A former Navy SEAL, Cole Makani Hunter has returned home from a disastrous black ops mission without his best friend, his hearing, or the use of his right arm. So when his ex–commanding officer assigns him to an undercover mission at a rehab center for vets to discover who leaked sensitive military information to an enemy, he'd rather be anywhere but there. Almost immediately, Cole finds himself at odds with Annie Murray—a peace-loving ecotherapist whose dream is to open an animal sanctuary out of her home. While the two seemingly have nothing in common, their spirited arguments soon fuel a passion for each other.
But just as things begin to heat up between therapist and patient, dangerous complications arise. So does the past—and a shocking revelation that puts Cole and everything he now holds dear in the path of a murderous traitor.
For a little taste of the book, here is a short excerpt from when Cole first visit's Annie's little animal sanctuary that she runs out of her garage and backyard:
"What's up with the llamas?" He turned so he could read her lips.
She blinked at him. "People moved and left them behind."
"What was the worst you ever had?"
"A tarantula that lost a leg." A delicate shiver ran through her. "I hate spiders."
"Did you save it?"
A tragic look came over her face. "A goat ate him."
A strangled laugh escaped him. "What happened to the goat?"
"Do you ever turn anything away?"
She rubbed the head of one of the baby skunks with the back of her crooked index finger. "Not anything, not ever."
That people like her lived in the world scared Cole a little. Too soft-hearted, too easy to take advantage of, too vulnerable. Annie Murray needed a keeper. Not that he was volunteering.
He watched as she slid down into the hay, flat on her back, her head on the folded comforter. The orphaned skunks were all over her instantly, like love-smitten kittens, snuggled into every nook, a different baby tucked against every curve.
She closed her eyes, the picture of peaceful bliss.
Cole stood against a nearly irresistible pull to lie next to her and be part of the magic she was weaving.
He never thought he'd be jealous of a skunk, but he wanted to be tucked against her breast. She had generous breasts to go with her generous mouth. She was murmuring something to her little charges that he didn't catch, a soft half-smile on her lips.
He wanted to sink into Annie Murray's earth mother goodness, dissolve in her peace.
She was the most wholesome person he'd ever known.
He was the opposite, too damaged in too many ways. He was deaf, and his right arm might never fully function again. He had nightmares . . .
He wouldn't wish waking up next to him on his worst enemy.
In his dreams, either he was killing someone, or someone was killing him.
He was a killer. He'd been a damn good sniper before his right arm had been rendered useless. Maybe as punishment for his sins.
He didn't care about the arm. He didn't care about his lost hearing. He would gladly give more, give anything, if it brought back Ryan, his spotter, his best friend.
Since Ryan and the others had died, screaming in pain, Cole hadn't been the same.
So no, he could not have the peace Annie Murray was offering.
An hour before his death, Mitch Moritz was in as good a mood as he'd ever been. He couldn't wait to get home. The rehab center in Broslin, Pennsylvania, had been great, everything a recovering army vet needed, but he missed his wife and kids too much.
The weeks spent in rehab were worth it, sure. He'd come in a mess—nightmares, rage, depression, anxiety—and left feeling like a man again. Still, this was definitely the best part: zipping up his suitcase and leaving.
He picked up the remote to turn off the TV, then paused to let the bald little man on the screen finish his spiel. The weatherman was hopping and beaming, trying to sound super hyped about news that was anything but sensational.
"A tropical depression in the western Caribbean was just updated to Tropical Storm Rupert. We're going to keep a close eye on that for you folks. You know how these things go. Anything could happen."
Mitch flicked off the TV before the guy could spin a barely there storm into the meteorological end of the world.
He gazed around the room one last time, then pulled his suitcase out into the hallway.
"Hey, good luck!" The greeting came as he turned the corner.
The man walking toward him carried two cups of coffee and a pastry bag. He gave a rueful smile. "Can never resist loading up at the cafeteria." He held out one of the cups to Mitch. "Here. Take it. I shouldn't drink this much coffee anyway."
"You sure?" Mitch had a long drive ahead of him, down I-95, all the way to Florida. He hated flying. The two-day drive didn't bother him. The weather was supposed to be clear all the way. He'd still be home for his daughter's second birthday. "If you really don't want it, I'd be happy to have it."
"How about a couple of carrot muffins?" the man asked.
"My carrot muffin days are over." Mitch grinned. He couldn't wait to be back on his wife's cooking.
Thirty minutes later, he was on the six-lane highway, crossing into Maryland as he finished the last of his coffee. The brew tasted off, but he'd drunk it anyway, even if he wasn't a fan of artificial sweeteners.
His eyes blurred. He blinked. His vision cleared.
Fifteen minutes later, a flashback slammed into him. In the car one second, inside a burning tank the next. The hallucination came in full color, complete with the smell and pain of burning flesh.
Mitch scrambled to escape, but before he could even unlatch the hatch, the tank exploded.
Then, a couple of seconds until Mitch realized he hadn't been in an exploding tank. He'd hit a tractor trailer head on, on the highway. His bones were broken. His entire body was wet. Blood. People were yelling around him, but he couldn't make sense of the words.
Five minutes later—long before the ambulance reached him—Mitch Moritz was dead.
Do not confront your stalker.
That sounded like a smart rule, the kind of advice the cops—or any sane person—would give.
Annie Murray pivoted on her heels in line inside the gas station and looked her stalker straight in the eyes.
"You can't keep doing this, Joey."
She didn't mean to sound harsh. She didn't think she did. But Joey Franco's eyes widened with hurt to the size of portholes through which she could see all the way to where his heart bled.
"Twenty-two fifty," said Mac from behind the counter. "Hey, Annie."
Robbie MacMillan and Joey were buddies going way back, so Mac kept a studiously neutral expression, messing with the cash register and pretending he hadn't heard Annie call Joey on his shit.
Annie swiped her credit card. Her gaze flicked to the TV on the wall behind Mac and the weatherman waxing poetic about a tropical storm named Rupert gaining strength and slowly moving toward the Greater Antilles.
Her transaction was approved. She signed the receipt. "Could I have the key to the bathroom, please?"
She didn't look at Joey again as she walked out into the gray-skied September morning. He managed to bump into her nearly every day, always with those lost-puppy-dog eyes and that hurt expression. Look what you've done to me. And, of course, Annie specialized in lost puppies.
"Could we talk?" The question hooked into the back of her shirt as she was about to turn the corner.
She stopped at the mouth of the narrow alley. The ten-foot strip of concrete between the gas station and a windowless warehouse on the other side was a desiccated wasteland. They should clean up this place and put a couple of potted plants back here, she thought. And then: Shouldn't have had that second cup of tea with breakfast. If she didn't have to use the bathroom, she'd be out of there by now.
She needed to be out of there. She had a new patient today, a former Navy SEAL.
Behind her, Joey stepped closer, his boots scuffing on the concrete.
"Please stop following me," Annie said. "It's making me uncomfortable."
He had not been violent with her, but he had been violent with others—drunken brawls, mostly. Mostly started by his cousin, Big Jim, who could talk Joey into anything, but chose to talk him into only the immoral and illegal. Big guy, big talker, the oldest of the cousins, Big Jim always had the best stories and the worst ideas.
Actually, the whole family was pretty messy.
"I need to tell you something." Joey kept coming. "I'm your man. You know I am. Meant to be."
He was about five feet eleven inches, the beginnings of a beer belly giving him some girth, a country boy who wore Timberlands and Levi's with a plaid shirt and a red Phillies baseball hat. He was like a puppy who hadn't taken to training, then grown big and just wanted to do what he wanted.
"I can't be late for work," she said.
"You care more about your patients than you care about me."
She had no intention of justifying herself. Again.
"Listen, when I came back to Broslin last year, I was in love with the idea of coming home. A return to childhood and innocence and a safe place, you know? You were my best friend back in elementary school. So you kind of represented all that for me. But that's not enough for a romantic relationship."
Misery drew grooves around Joey's eyes, a whole set all at once, like drawing in sand with a garden rake. "Can I come over tonight?" He moved forward again, caught himself, stopped. "Just to talk."
"No. I'm sorry. Goodbye, Joey." Bathroom key in hand, Annie hurried into the alleyway.
When she finished in the bathroom and turned on the tap, she looked into the cracked mirror over the sink. "Joey is moving on. The new patient will commit to therapy and make amazing progress. I'm going to have a great day today."
She'd already said her affirmations while combing her hair this morning, but repetition wouldn't hurt.
She washed her hands, grabbed a paper towel, and kept it in hand as she reached for the doorknob.
OK, Joey, please don't be waiting.
He wasn't. But the man not two feet from the door, whirling around with a feral growl, was infinitely worse. Insanely huge. Wide shoulders. Corded muscles. Shaved head. Barbed wire tattoos above his ears.
The man's skin was a shade or two darker than Annie's, his nearly black gaze hard and merciless. He wore army boots and fatigues with an olive T-shirt that covered neither the scars nor the ink on his massive arms and neck.
His half-raised hand promised death.
All that took Annie a split second to register as her heart broke into a panicked rush to punch its way out of her chest.
"Don't." She braced for impact, the paper towel dropping from her fingers.
She was stuck in the narrow doorway, the door half-closed behind her. She couldn't make any moves, her self-defense training useless. She had no room to maneuver.
But instead of letting the punch fly, the man stepped back, dropping his frying-pan-size hand. "You startled me."
His rusty voice gave the impression of a hermit who rarely left his mountain hideaway. The look he gave her was in that vein too—a hard look from a hard man unused to human interaction. Maybe not a hermit, no, nothing that harmless. A bear. A grizzly coming out of hibernation: slow for now, considering, a lethal predator awakening.
Oh, for heaven's sake. Get a grip.
He had some Pacific Islander heritage: wide jaw, flat nose. He was thirtyish. Not that much older than she. Just a man, not a homicidal maniac. This was Broslin, small-town Pennsylvania. They had maybe one murder a year, and this year's box had already been checked. Broslin was nothing like the seriously dodgy Philly neighborhoods Annie had lived in during the past decade.
She drew a steadying breath. As the mad banging in her chest quieted, her gaze dropped to the massive hand the man had lowered—the skin battered and bloody, his knuckles busted.
He must be in pain was her first thought, the second being that he might not mean to kill her, but he had killed someone. Recently. With his size, if he'd pummeled anyone hard enough to cause that much damage to his own hand, the other guy had to be dead. Broslin's murder rate just doubled.
Where was the victim? Her gaze darted to the deserted alley behind him on reflex.
The sky hung low, a heavy dark-gray—a metal coffin lid, trapping the world. The giant billboards that lined the top of the warehouse next door blocked what little light there was, leaving the alley a dim space.
No bodies—dead or alive.
Never mind. The most important question was, could Annie jump back into the single-stall bathroom fast enough to close the door in the killer's face and lock herself in while she called the police?
As if the man could hear the panicked rush of blood in her veins, he took another step back. "Don't be scared." His tone dipped and grew another notch gruffer. "I'm leaving now. All right?"
He grunted with frustration and pulled his neck into his shoulders, hunching, hiding the bloody hand behind him, trying to appear less menacing. His downcast expression said he was used to people being afraid of him. He'd come to expect it.
Annie's first impression of him had been that of a man who could take a person apart without breaking a sweat, and not be particularly bothered by it either. But he was bothered that he'd scared her.
He half turned to walk away.
"Wait," she blurted.
Oh cripes. She hadn't meant to say that. But when his dark eyebrows twitched with surprise, she continued, "You should clean that hand."
She held the bathroom door open, the sink and paper towels behind her.
He didn't move toward her, but he didn't walk away either. He took her measure once again, more carefully this time, like a person who'd opened a box and found something other than what he'd expected.
She squirmed under his scrutiny. Should have let him walk away.
"Who did you fight with?" Again she had spoken without thinking. Thinking people didn't chat up violent men in abandoned alleys and invite them to incriminate themselves.
A shadow passed over his broad face. Embarrassment? Unlikely. He didn't seem like a guy who'd be easily embarrassed.
"I punched the bricks." He jerked his shaved head toward the wall. "Got frustrated."
"Ever tried meditation?" There she went with the blurting again.
Are you for real? his dark eyes asked. But he withdrew his damaged hand from behind his back, as if deciding that she could handle the sight after all. "I guess washing the blood off wouldn't hurt."
Oh God. Blood. Right. Now that she wasn't in imminent fear for her life, the whole blood thing hit Annie full on the chin and knocked her back.
Don't throw up. Don't pass out. She kept her eyes on his face.
She stood aside as he went into the bathroom. She didn't offer to help with cleaning his wounds. The sight of blood filled her with the acute need to run the other way.
She hurried over to her car and grabbed the first aid kit from the trunk. Running away did feel great. But then she made herself return to the bathroom with the red plastic box.
He had washed off the blood already—thank God—and was now dabbing his busted knuckles with a paper towel. He showed no sign of pain, as if he were made out of the same bricks he had punched earlier.
She stepped closer. "Let me see that."
"It's no big deal." The way he pulled back said he was equally uncomfortable with their proximity.
She balanced the box on the edge of the sink and popped it open, then pulled out the miniscule brown bottle of hydrogen peroxide.
After a moment, the man held out his hand—twice the size of hers—knuckles up. She poured the peroxide, let it fizz, poured more. Then she picked up the first Band-Aid to begin covering up the worst of the damage.
For this, she had to touch him.
His chest was silent, as if he'd stopped breathing. Or maybe she couldn't hear him because the blood was once again roaring in her ears—a normal response to being in that small space with an enormous man. Who, a minute ago, had been bleeding.
Don't think about that.
She focused on how fast she could cover his injuries. "You know, there are less self-destructive ways to deal with frustration."
When he didn't so much as grunt in acknowledgment, she glanced up. Too big. Too close. Her throat constricted. Swallowing hurt.
The bathroom was tiny and airless. She needed air. But before she could scramble back out, he was past her and outside in a blur, without ever once touching her, which didn't seem possible.
"Thanks." That rough voice, a single word. Then he strode away, as fast as if he had a date with another brick wall and he was late.
She stared after him.
"Hey, what's your name?"
His broad shoulders didn't turn. He kept walking. Looked like he'd had enough of her.
Annie watched him for a few more seconds before she caught herself. She closed her first aid kit, then picked up the paper towel she'd dropped earlier. As she tossed it into the overflowing garbage can, along with the little white Band-Aid tabs, her fingers trembled.
She shook the tension out of her hands, then tucked the kit under her arm and hurried off to return the bathroom key to Mac inside the gas station.
Joey was nowhere in sight. Yet, as Annie slid behind the wheel, an uncomfortable sensation washed over her, an odd prickling she'd been feeling a lot lately. Had Joey stuck around? Was he watching her from somewhere? Was he developing an unhealthy obsession that she was mistaking for temporary disappointment?
Not a good mistake to make.
She would have to talk to Joey again. And she would have to be firmer next time. She would have to tell him that if he didn't stop stalking her, she was going to get a restraining order.
First things first. She had to get to work and her new patient.
Annie Murray smiled into the morning. No matter what else was skidding off the rails in her life, her job was great. She loved every single aspect of it. She got to help people. She made a difference.
She pushed everything else out of her mind. Her day was full of possibilities, and she would make the best of them.
Annie looked into the rearview mirror and beamed. She infused her words with the power of belief. "I'm going to have a wonderful day."