“Riveting suspense and breathless romance.”
—Shannon McKenna, New York Times bestselling author
She was just a shadow of her former self.
Until he came back into her life.
U.S. intelligence agent Claire Day and former Marine Sergeant Dan Watson must solve a deadly conspiracy—or forfeit any chance of having a future together.
About the Book
When I was young, I was absolutely in love with the idea of spies. Spying seemed to me the epitome of cool, not to mention sexy. I think Sean Connery as James Bond jump-started my puberty.
As I grew older, my image of a spy morphed from James Bond skiing down slopes firing a machine gun or a Lara Croft-like figure (though alas not even in my dreams do I imagine I could look like Angelina Jolie) capable of taking down her enemies with ease, in heels and backwards, to someone very clever, capable of reading hidden reality, and capable of influencing world events.
I was tapping into something deep in the human psyche because what are we all, basically, if not spies? We all want to know more—more about our loved ones and our friends and neighbors. More about the deep, hidden internal workings of the world. We all sense that there are subterranean currents to our lives which are hard to discern, yet essential to an understanding of our own lives and the world around us. Spies dig deeper, look harder, see more clearly.
Enter Claire Day, Defence Intelligence Agency analyst, smart and dedicated, the heroine of Shadows at Midnight. She loves her job, believes in it, and is damned good at it. I guess Claire’s been brewing in my mind for a long, long time. Claire has a deep-seated drive to know, to understand. She’s trained herself to see and understand more clearly than most and has dedicated her life to that, in the service of her country, understanding full well that spooks rarely have a life outside the job because personal attachments cloud your judgment, throw you off your stride. Not to mention the fact that because of her job as a spook, she is transferred to a different country—often a different continent—every two years. But the job is worth it.
Imagine her grief when on one fateful day in the besieged US Embassy in Laka, the capital of Makongo, a West African country, spent with the only Marine on duty, Gunnery Sergeant Daniel Weston, a bomb blast puts her in a three-month coma. The blast takes away her job, her mental clarity and her memory. She is left a shell of her former self, a woman uncertain of everything, with panic attacks and memory loss.
The strong woman who saw reality so well now cannot see the danger approaching her and is unable to defend herself. That task is taken up by heroic Dan who protects her until she can reconnect with her former self. Together, the former spook and the brave Gunnery Sergeant uncover the cold conspiracy at the heart of the blast and discover that love can blossom even in the most dangerous of circumstances.
Read an Excerpt
US Embassy in Laka
Republic of Makongo, West Africa
“Do you think we’re going to die?” Claire Day asked quietly.
From a distance, there was the distinctive ripping sound of AK-47s opening up, then the loud crump! of an RPG. Another. She flinched instinctively. “AK-47s and RPGs,” she murmured. “Full blast. Sounds like they’re not running out of ammo any time soon.”
She should know. She was a spook for the Defence Intelligence Agency.
Gunnery Sergeant Daniel Weston, Detachment Commander of the Marine Security Guard of the US Embassy looked down at the beautiful woman sitting up against the wall of Post One, right next to him. They’d been sitting hip to hip against this wall behind bullet proof glass for almost an hour.
He’d moved heaven and earth to be in the same place as her and now here he was. Except he’d never expected for them to meet in Post One, under siege, in mortal danger.
He couldn’t guarantee they weren’t going to die. There was a fucking army outside the Embassy gates and if they came pouring in… But there was one thing he could guarantee. “I won’t let them get you.”
Claire’s lips turned up. “It’s a nice thought,” she murmured, glancing up at him briefly, then back down at the floor.
It wasn’t a nice thought. Dan would go down fighting, but he would save one bullet for Claire. If the rebels caught her and took her to one of their camps, there wouldn’t be much left to bury. They were continuously hopped up on ganja weed and palm wine and ferociously, insanely cruel.
He’d kill her himself before he let that happen.
The rebels had starting pouring into Laka right after 1600 hours, like water from a dam that had burst. Everyone was taken utterly by surprise. If there had been any signs at all that the rebels were close to the capital, Daniel wouldn’t have let his Marines stay in Marine House, a mile away, for Thanksgiving.
Let them have their Thanksgiving meal, he’d thought. He didn’t celebrate it. More often that not, holidays had been excuses for his old man to get high and stay high.
Thanksgiving was just another day for Dan, so he’d offered to stay on duty while his men celebrated with freeze-dried turkey and canned stuffing, taking turns skypeing home.
The rest of the Embassy staff wasn’t doing much better over at the Ambassador’s residence a block away. Ambassador Thurston Crocker pulled out all the stops for his fellow Ambassadors and for visiting bigwigs, but for the Embassy staff, he and his wife would have made a minimal effort to please. Soggy canapés, half-thawed turkey and cheap, sulphide-laden sparkling wine, providing a guaranteed killer headache the next morning. And not much of it, either.
Crock-of-shit was not known for his generosity.
So the choice to stand guard alone at the Embassy hadn’t been hard. And when he’d seen Claire Day suddenly appear, his choice looked even better. Claire, universally known as Blondie, the resident Embassy DIA analyst, was smart and beautiful and dedicated. She was the only other person on post who would work on Thanksgiving.
She’d walked down the corridor towards him, immersed in thought, and he’d had to stiffen his neck muscles, make them a cage, so his head wouldn’t swivel to follow her progress down the corridor. Though he’d started his duties as Detachment Commander a full week ago, it was only the second time he’d seen her at the Laka Embassy. She seemed to work day and night down there in the basement secure room.
Just as she had pulled even with him, nodding at him, lips curving in an absent-minded smile, gunfire had erupted in the street outside. Massive gunfire, rifles and machine-guns going off in an almost-constant clatter. The deafening noise of war.
Dan had sprung into action, rushing her into Post One, the default retreat station, behind bullet-proof glass. Once she was safe, he’d left her there to go on recon, fully aware of the fact that bullet-proof was a name but not a description. Nothing was completely bullet-proof.
It was a real Murphy’s Law moment, because the monitors of the security cameras that ringed the Embassy chose that moment to flicker and die, another ode to the lunacy of always hiring the cheapest sub-contractor.
He’d had no choice but to run to the side door of the Embassy, the public entrance. Normally, one of his men would be stationed there but it was a holiday and closed to the public. He hunkered down, slipped out and, using what little cover there was, made it to the huge wrought iron gates that fronted onto the Avenue de la Libertè.
It was a Quentin-Tarantino-on-crack scene.
Hundreds of screaming soldiers, firing their weapons crazily in all directions, pouring into the city. As Dan watched, the entire street shut down, shutters banging down, windows slamming shut, street vendors pulling up the sheets they displayed their wares on and running away. Some so terrified they just left everything on the ground.
In a few minutes, the big avenue was deserted of civilians and all that was left were crazy, drunken soldiers, shooting in the air, taking pot-shots at the street lamps and the tires of cars parked on the street.
They were all dressed in tattered red shirts, which was not good. God knew the military junta’s soldiers were no prize, but the Red Army was terrifying. They’d been in the bush for years, stealing young boys from their homes and bringing them up brutally, keeping them drunk and drugged and hyped up on violence.
Deserters, if caught, had their limbs hacked off, one by one, day by day for four days. It was known as the Four Day Punishment. The only possible question was ‘short sleeves’ or ‘long sleeves’. Above or below the elbow or the knee.
The red shirts were a symbol of how brain-washed they were. They were convinced that wearing the color red made them bullet-proof.
Everyone thought that the Red Army was a thousand miles inland, terrorizing local tribes, but everyone was wrong, because the Red Army was right here, right now.
At least 300 soldiers careened down the street in the three minutes Dan watched. At this rate, several thousand would be in the city in an hour. Ten thousand by nightfall.
They weren’t paying the Embassy any attention. Both the Red Army thugs and the government thugs were apolitical. They weren’t anti- or pro-American. They were pro-blood diamonds, pro-sex slaves, pro smuggled guns. Anti-civil society.
If they attacked the Embassy it would be because they were looking to wreck all standing buildings in the city center of Laka, not because they wanted to make a political statement. It didn’t make them any less dangerous, though.
Dan was the Detachment Commander of a small force of Marines—there were just five of them—and he had to protect both Ambassador Crocker and his vicious wife Danielle, who hated anyone who wasn’t rich or famous. The Crock-of-Shits were horrible people. However, much as Dan and his men despised the Crockers, he knew that he and the men of the Marine Security Detachment would lay down their lives for the nasty couple. And of course for the rest of the staff.
“Did you call Marine House?” Claire asked.
Dan looked down at her. “Yes, ma’am. They’re on full alert. There’s not much they can do at the moment. Called the Ambassador’s residence, too. Everyone’s just sitting tight.”
With her head bowed, all he could see was absurdly long lashes and the curve of a high cheekbone. But he didn’t need to see her features, they were burned into his brain. He’d been thinking of her for a year now, since his last posting in Jakarta.
She’d come to Jakarta for a regional conference on security, one of hundreds of experts called in for a four day screening of security threats. Mostly men, mostly ugly, so she’d stood out like a beacon. An amazingly beautiful woman, with a reputation for being wicked smart. He’d been nearly poleaxed when he saw her walking down the corridor of the Jakarta Embassy.
That evening, he’d been on guard duty at the Embassy reception for all the experts and politicians called in for the conference.
He’d been stationed at the door and knew that he was nothing more than a piece of furniture for the bigwigs in the room.
She’d arrived late and left early, drinking half a glass of champagne and eating nothing. Dan had followed her with his eyes as she made the rounds, spoke politely, laughed once or twice, then took her leave.
Anyone not paying attention would have seen her as a party animal. Well, why not? She was stunningly beautiful—easily the loveliest woman in the room by a factor of ten. Elegant, too, in a black silk suit. Long, pale blonde hair caught back in a gleaming bun, which sounded like something Aunt Mabel would sport.
Except Dan knew that it was called a chignon—a long ago date had nearly snapped his head off for calling the hair gathered at the back of her neck a bun. He never made that mistake again.
The chignon set off Claire’s long white neck and made her look like a young Grace Kelly.
He hadn’t seen her come and he hadn’t seen her go. It was the damndest thing. He could have sworn he hadn’t taken his eyes off her, but suddenly she was gone.
He saw her only a few times after that, brief glimpses, then nothing. She was known as Blondie and by the rueful smiles, every man with a pulse had tried to approach her, and they’d all struck out.
The Embassy website said she was posted to Makongo, a hardship post in West Africa.
Makongo. Okay, he could do Makongo.
He was being promoted to Detachment Commander and had one more posting to go before he rejoined the normal Marine ranks. He was a good Marine, kept his nose clean and hadn’t shot anyone he wasn’t supposed to, so his bid for a posting to Makongo was accepted.
Took him almost fucking year, though. A year in Jakarta in which he went out with a Wall Street Journal analyst, an investment banker and the owner of a school for teaching English. Nice women all of them, but…
The analyst had a screechy voice, the banker scared him when she talked of ‘wiping out’ her opposition in the bank and the teacher bored him. They didn’t last more than a night or two in his bed. He felt like an asshole, but what can you do? He had Claire Day fixed in his head and she was the only one who could get herself out of there.
So here he was, hip to hip and shoulder to shoulder with her. Piece of cake, getting close to Blondie. All you needed was a vicious rebel army invading the city.
Though it was steamy hot inside Post One—the Embassy air conditioning system was another system installed by the lowest bidder—and he was sweating like a pig, Claire simply glowed. He could smell individual bits of her and they all smelled wonderful. Freshly shampooed hair, some lemony lotion on her hands and something fresh and spring-like that he imagined was the smell of her skin.
Jesus, he’d like to smell all that up close. Just put his nose next to her neck and inhale, even though he doubted she’d like him pulling a dog imitation on her.
A loud crump! followed by the sound of falling masonry made her jump.
“Another RPG,” she said, shaking her head. A thick lock of pale gold hair fell out of her French braid and curled on her shoulder. Dan tightened his hand on his Remington 870 because the temptation to smooth it back was so strong. “They’re well-armed.”
Dan waited until another burst from a passing vehicle full of soldiers died down. “And evidently have plenty of ammo to burn.”
She looked up at him, silvery blue eyes serious, a little frown between ash-brown eyebrows. “You know, that doesn’t sound right.”
Dan took in a deep breath. She was right, it didn’t. Claire shook her head.
“I just sent off a report detailing how rag-tag the Red Army actually is. We’re funding the General way too much on the basis of the minimal threat the RA represents. They stay alive by preying on the tribesmen in the bush, but they have almost zero resources now that they’ve lost the diamond mines.”
He looked down at her, wishing he could read her reports. He bet they were smart and incisive. He would never read them, though, because they were Eyes Only and he was just a jarhead. “You actually called them a rag-tag army in your report? I’ll bet that went over big.”
She pursed her lips, eyes dancing. “Actually, in DIA-speak it’s called ‘arms procurement deficiencies’ and I said that the RA had lots of them. I guess I was wrong.” She shook her head. “I really, really hate being wrong.”
They were silent a second as another burst of machine-gun fire sounded, long and fierce. He’d watched the soldiers briefly from a window. Most of the shots were into the air. Any Marine would be put in the brig for such a breach of firing discipline.
Another jeepful of Red Army thugs roared by, all guns firing. Dan estimated about five hundred rounds shot in a couple of minutes.
“Wow, was I wrong. These guys don’t have arms procurement deficiencies.” She shook her head again, small fists clenching. “You know, Gunnery Sergeant, I didn’t see this coming at all.”
“Dan, please,” he answered.
A quicksilver smile. “Sure, Dan. I guess there’s nothing like an old-fashioned siege to cut through the formalities.” She offered a slender hand. “And I’m Claire.”
I know, he wanted to say. Her name was burned into his mind. He took her hand in his, wishing his hand wasn’t so rough. He loved tinkering, spending most of his down time in the motor pool, and his hands showed it. Not to mention the shooting calluses.
He had to force himself to let go of her hand, though he wanted to keep holding on to that incredibly smooth skin. His head gave the order to his hand—let go of her—but there was a breakdown in communications up there.
He looked down. Their hands were such contrasts. Her hands were long-fingered, slender, with fine bones under pale, smooth skin. His hands were almost double the size of hers, a workingman’s hands, big and rough.
Suddenly, at the sight of their hands together, dark and light, large and small, heat bloomed under his skin, a small sun of it. It was the most erotic thing he’d ever seen. Just holding this woman’s hand was sexier than being with a naked woman.
His vision narrowed in on their hands, fixing the image in his mind.
His entire nature and every ounce of relentless Marine training made him intensely mission-oriented. They were as close as dammit to a combat situation right now and he was obsessed with a woman’s hands?
What the fuck?
Dan lifted his eyes and nearly lost himself in hers. They were the most extraordinary color—the pale color of the noonday summer sky, a brilliant silver blue with a tiny rim of darker blue around the rim.
He’d never seen eyes that color before and he couldn’t tear his own eyes away from them.
He stopped breathing for a second, then came back to himself when he felt her slipping her hand out of his.
Dan looked away for a moment, trying to get back into his own head. He definitely needed to go out and get laid, asap, if holding a woman’s hand briefly while looking in her eyes nearly overwhelmed him.
He turned his head back only to find her eyes still on him. Wide, gorgeous, silvery blue eyes. Solemn, serious. She shook her head slowly. “If something serious happens, my head will roll for not seeing this coming.”
His teeth ground together. “I didn’t see it coming either and it’s my job to keep the Embassy safe.” Another RPG went off, close to the Embassy. “I hate the thought that I allowed us to get caught with our pants down.” He slanted her a glance. “Sorry.”
She smiled slightly. “No problem. We are caught with our pants down, no question.“
Oh, shit. Now he had another image in his head he couldn’t get shake out.
She’d just said something that he hadn’t heard because a vision of a naked Claire Day had blossomed in his head.
“I said,” she repeated patiently, “we can wait them out, can’t we? We should have food supplies for the entire staff for a month and you should have at least 3,000 rounds in the armory.”
He raised his eyebrows. The extent of any Embassy’s food and ammo supplies was top secret. Not even the Ambassador was given the information unless it was an emergency and he or she needed briefing. So how the hell did Claire peg it so exactly? She wasn’t giving anything away, her face bland and guileless. “I’m just guessing, of course,” she said primly.
Well, she’d nailed it. So either she was really really good at her job or security wasn’t airtight.
It didn’t make that much difference. Claire wasn’t the enemy.
The enemy right now was outside the Embassy gates, shooting up a storm. Dan hoped he wouldn’t need the 3,000 rounds in the armory because there was no backup. If the rebel army broke into the Embassy, his five Marines a mile away wouldn’t have the firepower to shoot their way to him. Dan didn’t want to order his men on a suicide mission.
Right now their best bet was to lie low, be prepared and hope that whatever drama the Makongan Army and the Red Army had going would work itself out without involving the US.
Claire drew up her legs, clasping them and laying her cheek against her knees. She heaved a huge sigh.
“I just hope to God this all blows over soon before it hits the international news. My father will have a heart attack if he hears that there’s a revolution on the streets of Laka. He’ll be making arrangements to come over the instant he hears there’s trouble, which is not good. He’s almost eighty and has a heart condition. I just hope to reassure him I’m okay before he gets the news that he should be worrying. All the cellphone towers are down, otherwise I’d have called him already.” She looked up at him. “How about you? Who’s going to be worrying about you?”
Worry about him? Jesus. No one. His job was to worry about the safety of the Ambassador and his family, the Embassy staff and his men. In that order.
The idea of anyone worrying about him was crazy. Even as a kid, he’d learned the hard way to be tough and self-sufficient. Dan couldn’t remember anyone worrying about him, ever.
“No one. But that’s okay. I can handle myself.”
“No one?” she persisted, her eyes searching his face. “Not a mom or a girlfriend?”
Dan nearly snorted. The women he bedded were way more concerned about their own pleasure than his well-being. “Mom disappeared when I was two. I don’t remember her. And no—“ He looked down at her, at the smooth, high cheekbones, long lashes, beautiful mouth. It was impossible to remember any other woman he’d ever been with while looking at her. “Don’t have a girlfriend. Being a Marine Embassy Security Guard isn’t conducive to relationships.”
Dan was brave. He knew he was brave. He’d been tested under fire and had held. After this posting, he was going to be reintegrated into his unit and would probably be sent either to Iraq or Afghanistan and he was fine with that, fine. So nobody could say he was a coward.
But right now, his palms were sweating and he felt like a blowtorch had been applied to his throat at the thought of what he was about to ask. Had to ask. Because he simply had to know.
“And—“ his voice came out a croak. He coughed to loosen his throat. “And what about you? Is there, um—“ Jesus. What to call the bastard she might be with? ‘Boyfriend’ sounded lame, like high school. Significant other? Nah. “Someone?” he ended lamely.
This was a question he’d asked a thousand times in bars, because he had some hard and fast rules for his sex life, written in stone.
No bareback sex, ever. No married women, ever. Or engaged women. Not even women who were going out with someone else.
He didn’t need the hassle of fighting with another male over a woman. And most of all, anyone who cheated once for him would cheat again on him.
So at around the third or fourth drink, if they’d got to the point where he knew they’ be heading out together, he made sure she was a free agent.
Bars around military bases are full of chicks who want to party even when their men are away and aren’t too particular who they party with. It sickened him, to think of some man off defending his country while his woman was out trolling for sex. If he got even a whiff of that, he was history.
It was really hard to think of Claire not being with someone, or engaged. Or hell, even married. What the fuck were men thinking? How could any man be around her for even a minute and not want her for his own?
And yet scuttlebutt—and Dan kept his ear very close to the ground—had it she was single.
God, he hoped so.
If she was with someone, he’d just had himself posted to Laka for nothing, and was going to waste a year of his life in West Africa when where he’d really wanted to be was in the new Baghdad Embassy. If she was with someone, all these…things roiling around in his chest, all this obsessive thinking about her this past year was bad news. Really bad news.
But she only blinked and looked blank. “Someone?” she asked. “Me?” She gave a half laugh. “What you said was absolutely true, Gunnery Sergeant—“
“Dan.” His heart had taken a leap in his chest at her blank look and he had to breathe carefully to get it to steady out.
“Dan. Okay, right. Well, Dan, I’ve lived in Durban, Singapore and now Laka over the past six years. No man would put up with that.”
I would, he thought.
Her eyes seemed to glow in the room when she looked at him. “I guess it’s a little like being a Marine Security Guard.”
Dan looked at her hands, long-fingered, fragile, soft, with small wrists. Her shoulders and torso were narrow, the line of her collar-bones delicate. The long, pale-blonde hair completely unlike his own dark brown high-and-tight.
She spent her days—and more hours in those days than she was supposed to—in a windowless secure room doing God knows what on computers. Everything she did, she did with her head. And pretty as it was, he knew she was smarter than she was beautiful, which was saying a lot.
He thought of his men. Ward, Martinez, Buchan, Harvey and Lopez. Tough bastards, hell with a rifle, hard drinkers, good to have at your back but light years away from being like Claire Day.
No, she wasn’t anything like a Marine Security Guard.
He scrolled back in his head to what she’d said earlier. “Tell me about your father.”
“Dad?” The thought of her father made her smile. Good. Dan sure couldn’t smile at the thought of his own father, the bastard. He still had the scars.
“Yeah. You smile when you mention him. That’s nice.”
“He’s a great dad,” she mused, picking at a thread of her tan cotton pants. In the rush to hustle her into the safe quarters of Post One, her pants had caught on a protruding nail from one of the billion unfinished or botched restructuring projects going on in the Embassy. There was a big rip just above the knee.
Underneath, Dan could see smooth white skin. He closed his eyes for a moment. He was here to protect her, not to get all hot and bothered because he saw several square inches of skin. No matter how soft and beautiful.
“Yeah?” he prodded. Get the conversation back to something that would cool him down, like her father. “What’s he do?”
“He’s a—he was a professor of French literature. At University of Massachusetts Boston. He’s retired. Has been for a long time.”
“I thought I heard some Boston in there.” Dan frowned. He had a pretty good ear for accents and could usually pick out where new recruits came from. “Not much, though. A Boston accent is usually a pretty strong regional accent, but yours isn’t very strong.”
She nodded. “You’re good. Got a good ear. We lived in Boston until I was thirteen, but we spent all our summers in France, where Dad did his research. Well…research.” She wrinkled her nose. “Research coupled with eating our way through the country while he was doing it.” She smiled, obviously thinking of happy memories, then her face clouded over. “We had a pretty good time until my…my mom was killed. In a mugging. Just one of those wrong-time, wrong-place things that make no sense whatsoever and rip your heart out. It was really…hard. I think my dad went a little crazy for a few years afterwards. He took early retirement when I was fifteen and we moved down to Florida, to a town called Safety Harbor.” The smile was back, only sadder. “I think he chose the town for its name, but it’s a pretty place and it is quite safe, which was exactly what Dad was looking for. A place where nothing bad would ever happen again is what he was looking for. My dad, he’s – he’s overprotective. He couldn’t stand the thought of losing me after mom was killed and I understood what he was trying to do, so I just went along with him. I was studious anyway, so basically I went to school and then came home where I was always doing extra homework. I took a correspondence course from a French Lycée and got my baccalaureat at the same time I graduated from high school. Then I buried myself in my studies at college, with a double major in French and political science. When I graduated, I sort of took a deep breath, looked up from my books and realized that I hadn’t done much else but study since I was 15 years old. And I realized I wanted more out of life. I wanted to travel. I wanted to stretch myself. I wanted to do something exciting, something adventurous, you know?”
She looked up at him and he nodded. He knew, though that wasn’t why he’d joined the Marines. He’d joined because it had been either military service or juvie or an early, violent death. Still, joining up was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
A lot of his men, however, had joined out of boredom and a sense of adventure. Which made them smart because you never got bored in the Marines and if you could stay alive, it was a hell of an adventure.
Another long burst of gunfire, louder and longer. They were bringing out the heavy artillery. Dan could hear the deep, sharp sounds of a .50 calibre machine gun, probably mounted onto the back of a Jeep.
“Fifty cal,” he said, just as she said, “Sounds like a .50 calibre machine gun.”
Fifty cals were bad news.
She clasped her hands around her knees again, bringing her legs up closer to her torso in an unconscious move to protect herself. It was the animal in her wanting to present a smaller target, but however great her instincts were, they was absolutely useless against a .50 cal bullet.
Everything in the building was useless against a .50 cal, including the thick stucco walls of the Embassy and the bullet resistant walls of Post One. They’d crumple in a heartbeat. If the machine gun was close enough, a .50 cal could go right through the building, front to back, smashing through everything in its way. One 120 lb female would be no barrier at all. She’d simply explode.
Claire blew out the breath she’d been holding while the burst lasted. “Yeah, well, this is kind of Dad’s nightmare. If we make it, I’ll never hear the end of it.”
That he could help her with. “You’ll make it,” he said quietly. “As long as I’m alive, you’ll make it. That’s a promise.” Certainly he wouldn’t let her fall into the rebel army’s hands. That was a promise too, though he made it to himself, not her.
She swivelled her head towards him so fast a little cloud of her perfume puffed out from her skin. Another long, thick lock of pale blonde hair fell out of the French braid, curling along her shoulder.
Without thinking about it, because if he had let what he was about to do rise up to the thinking part of his brain, he would never have had the nerve, Dan lifted his hand to curl the lock around her ear. The back of his knuckles brushed against the soft skin of her neck and he wanted to close his eyes to savor the feeling. But if he closed them, he’d miss what was flaring in her eyes.
Clear, crystalline, the silvery color of sun on sea. And startled, as if seeing something she’d never noticed before. In that second, Dan knew, she saw him as a man, not a Marine.
He’d been in uniform all his adult life and was used to people seeing the uniform and not the man underneath.
If you were a civilian, he was a faceless, generic soldier—a useful tool to keep you safe. Tucked away in the shitholes of the world so things could go smoothly at home.
And if you were a bad guy, well, hell—with the full force of the Corps behind him, he represented a world of hurt behind a rifle.
Women came in two types. Military groupies, who got off on the uniform and the weapons—how many men have you killed? was a question he got all the time from the groupies—and women who thought soldiers were loudmouthed roughnecks, totally unsuitable as dates.
Women like Claire—beautiful, sophisticated, smart—well, women like that just steered around him as if he were invisible, like a glorified servant. Women like Claire rarely saw him, the man inside.
She was seeing him now, no doubt about it. They were in a situation that could turn desperate in a heartbeat. They were holed up inside a building that was breachable, while what sounded like an army of thousands was shooting up the streets outside.
So far, no one appeared to be targeting Americans but the Red Army soldiers could turn on a dime and decide to storm the Embassy and then…well, then they’d be lost. He’d go down fighting because that was what Marines did, but he couldn’t stand alone against an army.
His men were a mile away and might just as well have been on the dark side of the moon. He couldn’t get to them and they couldn’t get to him. And even if he had his men with him, six soldiers, however well-trained, however well-armed, couldn’t beat an army, even the drugged-up, ill-disciplined and badly-trained Red Army.
All of that she knew. She was a defence analyst, after all.
But right now, it looked like she was seeing him and not the uniform. Or, rather, the Delta pants and a green tee, since he’d taken his jacket off.
He was still holding a lock of her hair, his hand against the warmth of her neck. And she wasn’t moving her head away. Which meant…
He ran the back of his hand lightly against her neck. God, she felt so friggin’ soft. She didn’t move, was hardly breathing, watching him carefully with no expression on her face. But some more of her scent billowed up from her, which meant that her skin was warming.
Slowly, wondering if he was going to be slapped down, Dan uncurled his hand, sliding it around until he was cupping her neck.
She wasn’t saying no. She wasn’t saying yes, but she wasn’t saying no. Actually, she wasn’t saying anything at all, but whatever she was feeling, looked like no wasn’t part of it.
Watching her eyes, ready to back off any second, Dan bent his head. He watched her until she filled his entire field of vision, until there wasn’t anything at all in the world but Claire and then he closed his eyes because his mouth was on hers and he wanted to just concentrate on the kiss.
He didn’t know what he was thinking. Man, he wasn’t thinking at all. The instant his hand touched her, every neuron in his head shorted because being under siege with a rebel army not 100 yards away firing live rounds— well, that wasn’t the time or the place to get all hot and bothered over a woman.
That had never happened before. An op was an op and though usually being a Marine Security Guard was a softer duty than most and served mainly to see the world and get a stronger grip on geopolitics, every single Marine who had ever been stationed in an Embassy was fully equipped and fully prepared to engage in the case of threat.
On duty, Dan was a walking, talking mission, as focused as a laser beam. Once, during a firefight, he was so adrenalized he hadn’t even felt a bullet crease his forearm. It was the medic afterwards who pointed to the blood on his sleeve. He’d ceased to exist as a man and had turned himself into a weapon.
Not now. Now he wasn’t focused on the danger outside, he was totally swamped with sensations, all of them good. Amazingly good. Nothing whatsoever to do with the dangers outside the Embassy walls.
God, just the feel of her, warm and soft against him. He’d never felt anything like it. It was like plunging into a warm sea. He let himself float, drifting lazily, her lips moving lightly under his. Everything was suspended. They were in a world without time, no past and no future, just an endless now.
Every sense he had was focused on where he was touching Claire. He couldn’t hear anything but her breathing, now slightly speeded up. Couldn’t see anything when he cracked his eyes open but her—now-rosy skin, long lashes on her cheekbone, another coil of pale blonde hair curving around to fall between her breasts. Couldn’t feel anything but her—soft and smooth.
He didn’t even feel the gravity anchoring him to earth. Couldn’t smell anything but Claire. And her taste—ah God. She tasted fresh and slightly minty and absolutely wonderful.
Then she shifted slightly, opening her mouth more for him and the warmth turned into electric heat, sharp and shocking. His hand on her neck tightened, mouth open against hers, as the kiss turned hot, demanding.
Dan tried to follow the woman’s lead during sex—and though this was just a kiss, it was sex, too. And way hotter than most of the sex he’d ever had. If the woman liked it slow, he took it slow. If she liked it hard, then he gave it to her hard. But no matter what, he was always in control.
Control had just been whipped out of his hands. His heart raced and his hands shook as he turned to deepen the kiss, fisting one hand in her hair, the other, still holding his weapon, braced on the floor, caging her.
He was coming on too strong, he knew it. He’d taken it from zero to a hundred in a second, there was no way she could keep up, but he was helpless to stop himself as he leaned forward, backing her against the wall.
He’d been here a thousand times before, in his dreams. During the day, he kept his mind focused on the job and on the fact that she didn’t even know he existed. But during the night, with all restraints hemming in his conscious mind blasted off—ah, his nights were full of her.
Every time he saw her he greedily sucked up impressions, so that his dreams were utterly realistic. He knew she rarely exercised—she spent 12 hours a day underground, after all—but still moved with an incredible lithe grace. He knew that she didn’t take the sun well and just stayed out of it, so she had the faintest of tans over mother of pearl skin.
The rest he extrapolated.
He knew how she kissed because he kissed her endlessly in his dreams, waking up in a sweaty tangle of sheets and blankets in his small, spare room, aching and hard, with a boner that took a cold shower to get rid of.
Well, he thought he knew how she kissed and what he would feel kissing her, but he’d been wildly off the mark. The real thing was ten thousand times better. Off-the-scale better.
Fuck, there was nothing like this. He’d never had this reaction before, utterly helpless to stop himself or to moderate the kiss. If he could have crawled inside her, he would have. His mouth pressed against hers, his whole torso crushing her against the wall behind them, his entire heavy weight leaning into her while he ate at her mouth..
Shit, this wasn’t good.
She was whispering to him, trying to say something…God, how could she be talking while his mouth was on hers? Fuck, he shouldn’t be expected to have to think while he was on sensory overload, every sense he had completely taken up with her.
He moved even more heavily against her but came up against a barrier. Her hand. For a second, his mind balked. She didn’t want this? But her mouth was open beneath his, her tongue stroking his.
The sound finally penetrated, at the exact instant Claire’s hand pushed hard against his shoulder.
Someone was talking. Whispering, actually. A loud, hissing whisper. It wasn’t him and it wasn’t Claire.
None of that computed.
They were alone in the building.
With what remained of his brain cells, Dan realized that something was wrong. He lifted his head and nearly moaned at what he saw. Claire’s normally pale skin was deep pink, overheated. Big silvery-blue eyes wide and unfocused. Mouth wet and puffy from his. The very picture of a beautiful, aroused woman. The most gorgeous thing he’d ever seen in his life. For a second, he couldn’t imagine why on earth he’d lifted his mouth from hers. He could have stayed there for a million years.
“Claire! Qu’est-ce que tu fais? Viens ici! Vite!”
Dan was normally on top of everything but this stumped him for almost a second. He wasn’t talking and she wasn’t talking. So someone else was talking. In French, yet.
It was as if he’d been on another world, transported far away. But now this world, with its vicious dangers, with a rebel army right outside his doorstep, with the safety of an Embassy in his hands, came rushing right back in. For a second, Dan was deeply ashamed that he had allowed himself to be distracted even for the space of a kiss.
Then he looked at Claire, so beautiful, softness and light and grace, and he forgave himself. A man would have to be dead not to give in to that temptation. Even a soldier. Even a Marine, though Marines had duty flowing in their veins instead of blood.
“Claire!” the voice hissed again and Dan swivelled his head towards the door at the same time as Claire did.
Another beautiful woman.
Christ, it was raining beautiful dames today. Narrow face, fine features, skin so black it was almost blue, long narrow hand holding open the door. A Foreign National, one of the ten Makongans working in the Embassy, the core staff that remained to keep the Embassy going while the Americans rotated in and out.
Dan did a quick search inside his head and came up with a name. Marie. Marie Diur. Claire’s best friend, or so scuttlebutt had it.
Marie was ignoring him, beckoning to Claire. Claire leaned forward, away from his hand and stood up lithely.
Whatever this was about, Dan wanted to be part of it. He stood, too, rifle in one hand, the other on the butt of his Browning.
A burst of French from Marie and Claire turned to him, eyes troubled. “She says for you to stay here.”
Dan balked. Both of them should be staying here, in Post One, the safest place in the Embassy. If there was to be a shoot-out, this was the best place to hole up.
And how the hell had Marie Diur gotten in anyway, with the Embassy surrounded by crazed, drunken rebel troops? He opened his mouth but before he could say anything, Claire placed a finger against his lips.
“Please, Dan,” she said softly. “I know Marie. She wants to tell me something and she wants just me. Please, stay here and I’ll be right back.”
Dan’s back teeth ground so hard it was a miracle enamel didn’t shoot out his ears. “Listen, Claire. The situation’s volatile and dangerous. I don’t need to tell you that. I don’t want you out of my sight. And now that your friend’s here, I don’t want her going back outside, either.”
She looked at him and back at Marie, who was impatiently signalling for Claire to come immediately. “She needs to talk to me. I won’t be long.” She patted his chest. “Please,” she said softly, soberly. “Just a few minutes.”
He didn’t say anything and she took it as consent.
Claire crossed the room to Marie. They put their heads together, two beautiful women at the two ends of the color spectrum, speaking quietly and quickly in French. The soft liquid sounds carried, though he couldn’t understand a word of it. Claire finally nodded and turned to him, holding up her index finger in a universal sign—one minute.
Dan watched grimly as the two women disappeared, the huge wooden door of the room Post One was in closing gently behind them. This wasn’t right. It didn’t feel right. Goddamn it, he was giving them one minute and then he was going out to get them.
The radio crackled.
“Gunny, you there?” Marine House. Ward. He was using encryption which scrambled his voice at one end, to be reconstituted on Dan’s end. Ward’s normal bass sounded like Daffy Duck on helium.
Dan switched on the mike. “Yeah. Give me a sitrep. You’ve got eyes on the ground.” Marine House stood flush with the street and they’d have a better view of what was going on than from what he could see from inside the Embassy.
The crackle of static, then Ward’s voice came back on, high-pitched and distorted. Dan could hear faint shots outside echoing through the Marine House radio four blocks away.
“—not much of anything. It’s like they’re just happy to be riding around, shooting at random. We’re observing the same jeeps of soldiers circling around and around, so there might be fewer of them than we thought.” Ward conferred briefly with Buchan. “Yeah, we’re thinking maybe not more than five hundred troops. Maybe less, even. So far they haven’t paid us any attention at all. It’s hard to know what plans they have, if any. But a hundred to one—those aren’t bad odds.”
Ward was right. Dan knew that the Red Army numbered in the tens of thousands. If the entire Army was flooding into Laka, they were goners. But they could handle five hundred. Five hundred illiterate, superstitious troops, boys who’d been kidnapped from their villages so young they were sometimes shorter than the rifles they carried. Kept drunk or drugged and brainwashed into thinking that their red shirts made them magically invulnerable to bullets.
No match at all. Dan would bet on the odds of a hundred to one, no question. He and his men were elite troops, well-trained and well-armed.
“Okay. Keep watch and let me know if you think new troops are arriving.”
Dan thumbed the ‘off’ button, then looked at his watch, frowning. Almost ten minutes had gone by. Claire had promised to come back in a minute. Ten minutes was not one. A lot of very bad things could happen in ten minutes.
Protocol dictated that he remain at Post One during an emergency but the hell with it. An emergency hadn’t been officially declared. Not yet, anyway. Wherever Claire was, he wanted her back with him, right by his side where she’d be safe. As safe as he could make her, anyway. Marie Diur, too.
Cracking the door open, Dan looked both ways. As always near the equator, night was falling fast. No one had bothered to turn on the hallway lights, so the big hallway was cloaked in shadows.
Dan slipped through the door, and walked quietly through the rooms. The waiting room, the consular section, the back offices. He made the rounds of the ground floor perimeter. He knew how to move with stealth and he knew how to clear rooms. Ten minutes later, he’d checked the entire ground floor and had seen…nothing. No other consular officers, no rebel army troops. No Marie Diur. Above all, no Claire Day.
He stopped and listened. Like most Marines, his senses were keen. His hearing was especially sharp. He held his breath in his lungs so it wouldn’t interfere and sent his senses outwards.
The Embassy was an old building, built by a French timber baron in the late 19th century. It had been built like a Paris townhouse, but in the equator wood and stucco aren’t as eternal as in the City of Lights. It required constant upkeep and on the best of days the entire building moaned and groaned and squeaked.
Right now, though, it was utterly and completely silent. The only sounds were those filtering in from the rebel soldiers carousing outside along the Avenue de la Liberté, shouts of drunken male jubilation, crazed machine gun bursts, revving engines.
Inside the Embassy, silence.
Dan raced up to the second floor, cleared the rooms, then checked the third floor, essentially storage space.
Only the basement was left, with the locked armory only he and his second-in-command Ward had the code for, the secure room, which was locked and the supplies room, ditto.
No sign of Claire.
The Embassy building was charming, an architectural jewel, but it was also small. Everyone worked in close proximity, everyone knew everyone else’s business. You could hear phone conversations in the room next door. As long as there were people in the building, the only places that were silent were Post One, the sound-proofed situation room, the secure room where Claire worked and the armory, deep underground.
Even if Claire knew the codes, she wouldn’t have taken Marie into rooms off-limits to FSN staff. It was a rule no one ever broke.
If Claire and Marie were anywhere in the building, he should be hearing them. Even whispers carried.
There were no whispers, no footfalls, no sounds at all.
Dan had spent most of his adult life training to sharpen his senses. He took a moment to put himself in hunting mode—attuning his eyes to the semi-darkness, sharpening his hearing even more, Browning out, safety off. Remington on a sling against his back. Ready for trouble.
By the time he’d finished casing the Embassy, top to bottom, he was sweating.
Claire had disappeared.
Dan didn’t know Marie Diur at all. Suppose she was secretly a supporter of the Red Army? Suppose she’d lured Claire into their hands?
The Red Army was made up of crazed scumbags, but the government army wasn’t much better. The Makongan Army had plenty of enemies. If the Diur family had suffered at the government’s hands, they might well have thrown in with the rebels.
Claire in RA hands was something he couldn’t even think about without going crazy. They were brutal beyond belief. God, how could he have let Claire go? He’d lost his head for just a second and it might have cost her her life.
She and Marie hadn’t been insane enough to go outside, had they? Or even outside the Embassy compound? Did Marie know of some secret entrance? Dan glanced outside the windows at the swiftly gathering dusk. This was the moment when the duty officer switched on the powerful outside lights, illuminating every inch of ground between the walls of the Embassy and the gate. Now there was only darkness.
Listening carefully, Dan cracked open the door that led from the back office used by the consular staff to the motor pool. A huge modern garage housing Embassy cars had been added to the big back garden, with a concrete shed attached to the back. The garage was modular and had been recently extended to house shipments of anti-AIDS drugs donated by one of those rich-guy foundations.
There was a big truck there now, full of drugs.
The heat was still intense, the coming of night was bringing no freshness at all. If anything, the heat became more oppressive. He took a moment to wipe the sweat out of his eyes.
Dan unslung his rifle and brought it up to his shoulder, starting to slow his breathing and his heartbeat in case he needed to shoot, he kicked the door of the shed open and quartered the room. Nothing. After a minute, he lowered the rifle, frowning, and closed the door of the shed.
A whisper! Definitely the sound of a woman’s voice. Soldiers are taught not to whisper in the field. A whisper carries much further than a low murmur. A woman’s voice, with its higher pitch, carried even further than a man’s.
And now…another woman answering.
Claire. That was Claire’s voice. He’d recognize it anywhere. She was outside when she should be back in the Embassy where he could protect her.
He moved forward and…never completed the step towards Claire because a giant fist raised him ten feet off the ground and slammed him back against the concrete wall of the shed at a hundred miles an hour.
In the split second before he lost consciousness, while a fireball of light and heat filled the universe, he thought—Claire.
Claire was in the middle of the conflagration and was already dead.
He’d lost her the moment he’d found her.
And then the world went black.