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Retired Navy Commander Greg Lambert leaned back in his chair and swallowed down the last of the one glass of bourbon he’d allowed himself that evening. He’d started to cut back lately. Vice President Warren Angelo’s words echoed in his ears as he glanced at the clock on his office wall. It was time to make his next call.
“A sleeper cell of SEALs,” Warren had said nearly eight months back, “to help us combat terrorist sleeper cells in the US…and whatever the hell else might pop up later.”
Lambert rubbed at the spot in his gut that seemed to burn nearly all the time now. Warren had never had to tell him this would be black ops, the kind of thing that would never be documented on paper and would be denied if anyone ever got wind of what they were doing. Taking this on had its rewards. It had given Lambert a sense of purpose again. He’d tapped a number of former Navy SEALS to thwart terrorist threats around the nation, and each had been successful in heading off untold danger and destruction. On the whole, the mission he’d been tasked with could only be deemed a success.
But the stress of racing against the clock in a near constant state of high alert was taking its toll. Hell, between that and living his days out with his dead wife’s Chihuahua who hated his guts, hell, Lambert’s quality of life was downright peachy. He ran his hand around the rim of the empty glass before turning it upside down next to the single sheet of paper on his desk. At least the bourbon was some of the best small batch money could buy. He wasn’t a wealthy man, but he believed if you were going to put poison into your body, you might as well spring for the best damned poison you could get.
He had a SEAL in mind to take on this latest mission. He just hoped he would take it on. Luke Reynolds had been out of the teams for eight years. But the timing might be right to pull him back in. Not back into the SEALs, of course, but into the life.
Lambert hoped like hell Luke agreed. This mission bothered him more than most. Not because it was more heinous or had the potential to do more harm than others. They all had the potential to take lives, to destroy. This one was no different in that sense.
This one, though, had a level of greed to it that bothered him. Most of the time, the nut jobs they dealt with believed in what they were doing. They believed in a cause or a religion, something, other than the all mighty color green. The assholes who had thought up this scheme couldn’t care less who they hurt. They wanted money and they’d do anything to get it. Twist anything and destroy anyone to get what they wanted.
The intel they had collected showed they were likely looking at a team of three people, possibly four. Greg opened his desk drawer and took out a bottle of Mylanta, looking at it before putting it back in the drawer. Who wanted to screw up the aftertaste of a good glass of bourbon with that chalky shit, even if he did need it?
He tossed a treat at the growling Chihuahua, hoping it would shut its yap long enough for a conversation. A friend had said the dog would learn to love him if he gave it treats more often. He had a feeling nothing could make it love him, but he’d never give him away. Karen had loved the little purse demon.
Greg placed the call that would get the ball rolling. It looked like this group would be holding their auction soon, and this was one sale that couldn’t go through. Not on his watch.
“Have you heard from Naomi?”
Luke Reynolds looked at his brother as they crossed the road to the sandwich shop. They didn’t have a lot of time for lunch since Zach was on the job, but they needed to talk. “Yeah. I talked to her a couple of days ago. She’s still not thrilled with either of us.”
Zach had the decency to look chagrined. “We probably went a little overboard,” he finally said, as he held the door open for Luke.
Luke ordered their usual sandwiches while Zach grabbed them two bottles of iced tea apiece and a family-sized bag of chips for them to split.
Luke answered as he paid the cashier and the two moved down the counter to wait for their lunch. “Yeah.” He scrubbed at the bristle covering his jaw. He needed to shave. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
He replayed the scene from a week back in his head. As soon as he’d seen the way those college assholes had looked at Naomi, he’d known they should have insisted she attend an all-girls school. Or stayed home and attended school locally. Or stayed locked in her room forever.
He looked at Zach. “We’ve been that age. You know as well as I do what those assholes were thinking as soon as they saw her. Hell, they were practically lined up along the sidewalks watching for fresh meat, and drooling while they did it. It didn’t hurt anything for them to know she’s got some muscle at home ready to defend her.”
Zach hadn’t raised Naomi the way Luke had, but he was almost as defensive of her. Sadly, raising his niece from the age of ten had taught Luke his gut instinct where she was concerned wasn’t usually the right one. He’d gotten a lot of things wrong where she was concerned. She was usually more patient with him than any parent had a right to expect. But judging by the look on her face when she’d heard Zach and Luke growling at the male students when they’d dropped her off for her freshman year of school at Dartmouth College, he probably should have curbed his gut instincts.
“But she’s okay, otherwise?” Zach asked, grabbing the bag offered by the woman behind the deli counter with a nod. They walked outdoors and sat at one of the few small tables lining the sidewalk outside the deli, taking a few minutes to open their food and dig in.
“Yeah.” Luke spoke around a large bite of turkey and cheese on whole grain bread. “Says she got into the classes she wanted and she likes her roommate so far. How’s Shauna?”
Shauna and Zach had been dating for several months and Luke had to admit, he liked her for Zach. She was strong and sharp and just what his brother needed.
The goofy look on Zach’s face could have answered for him. “She’s good.”
“She move in yet?” It seemed the next logical step for the pair, but Luke wasn’t sure if Zach reallized just how far gone he was for the woman.
Zach shrugged. “Soon. So, you gonna make it a habit to show up here for lunches?” He leveled Luke with a look. It wasn’t every day that Luke showed up at the New Haven Police Department where Zach was a detective to drag him out for lunch.
“You know you’re like a housewife suffering from that empty nest shit, right? I mean you get how pitiful you are, right?”
Luke bounced a pickle off Zach’s forehead, but it only earned him a laugh from his brother. He wasn’t going to tell Zach he’d caught himself singing House at Pooh Corner the other day. That had been Naomi’s bedtime song when she was younger.
Hell, he still sang it to her on occasion, but it was better Zach not know that he’d started singing it to himself since she moved out. That would give Zach fodder for taunting him for decades.
Zach was right about one thing, though. Luke didn’t have a clue what to do with his life now that Naomi wasn’t at home. Now that she didn’t need him the same way she had.
Leaving the SEAL teams hadn’t been easy for Luke, but it had been the right move for Naomi, who’d lost everything in one split second of stupidity.
Luke saw Zach’s movements slow until his brother was staring at him, no longer eating.
Zach’s voice was low when he spoke. “What’s up?”
Luke chugged his first iced tea before opening his second. “I might be out-of-pocket for a little while. Just didn’t want you to worry if I’m not around much.” He and his brother had gotten used to seeing each other often since Zach made it a point to visit Naomi at least once a week, if not more. With the job he’d just taken on, that wouldn’t be as likely. Luke would be keeping a low profile, and stopping by the precinct to see his detective brother wouldn’t really fit with his assignment.
Zach tried to play the moment off as a joke. “I know you’re not heading back to the teams. You’re too damned old for that shit.”
Luke grinned, giving Zach the levity he’d been looking for. “I can still swim circles around your tired ass, little brother.” They both knew as a former SEAL, Luke could beat Zach in anything having to do with water.
They continued eating in silence for several minutes before Zach spoke again. “Anything you can tell me about?”
He had to know the answer, but Luke gave it to him anyway. “No.”
“You got anyone watching your back?”
Luke shook his head, no, and rolled up the paper his sandwich had come in, ignoring the curse from Zach.
Zach looked around. There were plenty of people walking by their table, but none were paying attention to their conversation. “So, you’re pulling a one-eighty? Going from safe and sound and no risk to throwing yourself into . . . into what?”
Luke didn’t answer. Since their mother, sister, and brother-in-law had died in a car accident that stole everything from Naomi, Luke had taken the safest path he could find in life. He’d chosen to work running background checks instead of accepting any number of offers to do private security work or attend the police academy the way Zach had after his own separation from the military.
Zach continued. “She went off to college, but she still needs you. She still needs to know you’re not putting yourself in the line of fire.”
“Says the man who came home from the military to work as a cop.” Luke couldn’t help but feel some resentment. He’d never in a million years go back and change what he did when his sister and mom died. He’d never regret taking Naomi. Family was family, and you gave everything to family.
But that didn’t change the fact that Zach had been able to do things Luke had felt he couldn’t do. Zach hadn’t played things safe the way Luke had. He’d been there for Naomi, same as Luke, but not in the quite the same way. He wasn’t the one Naomi woke up to when she had a nightmare or relied on when she was sick or scared. Zach hadn’t taken on being mother and father, as well as uncle.
“Look, Naomi will always be my top priority. Always. That doesn’t mean I can keep sitting at home while she’s . . . ” He let that die out. If he finished the sentence with while she’s off living life like he wanted to, he’d sound like a royal wuss. But it was the truth. She was starting to build her own life independent of him.
Zach had his own life. He had a career. He had purpose.
Luke had a business, but it was a business he’d been doing as a placeholder and it had always felt that way to him. He’d been running online background checks for people. Things couldn’t get any safer—or more boring—than that.
He wasn’t going to run off to fight a war, but the job he’d been tapped for wasn’t one he could turn his back on. Too much was at stake for that.
Zach must have read the look on Luke’s. Luke wasn’t willing to discuss the issue further. Zach sighed. “Just know I’ve got your back if you need me. You might think you’re working this one on your own, but that won’t ever be the case, you got me?”
Luke grunted and tossed another pickle, hitting Zach square between the eyes and earning a grin.