. Liam suspected he’d fucked Alex more than once, but he’d never confess. He, too, wore an oak leaf, which meant this motherfucker outranked him, too. Liam’s gaze cut back to Alex, whose collar insignia his weak mind struggled to explain. Could this be some branch of the Navy he didn’t know, and if so, how the hell was that possible since Alex had been a Marine? Was this why he was he even afloat, aboard ship? None of it made any sense. These were the three people closest to him in his career. They were also the three people closest to him in his personal life.

Alexa went to his side and took his hand in hers. Her eyes looked wet, which made Liam’s heart start to pound again, and not in a good way. Ant maybe, Eric for sure, but never once had he seen Alexa Sinclair cry.

“When they told me they found you I didn’t believe them. I couldn’t let myself believe.”

Eric stood at the foot of the bed with his bald, shiny head gleaming under the fluorescent light. He gave Alex a flippant look and smirked down at Liam.

“How are you, bro? You look like shit.” Eric’s eyes misted over with guarded emotion.

Liam tried to speak once again but couldn’t. Well fuck yeah, it’s good to see you too, man.

The nurse cleared her throat as the doctor entered. The officers saluted each other, unsure of their status in this man’s area of operations.

“I will need you all to step back. I know you’ve been waiting for days. But I have to examine him first,” the doctor said in a clearly irritated tone.

Vasquez spoke up. “Is he okay?”

The doctor turned away from Liam and spoke quietly. “You were briefed on his condition when he arrived. Our efforts over the past month have been touch-and-go. He was severely dehydrated. His liver has been compromised by a parasite native to the area. His relapse into a coma the past few days has been our biggest concern. But he’s alert. So I’m hopeful. Now please, step aside. I will let you know when he can be debriefed.”

“Keeennaaadeeee,” Liam croaked out, his gaze bouncing from one friendly face to the other. He caught the surprise in Alex’s eyes. But other than a quick glance at each other, Eric and Vasquez showed no reaction. What the hell?

Liam wanted his wife, damn it. She should be there, or he should be in a hospital where she could be with him. Why the fuck was he on a ship? Did the doctor say he’d been in a coma for weeks? No way. No fucking way!

Careful of the IV drip, Vasquez put a hand to his arm. “In time, friend. First you get some rest. There’s a lot we need to discuss.”

“Baybiiiee?” Liam wheezed, his eyes darting between Alex and Vasquez. How long had he been gone? It felt like an eternity, but of course it would feel like that in hell. He’d only been gone a few weeks, maybe a couple months at most. Maybe he hadn’t missed the birth of the baby at all and Kennedy waited for him to get her through delivery. Maybe all the hell and suffering had been a hallucination. In his dreams, he’d been there to see the birth of his kid. He needed to know about the baby.

Eric’s voice calmed him. “You have a little girl, bro. They call her Mac, but her name is Mackenzie.”

Liam expelled a deep sigh of relief. Before he deployed, he’d told Kennedy he’d wanted that name.

“Not now, Drake!” snapped Alex.

Eric exhaled and dipped his head, averting his gaze.

Liam frowned. Since when does Eric take orders from her? And what were they not telling him? He saw Vasquez smile and nod encouragement, and that alleviated some of his fears. Liam wanted to shout it to the world: he had a baby girl with Kennedy’s beauty and his kick-ass personality. It blew his mind.

Alex rubbed his hand. She kissed his bruised knuckles then leaned in and kissed his cheek, then lips. “Get some rest, you. We’ll meet with you soon.”

Liam nodded, letting a tear roll down his itchy face. He released a tear of joy to be free and able to return to his beloved wife and baby girl.

He watched as his three friends, the men, and the woman, he considered brothers, stepped out of the suite and into the narrow passageway beyond. Liam held his neck up with fading strength, keeping them in his line of sight as long as possible. The exertion drained the last of his limited energy. He let his head fall back against the pillow and sleep came almost instantly.

* * * * *

Once in Vasquez’s assigned quarters, Alexa turned on Eric, her eyes narrowed with fury. “Why did you do that?”

Eric chose a mug, wishing he had some Scotch to pour into it. He opted for coffee instead. Vasquez looked on in silence. He sipped, giving himself time, then turned to address her directly. “The man isn’t stupid. It’s not like he didn’t know Kennedy was pregnant.”

Vasquez cleared his throat. “The important thing is he’s awake. The doctors were right. He’s on the mend. Later, we can tell him what’s happened to his life in the past five years.”

“Exactly. Later. Not now, Eric. Not another word of Kennedy until we get him well.” Alexa spoke as though she expected no argument.

Eric looked first to Vasquez for support. “This is nuts. She can’t be serious!”

“I’m deadly serious.” Alexa’s tone sharpened. “Do I need to make it an order, Drake?”

Eric snorted, but leveled his gaze at her over the top of his mug as he took another sip. Alexa must have heard the jealous desperation in her own voice. She tugged on the bottom edge of her suit jacket and regained her composure.

“It’ll kill him to know his wife abandoned him. He’s suffered enough. We’re dealing with PTSD here, gentlemen, at the very minimum. His recovery is now a matter of national security.”

“Do you hear her?” Eric said this to Vasquez before stepped closer to tower over Alexa. “She did not abandon him. Why would you choose that word?”

Alexa retrieved her cover and situated it on her head. “I have COD flight out. I’ll be back oh-six-thirty the latest.” The men stood silent. Her heels clicked across the linoleum and out into the passageway.

Eric glared after her. “Ball-busting bitch.”

“Careful, Eric. It’s your balls she’ll crush for sport,” Vasquez said humorlessly.

Eric dropped down into the vinyl chair. He released the button to his suit jacket.

“You know how she feels about Liam and Kennedy. Some shit can never be let go, bro. We just got to make sure Liam gets well before we lay the hard truths on him. PTSD is real. Our boy has been down for five years.”

“That fucking appointment has gone to her head,” Eric stated, not able to let it go. Vasquez groaned his agreement. “Hell, it’s her orders he remain on this ship, out at sea. She’s purposely keeping Kennedy from knowing the truth. Liam isn’t going to put up with that when his strength returns.”

Vasquez spoke up. “She’s right. It’s a matter of national security. We got to handle this delicately. If it gets out, where he was, what he was doing there….”

“What we were all doing there.” Commander Jones, the silent observer in the room, turned. “May I make a suggestion?”

The men looked up at him. He raised his coffee cup. “This is a celebration, gentlemen. The great Liam Flanagan has risen from the dead.”

Eric let go of his attitude. “I hear you. My boy is alive. God damn, miracles do happen.”

* * * * *

Watching his girls in the dresser mirror behind him, Phil buttoned his starched white dress shirt, and then reached for his tie. Kennedy struggled to put Mackenzie’s hair up in a single ponytail. Mackenzie squirmed and groaned between her mother’s legs. Phil never understood the ritual between the two. If Mackenzie had been smart she’d just let her mother groom her spry locks and be free of the ordeal in a matter of minutes.

“Mac, keep still baby. Be patient for mama.”

“You two look beautiful this morning.”

With Mac’s hair bow in her mouth and her hands full of hair, Kennedy lifted her gaze to him, curious. Phil winked at her and Kennedy smiled.

Damn, she’s beautiful. He had fought hard and long to get her, and now she was his. The first time he’d been able to coax her into his bed had been on the night they wed, and he fucked her until she begged him to be released. He couldn’t keep his hands off her. Everything about her turned him on. She had eyes a tawny shade of brown under long sweeping lashes, high cheekbones and the sweetest, softest lips he’d ever touched. Not to mention her round ass, slim waist and heavy bosom.

He wouldn’t wish death on any man, but secretly, Phil had never minded Liam’s demise. He remembered the first time he’d seen them together, the first time he’d ever seen Kennedy. Liam belonged to a newly formed joint-forces CT team in Virginia. It had been a ball, the night of the change-of-command ceremony when Baldwin had retired, probably six years ago. Seven, maybe. Liam Flanagan paraded his arrogant ass through the receiving line, with his hands all over Kennedy. She’d been shy then, completely lost around the other couples. But she was by far the single beauty in the room. Phil had watched her do everything, from chew her food so delicately between those full lips of hers, to sip her punch, or snuggle under Liam’s arm and touch his chest and look up with starry eyes as he told one of his stupid jokes.

Phil wasn’t a racist. There were plenty of interracial couples in the military. Mostly black men hooked up with German or Asian women. Still, he’d freely admit that it pissed him off when he saw a white boy with a fine-ass sista. And Liam of all people, who disobeyed every fucking rule put before him yet was steadily promoted for it, had been the worst offender of them all. Phil had asked around, learned how Liam had snatched her from her family at only seventeen. Phil had been so obsessed, he’d looked her family up. Turned out they were quite prominent in Connecticut—dad a top investment banker with Merrill Lynch in Manhattan. Liam married her quick and probably filled her head with loads of his bullshit.

That night of the ball, when the opportunity presented itself, he’d followed her to the bathroom. He timed it perfectly to collide with her when she returned to the hall he waited in. Gave himself a chance to touch her. She smiled brightly up at him and he was done. That’s when he knew. She was special. Of course the SEAL team assignment to Fort Bragg after 9/11 presented an opportunity for Phil as well. In a matter of weeks, families were moved and men deployed. Phil seized the opportunity to follow. He hadn’t been aware of it consciously, of course, until later. The nation had been thrown into a state of emergency. The enemy had attacked them, their homeland. But all the same, deep down he believed she would be part of his destiny. He swore he’d have her one day.

“You know I like your hair this way.” He turned and smiled.

Kennedy glanced up. She had told him that Liam was obsessed with her keeping her hair natural and free of relaxers, which is why she’d worn stylish puffs and curly locks back then. Black women didn’t have to wear afros to be exotic or beautiful. In fact, Phil found it kind of fetish and racist that her white husband wanted her to remain ethnic. He preferred the relaxed, straight look. She was fucking drop-dead gorgeous with it cascading down her back.

“Thanks. I did it for you.” She smiled sweetly.

Damn right you did, he thought. Phil felt his arousal peak, but Mackenzie’s high-pitched voice sang out and threw cold water over the moment.

“Daddy, I want to go to the base with you.”

Mackenzie smiled with deep longing. He knew she loved the royal treatment she got from being his daughter. He’d graduated West Point and gone on to Baylor to become the best defense attorney in the Navy JAG Corps inside four years and got stationed to Norfolk just three years prior to Kennedy’s arrival with Liam Flanagan. Now as a civilian consultant, he’d developed a reputation for having a swift and sure hand with complicated terrorism cases, which only added to his prestige.

“Not today, sweetheart. I’ll take you Saturday morning. How’s that?”

Mackenzie nodded and Kennedy sighed as the hair bow popped. “Oh, sweetheart. This is the second bow to snap this morning.”

“Sorry, mommy,” Mackenzie said softly.

Phil smiled. He’d have to give it to Liam, he did create one beauty in Mackenzie. Phil loved her like she was his own. Hell, he’d been there during her delivery, and when Kennedy felt too depressed to get out of bed to feed her, he’d come up from sleeping on the sofa to help. She later told him that he’d been the only person that didn’t remind her of Liam. Anytime she saw her mother, Kennedy could only focus on the woman’s longstanding hatred for Liam, and if she were with friends she knew of their grief. She’d once felt community with the wives on the base, but after Liam died, she’d only seen pity in their eyes. Phil chose to be her anchor and Liam’s friends hated his presence. Eric had even taken a swing at him when he started coming around shortly after the news broke. But Phil never gave up. Kennedy had been the hardest to convince that his friendship could turn to love.

It took him three years before she even considered the fact that Liam was dead. During the fourth year, she started to talk without injecting his name after every sentence, and it was then he made his move. By then Eric, Vasquez, and that cold bitch Alexa Sinclair were all giving him their blessing, anything to pull Kennedy back from the brink and get her to start living again. Damn, he could still remember the first time she allowed him to kiss her. He rushed to Tiffany and bought a ring the very next day.

Kennedy reached behind her for another bow. “We’re going to take you to Auntie Harper to get this hair braided, tomorrow,” she said.

“Nooooo! Please mommy. I’ll stand still. Please.”

Phil looked at his cell phone and grimaced. “Something must be going down right now. I got a text from Alexa. She needs to meet with me. Looks like I will be late tonight.”

Kennedy’s gaze shot up, alarmed. “Is it Eric? Anthony?”

“No, sweetheart. It’s just the war, remember?”

Kennedy smiled sadly. “How could I ever forget?”

Phil hated moments when he inadvertently reminded her of Liam. He’d had her pull away from him on some nights and cry. When would the day come when the bastard was just a memory for her?

Maybe she noticed. She flashed him a wry smile. “Well, at least I don’t have to worry about you.”

Damn, she could say the sweetest things. If Mackenzie weren’t between her legs, he would be. He checked his watch. Maybe he could get some time in if he they sent her down for cereal. Truth be told, he had already fallen behind schedule. He picked up his keys and sighed.

“Bye, Daddy.”

“Bye, pumpkin.” Phil leaned in and kissed her tiny lips. “You be good in school, okay?”

“Mmmkay.”

Phil kissed Kennedy. She lifted her head and he immediately slipped her some tongue. Her eyes widened but her lashes fluttered and shut once she gave him what he wanted. “Wait up for me tonight,” he whispered.

“If I don’t you will just wake me anyway,” she said.

“Damn right.”

“Oooooo! Daddy, you said a curse word. You owe me a quarter.” Mackenzie stuck out her hand.

Phil chuckled.

“What’s this? Money for curse words?” Kennedy frowned.

“Daddy said he’s going to stop cursing because it makes you sad, Mommy.”

“Did he?” Her brow lifted.

Phil winked.

“So he said if he curse, I get to make him pay me a quarter. Give it up, Daddy. You lose.”

Phil reached in his pocket and found a quarter. Mackenzie began to bounce on her feet in anticipation.

“Okay, let me get out of here.”

“Bye.”

“Love you both,” he yelled from the stairs, knowing life couldn’t get any better than this.

Able to get a bow on Mackenzie’s head, Kennedy turned her daughter around and looked her over. “Perfect. You’re ready to go.”

“I sure is.”

“I sure am,” she corrected.

“I sure am,” Mackenzie mimicked.

“Go get your book bag and make sure your crayon box is inside.”

“Yes, Mommy.”

Kennedy lifted her weary gaze to the mirror. A woman she barely recognized stared back at her. Life had changed, she had changed, and sometimes it shocked her how much. She rose and stepped to her dresser. Her long bangs fell over her left eye. She did look different. The relaxed hair, the business suit: she had evolved. Kennedy sighed to herself. God had a sense of humor. She looked like her mother now. As much as Kennedy wanted to be different, a woman with her own identity, she’d become the daughter her mother had always wanted her to be. The comparison made her uneasy so she lowered her gaze.

The outfit was complete but she needed accessories. She needed earrings. She picked up her jewelry box and began to sift through the scattered assortment. She found nothing suitable.

She went to her other collection, a small jewelry chest with drawers. Liam gave this one to her on their second wedding anniversary. Kennedy pulled out one drawer, then another. She had a million different pairs of earrings. She would need to get them in some kind of order. She found her pearls, but one was missing its security back. She removed the bottom drawer and dumped its contents, then started to sort through the scatter. A ring rolled out and off the dresser onto the floor. Her heart stopped and she bent to retrieve it.

A white-gold band with a tiny solitaire half-carat cubic zirconia. She nearly wept at the sight of it. She remembered how Liam had presented it to her like it was the Hope diamond, behind her high school gym. He’d told her he was leaving town and he wanted her to come with him.

He had drifted into her circle through a mutual friend. Liam had been only twenty-two then. And Kennedy’s friendship with Sierra, a girl two years older who had a thing for bad boys, put her in his path. Kennedy knew of his reputation for fights and brooding, but she didn’t care. One look at him and she had fallen in love. She did everything she could to get him to notice her. One day he finally did.

Months later, under the duress of a separation forced on them by her parents, Liam proposed they run off and start a life together. She said yes without a second’s hesitation, and even when he tried to upgrade the stone, she refused. This ring became the most precious item she had ever possessed. She felt a stab of guilt to have it tucked away, discarded.

Get a grip, Kennedy. Liam is gone. Don’t even go there again.

Kennedy rose, wiping at loose tears. Funny thing, she always thought she would feel his death. They were so connected; she loved him so much that she would know in her heart when he was dead. He’d never felt gone to her.

“Mommy, I ready! Why you looking funny?” Mackenzie asked, staring up at her mother.

Kennedy held tight to Liam’s ring, the words of their vows now surfacing. Would the day ever come where she didn’t hurt or miss him terribly? She didn’t know how to make a life without him any more now than she did then.

* * * * *

Liam lay there, deep in his thoughts. The room remained absent of light except for the fluorescent tube above and behind his bed. If there was a way to turn it off, Liam couldn’t figure out how. It annoyed him that after so long being chained to a packed dirt wall in utter darkness, he craved that same absence of light now.

Vasquez and Eric had both come back, stopped by for a few awkward minutes. They offered noncommittal words and told him that they’d ship out tomorrow, but would return as soon as their orders allowed. He tried to ask them questions but he could barely get his voice to work. All he wanted to know was when he’d hold his wife and meet his child. Why the fuck wouldn’t anyone tell him that much?

So he closed his eyes and conjured Kennedy’s face. It soothed him. Soon he was able to create an image of little Mackenzie. He saw her clearly. He opened his mouth and pushed on his vocal chords. After a few tries, two words formed. He was able to exhale and rush them out in a hoarse whisper, “Before sunrise.”