“Protect an innocent, he said,” Captain Donovan “Van” Tatum muttered under his breath as he reached down to pet the black German shepherd sprawled on the basement floor next to him. “Just another random, fucking innocent to protect.”
An amused voice spoke over the ear com. “Quit your whining, Tango.”
Lucky for them the music playing upstairs in the living room was loud enough to cover the muted conversation he’d needed to help him keep his sanity during this hellish mission. “Bite me, Whiskey,” Tango fired back at his second in command.
“Oooh, kinky,” said a third voice over the secure channel.
Tango ignored Bravo, the team’s resident irreverent fuck and demolitions expert. “Sitrep.”
“You don’t want to know,” Dell—the team’s sniper—whispered.
But he did want to know. Everything. Because upstairs was the love of his life. The woman he’d moved hell and high water to make his own then whose life he’d had to carve himself out of in order to protect.
Leaving Maddie had been the single hardest thing in his life to do and it’d nearly killed him. Hell, it had killed him. Destroyed something inside him that raged and screamed for the bond that’d wrapped around his soul and anchored him to this world.
“Dell, you seeing what I’m seeing? Damn, what I wouldn’t give to be her yoga mat right about now. Shit, fire, fuck me that’s—”
“Stop staring at my wife’s ass,” Tango ordered through clenched teeth.
“—hot,” Bravo finished undeterred.
“Ex-wife,” Whiskey corrected.
Tango didn’t need the reminder and ground his teeth hard enough for a tendon in his jaw to pop. In his mind, Maddie would never be his ex anything. As far as he was concerned, she was and would always be his wife, mate, other half of him. His anchor to this world. The one true love of his life who would no doubt kick his ass from here to the end of the world for the shit move he’d made to protect her from the shit storm that was his life. “Remind me why we’re here again.”
In hell. That in-between place where sins come to rest and demons churn up guilt, fear, and anger at the world for being a shit place that forced people like him to make hard decisions that hurt those closest.
“Because a little birdie called and said Maddie might be in danger,” Whiskey said.
“Emphasis on the might,” Tango said with a heavy dose of sarcasm.
“More like definitely might due to the bounty on her head,” the fifth and final member of their team, Fox, reported from their van three blocks over.
The bottom dropped out of Tango’s stomach and he sat up straighter. “What the fuck, Whiskey? You never mentioned a bounty.”
“Opted for Fox to confirm it before I confessed all my sins. How much is it?”
“Million for her alive,” Fox said. “Still working on who issued it, but it was posted two days ago.”
Tango cursed under his breath. “Two days after Whiskey got a call from our light bird.”
“Yeah about that…,” Whiskey drawled. “Our light bird didn’t call this one. Howser sort of thinks we’re… elsewhere.”
Bravo snorted. “As if we’d follow that little shit’s orders after what he did to us on the last mission.”
Dell grunted his agreement.
He shouldn’t be surprised, but damned if finding out that their sorry excuse for a commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Charles Howser, wasn’t the one who’d ordered this mission didn’t make him see red. Tango barely managed to ground out, “Who told you?”
“Caliv,” Whiskey said.
Tango tried and failed to keep calm. “What the fuck is that smarmy British bastard doing calling in reports on my wife to you and not me?”
“Again, ex-wife and that’s a rhetorical question, right? Because it’s pretty obvious considering the bounty on her head.”
“Do not fuck with me, Carter,” Tango growled, uncaring that he’d broken protocol and called Whiskey by his given name. “My wife is in the fucking crosshairs and you will tell me what the hell you know. Now.”
“And now we know why Caliv called the threat about your ex-wife in to me instead of you, mister-I’m-too-much-of-a-pansy-to-man-up-and-go-get-my-girl,” Whiskey said.
“Harsh,” Bravo commented.
“But true,” Fox added.
“Cut the shit,” Tango ordered as he rose to his full height. “Full sitrep. Now. And so help me God, Whiskey, you hold out even the smallest detail and I will fucking make it hurt once I get out of this rabbit hole.”
“Sure thing,” Whiskey said in a voice guaranteed to get his ass beat later. “But it’ll need to wait. I’ve got movement on the street. Dell, you got visual?”
“Two black Suburbans on adjacent streets. Same as before. Pulled up ten minutes ago, but no movement.”
“Shit,” Bravo muttered. “Third one just pulled up.” A pause followed by a gleeful, “Hot damn. We have movement.”
“Confirmed and… coordinated,” Dell said.
Tango cursed under his breath, then tapped his leg two times. “Guard the mama.”
Lily-pup perked up at the command, then shot up the stairs and through the doggie door to the living room.
Tango went to the stairs and started the long climb up. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and—”
In unison the team finished the prayer, “—the luck points to make it out of this alive.”
“Amen.” Tango reached the door then laid his hand on the doorknob and put his emotions in check. “Cover me. I’m going in.”
Maddie wasn’t into traditional yoga. Actually, she couldn’t do traditional or nontraditional yoga to save her life, but people kept suggesting that she look into it to reduce her stress and frustration and improve her health and… damn those pesky people.
Yes, yes, she totally understood that they meant well and only wanted her to be happier and more like old Maddie, but, for crying out loud, life had happened and it’d sucked and she’d had to deal with it and—
“Breathe and stretch,” she chanted to herself as she pushed her head down and nose closer to her knee. “Let it all out.”
Yeah, like that would work. She was neurotic. Bored. And crazy frustrated. If only Caliv didn’t keep calling to check on her. He never did that unless there was something going on. And there had to be something going on, because he’d started flirting with her. Again.
“He can do that,” she mumbled into her knee as she pushed her body further into the stretch. “I’m single. He’s single. There’s nothing wrong with flirting.”
But it did feel wrong. Very wrong. And it was all Van’s fault.
“Aargh,” she groaned and thumped her forehead onto her knee.
If only Caliv hadn’t made her think. Which never would have happened if that stupid doctor hadn’t given her an ultimatum about lowering her blood pressure before he’d renew her stupid birth control prescription.
“Think about your blood pressure,” she muttered as she switched to stretching out her other side.
Oh, she thought about it alright. Every freaking month right before she had to be a girl and get all hormonal and—
“No, no, no. Think happy thoughts. Imagine the blood pressure and frustration ebbing away and flowing down into the center of the earth. Don’t think about the hottie and his friends with benefits offer.”
Yeah, ‘The Offer’. That’d made her day. Shouldn’t have, but a little attention had been… nice. Not that she would do anything about it. Maddie blew out another breath then changed poses and got to her feet to start going through the movements to stretch out her backside. “I should do something about it.”
If only it didn’t feel wrong. If only she didn’t still love her husband. Her stupid husband who’d disappeared without a word to the wise five freaking years ago without a goodbye or note or… nothing.
Maddie clenched her eyes shut and willed the pain to go away. But it was no use. It never was. It was just there. In her chest. A stupid ball of hurt that needed to go so she could have closure and… a cold nose pressed against her neck. “Hey there, Lily-pup. Mama’s almost done and then we’ll go for a walk.”
Lily whined and dragged something wet and slimy against her arm, then dropped it at her feet.
Maddie’s eyes flew open. At her feet was a dilapidated, had seen better days, stuffed toy koala that Lily only brought out when Van was home. “Ohmigod. The ko-ko bear. You brought me the ko-ko.”
Lily looked happy as could be as she thumped her tail on the hardwood floor and kept glancing from Maddie to the hallway. As if to prove how happy she was, her dog scooped up the bear then trotted over to the hallway and plopped her furry butt down in front of a pair of size thirteen combat boots.
Maddie bolted upright and spun around. “Van?”
She stood there like an idiot and just stared at him for what felt like an eternity. He looked the same. But not. She took a step towards him. “You’re a hallucination.”
He shook his head. “Know this is a lot to take in, but I need you to come with me.”
Slowly, she walked towards him until she was close enough to reach out and touch his chest. His very real, very muscular chest. And abs. And—
“Copy that.” He grabbed her wrist and leaned down until he was in her space. “Babe, we need to move. Now.”
She half closed her eyes and, searching for calm, drew in a deep breath. When she opened them, she knew what she needed to do to get the closure and relieve all that frustration the doctor had ordered her to drop. “You’re not a hallucination. That’s good, because there’s something I’ve needed to tell you for a long time.”
“Whatever it is, it can—”
She didn’t give him a chance to finish whatever he had to say.
She punched him.
Across the jaw. Just like he’d taught her back in the day when they’d first started dating.
“—wait.” His head snapped to the side, then slowly rotated back to her. “Feel better?”
She shook her hand out. “Not really. That hurt a lot more than it did in my dream.”
Lily growled a soft warning.
“Shit. Copy that.” Something must have caught Van’s attention because the amusement disappeared from his face and he went into soldier mode. “Babe, I promise to stand still and let you work out your anger issues later, but get your ass down that rabbit hole. Now.”
“I don’t take orders from you and I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what the—” Maddie’s tirade was interrupted when the lights went out.
Lily growled again and slammed into the back of Maddie’s leg.
“Fuck.” Van yanked her bodily out of the doorway and covered her body against the wall. “Lily, ko-ko, run!”
Lily barked and dashed from the room toward the trap door to the basement.
It seemed like it happened all at once. Wall, bark, kaboom and the front door of her home exploded. Fragments of metal, wood, and glass sprayed the room. Shots peppered the wall behind them and something inside Maddie slid into place. Danger. Gun fire. Under attack. What was a girl to do?
Wait for the signal, then run like hell to the rabbit hole and don’t look back until you hear the boom. Now fully with the plan, Maddie gripped the front of Van’s shirt and gave a slight push. “You get my go-bag?”
He eased back so she could slide away from him. “In the car.”
“Good. Tell me when.”
“Right after this fucker—” Van fired into the living room. “Go!”
Maddie raced down the hallway and grabbed the basement door, then yanked it open and nearly fell onto the steps.
Van grabbed her by the waist and righted her. “Tunnel. Now. Don’t look back.”
Maddie grabbed the banister. “Going! Block the door!”
“On it.” Van released her and slammed the door shut, then dropped a bar in place to prevent anyone from following them. “My code the same?”
“Yes,” she said as she ran down the steps. “Set it for ninety seconds.”
Behind her, she heard Van arm the self-destruct mechanism for the house. “Too long.”
“Not with the new upgrade. Tell your team to clear out of the yard. The house will take care of the rest.”
He caught up to her as she swung the tunnel door aside. “What new upgrade?”
Down the tunnel she ran. “I call it ‘lock and load’. Bad guys in, good guys out. House goes boom. Small boom, but still boom.”
Behind her, she heard him laugh then relay the info to his team as he pulled the tunnel door closed behind them. “Why small boom?” he asked when he caught up to her.
Around a corner and the detached garage was in sight. “Didn’t want to impact property values. So less ka-boom and more in-boom. Make sense?”
“Yep.” Van was on her tail as they entered the garage. He dashed to the front of the car and grabbed the cover off the hood. “When was the last time you started her up?”
“Couple of months,” Maddie said as she yanked the tarp off the muscle car then dragged it to the back of the garage.
“Dammit, Maddie, what have I—”
Fully aware that he was about to lay into her for not maintaining his 1970 Chevy Chevelle in a manner he deemed acceptable, Maddie cut him off and jerked open the car door. “You want to do this now or after the fireball of the in-boom torches this garage?”
From inside the car, she heard, “All aboard!” Followed by the distinct sounds of Ozzy Osbourne laughing.
Lily brushed past her and into the front seat, then jumped into the back, ko-ko bear firmly clenched in her jaws.
Van looked at her over the car roof. “Son of a… is that Crazy Train?”
“Yes.” Answer delivered and his irritation over her treatment of his baby thwarted, she slid into the passenger seat and started punching buttons to activate the car’s electric start system. “The intro is thirty-two seconds long. Zed chose it, not me.”
Van got in, then cursed under his breath as he had to adjust the seat to move it up. “Damn your brother and his long legs. Keys?”
“In the visor, but not needed. Added an electric start. Command code from the house triggered the car to prime.” Maddie pressed the toggle switch on the gear shift and the turbo-mount rose from the hood. “Wait for the doors to open and then punch it.”
“How long before—”
A computer generated voice from within the car interrupted him. “Turbo engaged. Door in T minus ten.”
“You added turbo?” He sounded surprised, impressed, and like a man who’d just been handed a new toy.
“Yep.” She pulled her door closed. “Realized I wasn’t the only one you left behind after I stripped her down to sell her for parts so I rebuilt her. Did the same for myself.”
“Baby, I know you’re mad—”
“Mad?” She snorted cutting him off as she tapped out another command that engaged the rear mount turbo, then grabbed the seat belt. “You wish I were only mad.”
“Angry, hurt, I get it. I fucked up and you want blood.” He grabbed her hand and pulled until they were face to face. “But you, me, we’re not done. Will never be done.”
Her wrist tingled where he held her in his firm grasp. Oh, she heard what he said. Didn’t believe it at all. But she couldn’t stop her heart and the butterflies in her belly from doing a happy dance. The love of her life was back and in her life. Holding her hand. Touching her. And making her pry open the lid to all those feelings she’d spent months, years, and buckets full of tears burying underneath a mound of resentment. “Shut up and get buckled. At five, the engine will switch to gas combustion.”
Garage doors slid silently on tracks and into the side walls.
His green eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared. “You are mine.”
Bravado combined with a stubborn dense streak a mile wide made her hold his gaze. “I belong to no man.”
Computer generated voice came over the speakers. “T minus five.”
The car rumbled with gas powered life.
Van kept his eyes on her, but released her hand to reach for the seatbelt. “You.”
The programmed countdown continued, “Four…”
He slammed the buckle home and it clicked into place. “Mine.”
His words, the sound of the buckle slamming into place with a click, it all hit her with a rush of energy. A sense of finality. A sense of the impending end. Of anything but closure. Of a new beginning.
His grin was knowing, sure, and too damned arrogant to be good for her future sanity. “Always.”
He wasn’t asking her permission. He was telling her how it would be.
From now until the end of time.
Well, it sucked to be him because she wasn’t the same meek and malleable Maddie he’d married then divorced with no fuss and muss. She was Maddie 2.0. Smarter, harder, and damn tired of the shit games men played. She opened her mouth to tell him where he could shove his undying love and abandonment routine, but stopped.
The first explosion had detonated inside the house.
Hope you enjoyed that snippet of Tango and Maddie’s book!
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