Men of Steele, Book 1
His best friend’s sister. A deadly secret. A white-hot attraction they can’t ignore.
When always-play-it-safe Jenna Ryan starts questioning how her brother died in Afghanistan, someone decides she must be stopped. Permanently. Her brother's best friend–a sexy thrill-seeker she can't stop thinking about–won't reveal what he knows about the fatal shoot-out, putting Jenna at odds with the only man she trusts to keep her alive.
Veteran military special operator Mick Fury would give his life to keep his best friend's irresistible sister safe. He took an oath to stay silent about their last mission, but Mick's will is tested by the white-hot attraction to Jenna he's tried to ignore for years. Now he must risk everything–even falling in love–to protect her from a secret that could destroy them both.
- Why write about Air Force pararescuemen (aka PJs)? The Navy SEALs shouldn't get all the love. I wanted to showcase these kick-ass guys who jump into harm's way, armed to the teeth, but with the goal of saving injured soldiers, sailors, airmen, and civilians. Who rescues the SEALs? The PJs!
- I first learned about the PJs at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force on Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio (second image below). My husband was stationed at Wright-Patt, and we took our kids a few times. The museum had an exhibit about these guys who started out rescuing pilots who'd been shot down behind enemy lines in Vietnam (see first image below). When I started writing romantic suspense, I knew exactly what kind of heroes I wanted to feature. Since then, I've done a lot more research on these guys who have saved so many lives.
In the land of dust and sand, things got messy when it rained. Mick Fury’s boots made sucking sounds in the mud left behind by a morning shower as he strode along the graffiti-covered blast wall that ran the perimeter of Kandahar Airfield.
He kept pace with Rob Ryan, ignoring the kerosene scent of jet fuel assaulting his nose as they headed to meet up with their Claymore Security teammates. They were scheduled to train local police recruits in tactical shooting techniques today. A worthy exercise if the trainees stayed alive long enough to use their new skills. Unfortunately, cops in Afghanistan were one of the Taliban’s favorite targets.
Rob waggled a large rip-proof envelope addressed to his sister in Virginia. “Let me drop this in the mail on our way.”
They detoured to the makeshift post office. “Did I forget Jenna’s birthday or something?” Mick asked.
“Have you ever remembered it?” Rob teased.
Actually, he had. Every year. November twenty-fifth.
“No,” Rob said when he didn’t answer. “It’s just some notes and stuff that I don’t have room for in my bag.”
“So you’re really not coming back?” A lead weight settled on Mick’s chest. He and Rob had been best friends and teammates for twelve years. They’d had each other’s backs through boot camp, pararescue training, and now at Claymore. If Rob left in two weeks like he planned, then Mick would be left here with only his friend Dan Molina and a bunch of assholes, the kind who thrived in an industry where the rules of civilization didn’t apply.
The brotherhood he’d experienced in the Air Force—putting the members of the team above all else—had been hard to find in the world of private security contracting. Any one of them could walk away at any time, and some of the guys were outright criminals who’d never be allowed to carry a gun in the States.
“I’m really not coming back,” Rob said, stuffing the envelope into a slot in the shipping containers that masqueraded as a post office. “And you shouldn’t either.”
It was an old argument. The constant stress, the poor management, and the barren surroundings chafed like a tight shoe. But there was no substitute for the adrenaline rush. There was something about cheating death that made him feel alive like nothing else could.
“What else can I do?” Mick asked. “Every time we go home, I’m happy for about two weeks. And then it all starts to seem so pointless, so boring.” And quiet. Quiet enough for unwelcome thoughts to invade.
Rob shoved his hands in his front pockets and rubbed a heel in the mud while they waited for the others to show up. “You think I don’t feel the same way? But every time I leave, the look in Jenna’s eyes nearly rips my heart out. I can’t do that to her anymore.”
Mick knew that look. He’d memorized it long ago, along with everything else about the one woman who was off limits to him…and not just because Rob had threatened to permanently end his sex life if he tried anything.
He couldn’t toy with the heart of a woman who’d suffered so much already. Jenna was the kind of woman you married and took home to Mom. Not Mick’s usual type. She was smart and sweet, hardly a seductress. But somehow he couldn’t get her pale, almost-gray eyes and adorable freckles out of his head.
“What will you do?” he asked, bringing himself back to the ugly reality of Afghanistan. “I can’t see you settling down to a desk job and a white picket fence.”
Rob laughed, but the humor didn’t reach his eyes. “Screw that. I was talking to Dan, and he knows a guy who’s a flight medic for one of those MedEvac helicopters. They also do search and rescue missions. I’ll have to go to school first, but it’ll be worth it. It’ll be like the PJs again, but without anyone shooting at you.”
“Then where’s the thrill?” Mick asked, not entirely joking. He plastered on his trademark carefree smile and tapped his rifle. He never should have left pararescue, but the money he’d been offered to join Claymore had been impossible to resist.
His friend shook his head. “Just think about it, okay?”
“Sure.” He’d think about it. In fact, he already thought about it almost daily. Jesus, why couldn’t he be normal? When he was here, he wanted to be at home—driving his new Camaro, flirting with girls, hanging with his friends—and when he was back in Virginia he could hardly stand it. The tedium and pettiness of Stateside life was suffocating. At least things made sense here. At least here he knew without a doubt that he was good for something.
Here, his job was to survive. Simple as that.
“Hey.” Rob grabbed Mick’s arm as a large armored vehicle rumbled past, leaving deep grooves in the mud. “Promise me one thing.” He looked way too serious for Mick’s taste. Even more serious than usual.
“If something happens to me, you’ll leave Claymore and take care of Jenna.”
Oh, hell no. They were not going to have this conversation. Not right before going outside the wire. He bounced his eyebrows at Rob and forced a smile. “Take care of her, huh?”
“Yeah, and that includes protecting her from guys like you, asshole.” Rob ran a hand through his close-cropped hair. “Come on, man. I mean it. I’ll feel better knowing that she wouldn’t be left alone.”
“We’ve been here for two years. Why are you asking me this now?” Mick wrinkled his nose as the wind shifted, bringing with it the pungent odor of the sewage treatment plant—aka The Poo Pond. “Did something happen?”
Rob glanced around and shook his head with feigned indifference that didn’t fool Mick for a second. “No, I’m just being, you know, superstitious now that I’ve given my notice. If I don’t leave any loose ends, then nothing will happen.”
He was full of crap, but Mick let it go. “Dude, you don’t even have to ask. She’s the closest thing I have to a sister of my own.” Except for the very un-brotherly thoughts he had about her. “But you’re the one who’s going to be there for her, so it doesn’t matter. You’re going to go home, find a job, get a dog, and meet a girl. In another year, I won’t recognize you. You’ll probably even own a minivan.” Mick pulled a face, like he couldn’t imagine a worse fate.
Rob’s shoulders visibly relaxed and the line between his eyebrows softened. What the hell was going on with him? He’d never been this tightly wound before.
“Thanks. I owe you one.”
Mick consulted his palm as if it were a notebook, and pretended to cross something out. “By my calculations, that makes us even.” He grinned. “Hell, if I’d known you were this easy to get square with, I would have offered months ago.”
Rob finally laughed, and the knot in Mick’s chest loosened.
“Hey, ladies. You ready to run the gauntlet?” Three of their crew trudged toward them, nine-millimeters in their thigh holsters and M4s strapped to their chest rigs, always at the ready. Dressed in khaki pants and polo shirts, they looked like an army of muscle-bound frat boys.
Mick and Rob fit right in.
“As long as you brought your diapers this time, Beavis,” Mick called out, using the nickname the man had earned for his rat-like resemblance to the animated character. “I don’t want shit to get all over the seats if we take fire.”
Beavis flipped him off and they walked toward their armored vehicles to meet up with the rest of the group for the briefing.
Just another day in paradise.
An hour later, Mick dropped to his knees in the mud next to Rob. “No, no, no!” He tore at his friend’s mangled body armor and sticky, wet shirt and—oh God, no. He spread his hands over the ragged mess that used to be his friend’s chest, as if he could hold him together by magic. His skills as a medic were of no use to him with an injury this bad. All he could do was try to stop the alarming flow of blood. “Damn it, Rob, hang on for me. You’re going home, remember? Come on, come on.”
Fucking Murphy and his law. Rob should have known better than to announce that he was going home right before they left the base . Everyone knew a convoy was an easy target for roadside bombs and insurgent attacks.
Today, they’d managed to find both.
This can’t be happening. Mick adjusted his position and pressed harder. Rob couldn’t die; he was one of the good ones. Jenna needed her brother.
Mick needed him.
“Jenna,” Rob whispered, clutching weakly at Mick’s arm. His look said he knew he wouldn’t make it.
Mick blinked against the burn of hot tears and nodded. “Don’t worry. I’ll watch out for her until you’re on your feet again. Just stay with me.” But the blood wouldn’t fucking stop. It bubbled through his fingers, warm and sticky and relentless.
Rob closed his eyes and mumbled.
Mick leaned close to hear him over the noise of engines, men shouting, and the buzzing in his ears left by the ricochet of gunfire. “What’s that?”
“Don’t tell her.”
Sharp smoke stung his nose as Mick surveyed the carnage surrounding them. The barren ground was covered with lifeless figures slicked with mud and blood. He closed his eyes briefly to block out the images, but like so many other horrors he’d witnessed, the scene would haunt him forever.
No way in hell would he ever want to talk about it. Keeping this horrific moment from Jenna was an easy promise to make. “Never.”
Published: February 2014, ISBN 9780991607303
Next in the series: Blind Ambition