Slipping into the icu unit of the private military hospital wasn’t an easy task. It would be considered insane from most men’s point of view. Even a SEAL’s. But that was exactly what former Lieutenant Ian Richards of the Navy SEALs did.
Under the cover of night, he managed to slip into the hospital, make his way to the ICU, and wait until the guard at Nathan Malone’s door dozed off before he slipped in, in the guise of an orderly.
His first sight of his friend nearly stole his breath.
Sweet Jesus. Nathan was in so many damned casts and wrapped in so many bandages he looked more like a mummy than a man. But it was a far sight easier on the eyes than the naked, ravaged SEAL they had dragged out of Fuentes’s compound four months before.
Tortured, beaten, sliced and diced. His face had been so disfigured it was hard to tell he was human, let alone the friend Ian had known for the better part of his life.
How the hell Nathan had survived the nineteen months in Fuentes’s care, Ian couldn’t even imagine. Drugged constantly on the powerful date rape drug known as whore’s dust, and encouraged repeatedly to rape the women brought to him, Nathan had lived in hell. The reports they had gathered indicated he had never taken one of the women locked in the cells with him, but the doctors and psychologists working with him said he might never recover from the amount of drugs pumped into his system.
Ian knew better. Nathan was strong. Too damned strong to let Fuentes win like this. But he had to be certain.
Even after the months Ian had been away, been considered a betrayer, a Judas to his friends, and marked as a deserter by the U.S. government, Ian had had to return to assure himself Nathan would survive.
Ian moved to the bed, sliding between it and the curtain that had been pushed back to allow the guards to see all but a very small section of the area. Right by Nathan’s head. His covered, wrapped head.
“Damn, buddy, do you think they have you wrapped up tight enough?” he asked his friend, knowing Nathan couldn’t hear him. Wishing he could.
Hell, somehow he had gotten used to being on the inside of a team, rather than fighting alone to survive. He had gotten used to the men he fought with, had grown to trust them, only to learn at the end of it, he was fighting alone once again.
Long ago, Nathan and his family had saved Ian and his mother’s life. On a cold desert night, with only his screams of rage surrounding him, a boy and his father had found him, saved him and his dying mother, and given Ian a friendship he had never known before that.
And now, when his friend awoke, he would believe that friendship had been betrayed.
He grimaced at the thought of it, his jaw tightening in rage at the situation he had been forced into. Because of blood. Because sometimes, a man could do nothing about where he came from, he could only control where he went. And where Ian was heading, Nathan or Durango team couldn’t go.
Ian could only go alone.
“We had a wild ride huh, bro,” he whispered, his voice nearly silent, but the breath of the words easing a part of him.
Nathan was unconscious, comatose, but somehow, knowing the words were whispering past his lips eased Ian. Maybe, just maybe, his friend would hear a part of them, know, understand, that beneath the near silent whisper was the truth. It had been a wild ride, and now it was over.
He reached out, let his fingers touch his friend’s shoulder as a grin tugged at his lips.
Nathan “Irish” Malone. All smiles and wild blue eyes, a man who as a boy had saved his life.
“Hell of a way to repay you,” he breathed out softly. “But what’s that old saying? Blood will tell?”
That was what Nathan used to say. When the chips were down, when everything was going from sugar to shit, he would flash that reckless smile, look at Ian, and laugh in his face. “Blood will tell, ole son.” And they would go out fighting hell-for-leather because Ian’s blood might be tainted with evil, but his heart was one hundred percent red-blooded American Navy Seal. That was Nathan’s belief in him. What would he believe when he awoke? Ian wondered.
“Get strong, Irish,” he said then. “You always were the wild card of the group, show ’em you’re tougher, stronger than what put you here. Then look me up.”
He tightened his fingers on his friend’s shoulder, then slowly eased the grip, his head lifting as the hairs along the nape of his neck stood up in warning.
The sound was no more than a breath. Just enough. Not a shuffle, no more than cloth against flesh in the most subtle flexing of muscle.
His teeth flashed in a grin as his weapon dropped from the sleeve of his jacket to his palm. And it didn’t whisper. There was no catch of metal over flesh. It was silent. Still.
There were some people that a man just had to give credit for trying. This was one of them. He knew where the body stood now, that subtle shift had been all he needed. He knew where and he knew who. Instinct and something more. A part of a man that knew a woman in a way that made no sense. An underlying certainty, as though a part of him knew a part of her no matter where they found each other. No matter the disguise she used.
Of course, it didn’t help her cause that Ian had recognized something about her that no one else had. A delicate turn of pretty ears, a particular slant and curve of pretty earlobes. If a man wanted to take the time to memorize every shape and turn of her face as Ian had before that first mission where he met her, then he would have seen it.
Her picture had been given to them before a particular mission she was working. She wore one of many disguises; they had been warned to watch out for a woman who never looked the same. Ian had managed to identify the one thing that never changed though. Those pretty ears. That and a wicked, teasing glint in her eyes, no matter their color.
One of these days he was going to have to call her on that tease. He was going to have to fulfill the promise her eyes had made during the weeks they had put in together on a past mission.
He slid past the bathroom door, careful to let the sleeve of his jacket slide across the wall, to alert her to the fact that he was leaving the room.
He let the door open, stepped out, then grimaced and shook his head as the guard glanced toward him, as though he had forgotten something. He held up a finger with abashed embarrassment then stepped back inside. Silently.
The door swished closed. And he waited.
He was patient. She was smart.
He would have smiled, but so much as a twitch would be enough to warn her he was there. She was as smooth as fine whisky, as adept at her job as he was at his.
So he waited. And the patience paid off. The bathroom door edged open, and sure as hell, there she was. Like the sun edging over the mountain. Like a clear breeze easing through the stench he could sometimes feel gathering around him.
When he moved, he realized he was almost too slow. Or she was almost that fast. His hand went over her lips, his body braced, pushing hers against the wall face-first, his free hand pressing the barrel of his weapon against her neck warningly.
She didn’t make a sound. Damn her. She didn’t even fight him. She relaxed into his body instead. Her rounded buttocks cushioned his hips, her shoulders curved against the wall, and she bared the slender line of her neck as his lips pressed close.
Hair that should have been long and black was cut close and blond. Gray eyes were hazel, clear silky flesh had a coarse appearance. There was nothing of the woman he had seen on his last mission, or the mission he had found her on before that. The Chameleon was as ever-changing as a woman’s emotions.
“I like the black hair better,” he whispered at her ear. “And the gray eyes. Natural, weren’t they, sugar?” He rubbed his nose against the ultrasoft lobe of her ear.
Her tongue flicked against his palm, almost surprising him, almost making him drop his guard. He chuckled softly at her ear instead and felt the smile against his hand.
“You shouldn’t be here.” He laid his forehead against her shoulder. “A man should be able to say goodbye to a buddy without an audience, don’t you think?”
She looked back at him, hazel eyes cool. There was no fear there. No anger. No impatience. But beneath the calculating chill there was a hidden flame. One he never failed to respond to.
“Wrong time, wrong place.” He stared back at her as she watched him over her shoulder. “Wrong life.”
He let himself experience the feel of her for just a few seconds more, long enough to let the regret in his gaze telegraph to hers. Long enough to watch the flicker of indecision in her eyes. That second where he knew she was weighing her options and her escape.
“I’ll miss you,” he breathed against her ear. “I’ll miss you more than you know, Kira.”
A deft move of his hands, just the right pressure, and a second later she slumped against him, thick lashes drifting over her eyes as darkness closed over her mind.
Ian swung her in his arms, lifted her from the floor, and stepped to the chair on the other side of the room. He placed her there, cushioning her head with a spare pillow against the back of the cushions and brushing the blond bangs back from her face with regret.
Wrong place, wrong time, wrong life. Because blood would tell. And this time, the hated blood that ran through his veins was telling in ways he had never imagined possible.
Copyright © 2008 by Lora Leigh. All rights reserved.
Lora Leigh is the author of Live Wire, Forbidden Pleasure, and Enigma, among many others. Writing is her passion, her peace, and her lifeline, and she can often be found daydreaming and plotting and planning with the varied characters that fill her imagination. When she isn’t writing, she tends her flower gardens, watches horses romp outside her home, or spends time with the family and pets she fills her life with. She lives in the rolling hills of Kentucky.