Jacksonville, North Carolina
Outside the Morgan Household
Man, he'd been witness to some bad shit in his life. A great deal of which he'd personally perpetrated but very little of which stuck with him the way those screams were going to stick with him. Those soul-tearing, gut-wrenching bursts of inconsolable grief.
As Nate Weller, known to most in the spec-ops community simply as "Ghost," gingerly lowered himself into the Jeep that General Fuller had arranged for him to pick up upon returning CONUS-continental U.S.-he figured it was somehow appropriate. Each vicious shriek was an exclamation point marking the end of a mission that'd gone from bad to the worst possible scenario imaginable, and a fitting cry of heartbreak to herald the end of his best friend's remarkable life.
Sweet Jesus, had it really been just two weeks since they were drinking raki in Istanbul? Two weeks since they'd crossed the border into Syria to complete a deletion?
And that was another thing. Deletion. Christ, what a word. A ridiculously euphemistic way of saying you put a hot ball of lead that exploded with a muzzle velocity of 2,550 feet per second into the brainpan of some unsuspecting SOB who had the appallingly bad luck of finding himself on ol' Uncle Sam's shit list.
Yep, two lines you never want to cross, horizontal and vertical.
"Get me out of here," Alisa Morgan choked as she wrenched open the passenger door and jumped inside the Jeep, bringing the smell of sunshine and honeysuckle with her.
Ridiculously pleasant scents considering Nate's day had begun in the seventh circle of hell and was quickly getting worse. Shouldn't that be the rotten-egg aroma of sulfur burning his nose?
He glanced over at the petite woman sitting beside him, stick straight and trembling with the effort to contain her grief, and his stupid heart sprouted legs and jumped into his throat. It'd been that way since the first time he'd met Ali, Grigg's baby sister.
She hadn't been a baby even then. At seventeen she'd been a budding young woman. And now? Over twelve years later? Man, now she was all woman. All sunny blond hair and fiercely alive, amber-colored eyes in a face guaran-damn-teed to totally destroy him. Oh buddy, that face was a real gut check, one of those sweet Disney princess-type deals. Not to mention her body. Jesus.
He wanted her now just like he'd wanted her then. Maybe more. Okay, definitely more. And the inner battle he constantly waged with his unrepentant libido whenever she got within ten feet of him coupled with his newly acquired, mountainous pile of regret, guilt, and anguish to make him so tired. So unbearably tired of...everything.
"What about your folks?" he murmured, afraid to talk too loudly lest he shatter the tenuous hold she seemed to have on herself. "Don't you wanna be with them?"
He glanced past the pristine, green expanse of the manicured, postage-stamp sized lawn to the little, white, clapboard house with its cranberry trim and matching shutters. Geez, the place was homey. So clean, simple, and welcoming. Who would ever guess those inside were slowly bleeding out in the emotional aftershock of the bomb he'd just delivered?
She shook her head, staring straight ahead through the windshield, her nostrils flaring as she tried to keep the ocean of tears pooling in her eyes from falling. "They don't...want or...n-need me right now. I'm a...a reminder that...that..." she trailed off, and Nate had to squash the urge to reach over and pull her into his arms.
Better keep a wrinkle in it, boyo. You touch my baby sister and you die. Grigg had whispered that the day he'd introduced Nate to his family and seen the predatory heat in Nate's eyes when they'd alighted on Ali.
Yeah, well, keeping a wrinkle in it was impossible whenever Ali was in the same room with him, but he hadn't touched...and he hadn't died. Grigg was the one who'd done that...
"They want you, Ali," he assured her now. "They need you."
"No." She shook her head, still refusing to look at him, as if making eye contact would be the final crushing blow to the crumbling dam behind which she held all her rage and misery. "They've always been a pair, totally attuned to one another, living within their own little two-person sphere. Not that they don't love me and Grigg," she hastened to add as she dashed at her tears with the backs of her hands, still refusing to let them fall. "They're great parents; it's just...I don't know what I'm trying to say. But how they are together, always caught up in one another? That's why Grigg and I are so close..." Her left eyelid twitched ever so slightly. "Were so close...God!" Her voice broke and sympathetic grief pricked behind Nate's eyes and burned up the back of his throat until every breath felt as if it was scoured through a cheese grater.
It was too much. He couldn't stand to watch her fight any longer. The weight of her struggle compounded with the already crushing burden of his own rage and sorrow until all he could do was screw his peepers closed and press his clammy forehead to the backs of his tense hands. He gripped the steering wheel with fingers that were as numb and cold as the block of ice encasing his heart. The one that'd formed nearly a week before when he'd been forced to do the unthinkable.
A barrage of bloody images flashed behind his lids before he could push them away. He couldn't think of that now. He wouldn't think of that now...
"Nate?" He jumped like he'd been shot when the coolness of her fingers on his arm pulled him from his brutal thoughts. "Get me out of here, okay? Dad...he shooed me away. I don't think he wanted me witnessing Mother's breakdown and I think I can still hear her..." She choked.
Uh-huh. And Nate knew right then and there those awful sounds torn from Carla Morgan's throat weren't going to stick with just him. Anyone who'd been within earshot would be haunted forever after.
And, goddamnit, he liked Paul Morgan, considered him a good and honest man, but screw the bastard for not seeing that his only daughter needed comfort, too. Just because Ali put on a brave front, refusing to break down like her mother had, didn't mean she wasn't completely ripped apart on the inside. And damn the man for putting Nate in this untenable situation-to be the only one to offer Ali comfort when he was the dead-last person on Earth who should.
He hesitated only a second before turning the key and pulling from the curb. The Jeep grumbled along, eating up the asphalt, sending jarring pain through his injured leg with each little bump in the road. Military transports weren't built to be smooth rides. Hell no. They were built to keep chugging and plugging along no matter what was sliding under the wheels. Unfortunately, what they gained in automotive meanness, they lost in comfort, but that was the least of his current problems. His pain he could deal with-brush it aside like an annoying gnat. He was accustomed to that, after all. Had trained for it and lived it over and over again for almost fifteen years.
Ali's pain was something else entirely.
Chancing a glance in her direction, he felt someone had shoved a hot, iron fist straight into his gut.
She was crying.
Now that she didn't have to be strong in front of her parents, she let the tears fall. They coursed, unchecked, down her soft cheeks in silvery streams. Her chest shook with the enormity of her grief, but no sound escaped her peach-colored lips save for a few ragged moans that she quickly cut off, as if she could allow herself to show only so much outward emotion. As if she still had to be careful, be tough, be resilient.
She didn't. Not with him. But he couldn't speak past the hot knot in his own throat to tell her.
He wanted to scream at that uncaring bitch, Fate. Rail and cry and rant. But what possible good would that do them? None. So he gulped down the hard tangle of sorrow and rage and asked, "Anywhere in particular y'wanna go?"
She turned toward him, her big, tawny eyes haunted, lost. "Yeah, okay." He nodded. "I know a place."
After twenty minutes of pure hell, forced to watch her struggle to keep herself together, struggle to keep from bursting into a thousand bloody pieces that would surely cut him as deeply as they cut her, he nosed the Jeep along a narrow coast road, through the waving, brown heads of sea oats, until he stopped at a wooden fence. It was gray and brittle from years spent battling the sun and weathering the salt spray.
He figured he and that fence were kindred spirits. They'd both been worn down by the lives they'd led until they were so battered and scarred they no longer resembled anything like what they'd started out being-and yet they were still standing.
Right. He'd give anything to be the one reduced to an urn full of fine, gray ash. Between the two of them, Grigg had been the better man. But on top of being uncaring, Fate was a stupid bitch. That's the only explanation he could figure for why he'd made it out of that stinking, sandy hut when Grigg hadn't.
A flash of Grigg's eyes in that last moment nearly had him doubling over. Those familiar brown eyes...they'd been hurting, begging, resigned...
No. He shook away the savage image and focused his gaze out the windshield.
Beyond the fence's ragged, ghostly length, gentle dunes rolled and eventually merged with the flat stretch of a shell-covered beach. The gray Atlantic's vast expanse flirted in the distance with the clear blue of the sky, and the boisterous wind whipped up whitecaps that giggled and hissed as they skipped toward shore.
It just didn't seem right. A day like that. So sunny, so bright. Didn't the world know it'd lost one of its greatest men? Didn't its molten heart bleed?
He switched off the Jeep and sucked in the familiar scents of sea air and sun-baked sand. He couldn't find his usual comfort in the smells. Not today. And, maybe, never again. Hesitantly he searched for the right words.
Yeah, right. Like there were any right words in this God-awful situation.
"I won't offer y'platitudes, Ali," he finally managed to spit out. "He was the best man I've ever known. I loved 'im like a brother."
Talk about understatement of the century. Losing Grigg was akin to losing an arm. Nate felt all off-balance. Disoriented. More than once during the past week, he'd turned to tell Grigg something only to remember too late his best friend wasn't there.
He figured he wasn't suffering from phantom-limb syndrome, but phantom-friend syndrome.
"Then as a brother, tell me what happened...what really happened," she implored.
She'd always been too damned smart for her own good.
"He died in an accident. He was cleanin' an old gas tank on one of the bikes; there was a spark; some fuel on his rag ignited; he fell into a tray of oil and burned to death before anyone could get to him." The lie came out succinctly because he'd practiced it so friggin' often, but the last word still stuck in his throat like a burr.
Unfortunately, it was the only explanation he could give her about the last minutes of her brother's life. Because the truth fell directly under the heading National Security Secret. He thought it very likely Ali suspected Grigg hadn't spent the last three-plus years partnering with a few ex-military, spec-ops guys, living and working in Chicago as a custom motorcycle builder, but it wasn't his place to give her the truth. The truth that Grigg Morgan had still been working for Uncle.
When he and Grigg bid their final farewells to the Marine Corps, it was only in order to join a highly secretive "consulting" group. The kind of group that took on only the most clandestine of operations. The kind of group whose missions never made the news or crossed the desk of some pencil-pushing aide at the DOD in a tidy little dossier. They put the black in black ops, their true identities known only to a select few, and those select few were very high up in government. High. Like, all the way at the friggin' top.
So no. He couldn't tell her what really happened to Grigg. And he hoped to God she never found out.
She searched his determinedly blank expression, and he watched helplessly as the impotent rage rose inside her-an emotional volcano threatening to explode. Before he could stop her, she slammed out of the vehicle, hurdled the fence, and raced toward the dunes, long hair flying behind her, slim bare legs churning up great puffs of sand that caught in the briny wind and swirled away.
He wrenched open his door and bounded after her, his left leg screaming in agony, not to mention the goddamned broken ribs that threatened to punch a hole right through his lung. Blam! Wheeze. That quick and he'd be spending another day or two in the hospital. Fan-friggin'-tastic. Just what he didn't need right now.
"Ali!" he bellowed, grinding his teeth against the pain, running with an uneven, awkward limp made even more so by the shifting sand beneath his boots.
She turned on him then in grief and frustration, slamming a tiny balled-up fist into the center of his chest. Sweet Christ...
Agony exploded like a frag grenade. He took a knee. It was either that or just keel over dead.
"Nate?" Her anger turned to shock as she knelt beside him in the sand. "What-" Before he knew what she was about, she lifted the hem of his T-shirt, gaping at the ragged appearance of his torso. His ribs were taped, but the rest of him looked like it'd gone ten rounds with a meat grinder and lost.
"Holy shit, Nate!" He almost smiled despite the blistering pain that held him in its teeth, savage and unyielding as a junkyard dog. Ali never cursed. Either it was written somewhere in her DNA or in that contract she'd signed after becoming a kindergarten teacher. "What happened to you?"
He shook his head because, honestly, it was all he could manage. If he so much as opened his mouth, he was afraid he'd scream like a girl.
"Nate!" She threw her arms around his neck. God, that felt right...and so, so wrong. "Tell me! Tell me what happened to you. Tell me what really happened to Grigg." The last was breathed in his ear. A request. A heartrending plea.
"Y'know I can't, Ali." He could feel the salty hotness of her tears where she'd tucked her face into his neck. Smell, in the sweet humidity of her breath, the lemon tea she'd been drinking before he knocked on her parents' door and told her the news that instantly blew her safe, sheltered world apart.
This was his greatest fantasy and worst nightmare all rolled into one. Ali, sweet, lovely Ali. She was here. Now. Pressed against his heart.
He reluctantly raised arms gone heavy with fatigue and sorrow. If Grigg could see him now, he'd take his favorite 1911-A1 and drill a .45 straight in his sorry ass. But the whole point of this Charlie Foxtrot was that Grigg wasn't here. No one was here to offer Ali comfort but him. So he gathered her close-geez, her hair smelled good-and soothed her when the grief shuddered through her in violent, endless waves like the tide crashing to shore behind them.
And then she kissed him...