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Nine months later
Nathan Malone stood in the clinical white office he had been brought to. He was six months past the most horrific nightmare he could have imagined enduring. Six months. He knew how many days, how many hours, how many minutes and seconds had passed since he had "died."
Since the day he walked out his front door and headed into hell. The mission was supposed to be simple. Rescue three young girls from a cartel drug lord in Colombia and allow himself to be captured just long enough to draw out the government spy working with the cartel lord, Diego Fuentes.
There had been an electronic tracker in his heel that he could activate the moment he saw the spy. Unfortunately, the spy had known that. His heel had been sliced open before the spy ever appeared. Before Nathan could realize the danger he was in, he had been strapped to a hardwood table and the first of a series of synthetic drugs pumped into him.
Whore's dust. A powerful, blinding aphrodisiac. Hell. Because there had been no relief. Because Nathan, enraged, crazed, animalistic, had been unable to break the vows he had made to his wife. No matter the amount of drugs. No matter the provocation.
He stared back now at the small group of men who had rescued him from Diego Fuentes's hell. Three doctors, an admiral, some scowling bastard in a suit, supposedly a JAG representative, and his uncle Jordan Malone.
Jordan wasn't in uniform. That was telling enough. His resignation from the SEALs three months before had surprised Nathan when he'd heard about it. Of course, there wasn't much left to do but listen to rumor in the highly secured, specialized private clinic he had been recovering in.
Surgery after surgery to repair his body and his face. They'd fixed what had been damaged. They'd rebuilt what couldn't be reset. But his mind still felt broken. The man he had once been was no more than a dream.
He was still a SEAL. He hadn't resigned. But he had a feeling he wouldn't be one for long.
"Lieutenant Malone." The admiral nodded back at him, his lined, weathered face drawn in worry and concern. "You're doing well."
Like hell he was.
He stood to attention, but this was fucking shit. He felt like he was being stretched on a rack of fire.
The three doctors watched silently. The psychologist assigned to him made a few notes. Damned bastard was always making notes.
"Thank you, sir," he finally managed to say. Hell, he just wanted to get back to the exercises he'd been doing. The ones that pushed his body to exhaustion, that made the hellacious arousal that still cursed him lessen.
The admiral frowned back at him. "Are you in pain, son?" he asked him.
Nathan forced patience. Forced patience didn't sit well right now.
"Yes, sir, I am." He wasn't going to lie about it either. The admiral nodded. "That explains your borderline disrespect. Maybe."
Nathan gritted his teeth. "Sorry, sir, protocol isn't my strong suit these days."
He expected a snap in the admiral's reply; he didn't expect the old man's face to smooth out or the understanding that lit his gaze.
Admiral Holloran had once been not just his superior officer, but a man he respected.
"Sit down, Nathan." The admiral nodded to the chair behind him before taking his own seat.
Nathan glanced at Jordan. His uncle was sitting, all protocol pretty much abolished where he was concerned. But it wasn't disrespect, it was an arrogance, a confidence that had only been thinly veiled until now.
Nathan sat down gingerly. He was still having trouble with one leg, but it was strengthening. As were the muscles in his back that he had worked to rebuild.
The admiral finally sighed as silence filled the room. "I attended your funeral," he stated then. "I grieved, Nathan. Seeing you now"—he shook his head—"makes me wonder sometimes at the decisions that are made behind my back. I wouldn't have approved that mission."
"I agreed to it."
Simple. It was supposed to have been so simple. He still had the hole in his heel to prove it hadn't been.
"We'll discuss that another day," the admiral growled. "We're facing another problem."
"Has my wife been informed I'm alive yet?" The words felt torn from his ruined vocal chords.
His voice was rougher, darker than it had been, but hell, at least he could talk.
"Not yet," the admiral answered. "I still prefer she not be told."
Nathan stared straight ahead now. He was aware of the bandages that still covered his face, the wounds that were still healing on his body. But even more, he was very much aware of the effects of that fucking whore's dust those bastards Fuentes and Jansen Clay had pumped into his body.
Eighteen months of it. He had been the guinea pig. The SEAL to break with the black evil they forced into him. But he hadn't broken. He'd become a monster instead.
"Sabella's been grieving, Nathan," Jordan said then. "She's still grieving. She still cries for you."
"She'll stop crying. Sabella's tough." He shrugged as though it didn't matter and glimpsed the admiral and Jordan's exchanged look from his periphery.
He was lying. His Bella wasn't tough. She was soft and sweet and he swore he heard her cries in his dreams, in his nightmares. The ragged wound that was his soul would never heal, because he couldn't get the sounds of her screams out of his head.
How much worse would her screams be if she saw him now? His gentle little Bella had loved his body. When he had walked out the door that last day he had been strong, powerful, but even more, he'd been a man who knew how to be gentle. That man didn't exist anymore. There was nothing gentle in the dark, twisted dreams he had now. Dreams of death. And dreams of Bella. And a hunger he knew he would never restrain if she came to him.
"I'm dead," he told them, his voice cold as he thought of the consequences of trying to return to her. "I'll stay dead."
The psychologist was scribbling furiously on his pad. Nathan's gaze jerked to him. As though he could feel the spikes of fury aimed his way, the balding little man lifted his head.
His shoulders shifted beneath his ill-fitting suit jacket, and behind his plain glasses, his brown eyes flickered nervously.
Nathan's eyes jerked back to the admiral. "Would you get him the hell out of my sight, sir."
Admiral Holloran stared back at him for long seconds before nodding to the doctors and jerking his head to the door. They all filed out quickly. None of them were comfortable in his presence. They never had been. Of course, they'd had to deal with an animal for the first three months that he had been under their care.
Admiral Holloran sighed wearily and stared back at him. "Last chance, son," he said softly. "Let us call your wife. Send someone for her."
He bared his teeth in fury. "No, sir." The "sir" was habitual, the growling rage in his voice wasn't. It was pumping through him, numbing his mind, filling his senses with the echoed images of his nightmares.
"Enough." Jordan spoke into the silence. "I warned you he wouldn't change his mind."
"Your respect has gone to hell, Jordan," Holloran snapped. "So has my patience," Jordan bit out. "I was given complete control of this unit, Admiral, and that supersedes even your rank."
"If he changes his mind then he can't go back," the admiral argued. "Is that what you want for your nephew, Jordan?"
"If he changes his mind then that decision is mine to make, not yours or anyone else's." There was a hardness to Jordan, a bleak anger Nathan had never seen in him before. "He'll be transferred to the command center tomorrow and the doctors there will work him with the others."
"You haven't even asked him if he's willing!" The admiral was in Jordan's face now. The two men nose to nose, two incredible wills clashing. It would have been amusing if Nathan had been in the mood for it.
He rose to his feet and headed to the door. "Nathan."
Nathan paused before turning back to face his uncle. Jordan had once been not just family, but a superior officer, when they had both been SEALs, when Nathan had been a man rather than the animal he had turned into.
He stared back at Jordan. "Make it quick. I have exercises to finish this evening."
Jordan got to his feet. "There are other options than the SEALs."
"Oh yeah?" Nathan arched his brows. "What's better than the SEALs, Uncle? Hell? Been there, still take trips."
Jordan nodded slowly. His brilliant blue eyes, wild Irish eyes, his grandpop had called them, stared back at him. "There are other options, Nathan."
"Really?" Nathan stared between Jordan and the admiral. "Yeah." Jordan nodded. "You walk out of here as a SEAL and you walk out as Nathan Malone. You walk out with me, and Nathan Malone ceases to exist."
The admiral moved from his chair with a jerky movement and paced to the other side of the room.
"You leave with him and the SEALs won't exist for you anymore, Nathan. The only men you'll have contact with are those in your old team under Commander Chavez, to retrain. You'll be dead forever. Nathan Malone will no longer exist. Not for you. And not for your wife."
Nathan stared back at him, but it was Bella he saw. She hated a broken nail, she worried about wrinkles. How would she handle a husband who was little more than a monster?
He turned to Jordan. "So where do I sign up?"
Three years later Jordan Malone stood in his office and stared through the privacy glass at the exercise room. His hands were shoved in the pockets of his jeans, a scowl on his face as he watched his nephew.
Nathan, now known as Noah Blake to the world, was only five years younger than he was. Jordan had been a surprise to his parents, a shock to his older siblings. And he had been more like a brother to the man pouring with sweat beneath the weights in the other room. The change in Nathan over the past years was nothing short of miraculous. Hell, the first six months, the very fact that he had survived had been miraculous. It had been the first three years that had been the hardest though. The nightmares and effects of the whore's dust in his system had nearly driven Noah insane.
But had he survived? Sometimes, Jordan wondered if the man who had taken that final SEAL assignment was the same one he was staring at now.
His face was different. The plastic surgery had made it leaner, the bone and muscle more defined. Fuentes had done a job on Nathan's face while he was a captive. Bones had been shattered, the repairs had been extensive. The change drastic. No one who knew Nathan Malone before would guess at his identity now. His build was different. His body was leaner but more powerful, rock hard, and his will was steel. He was a cold, icy-eyed killer.
He wasn't Nathan Malone anymore. He was truly Noah Blake, because Noah had made certain nothing of Nathan existed.
Noah's training with Reno Chavez's unit in the past years had worried Jordan. Where once the Navy SEAL Nathan Malone had pulled his punches and killed only when he had to, now … Jordan shook his head. Noah killed with deadly, silent efficiency.
Jordan remembered the night they had rescued the man who had been Nathan from Fuentes's hold. Nearly every bone in his body had been broken at some point. He had been wasted away, nearly starved, and pumped so high on whore's dust his eyes had glowed like a demon's. And he had fought. He had fought not to rape the girl locked in the cell with him, he had fought to protect her. And he had fought to walk out rather than be carried out.
Jordan had been certain his nephew would never survive the withdrawal of the drug and the effects to his brain. He'd never imagined Nathan would come back, stronger than ever rather than broken. Darker than ever, and so different that his identity change rarely blipped Jordan's radar anymore.
"He's never going to be the same, is he?" Lieutenant Ian Richards said somberly, admitting what none of them had dared say aloud over the years. Ian was part of that SEAL team, had stood with the other men who had spent the past years with the man they called Noah.
It had been harder on Ian in some ways, because he had been closer to Nathan than even Jordan had been. Nathan had only been ten when he heard young Ian's screams echoing through the desert landscape of their ranch. He had awakened his father, harassed that mean-assed Grant Malone out of the house, and found the young boy whose mother was dying in his arms.
Grant, in a surprising display of compassion, had helped the young woman and her child. Grant had his moments, Jordan thought, they were just few and far between.
"No, he's never going to be same." He admitted the truth to Ian, as well as to himself. "This man isn't Nathan Malone anymore, Ian. He's truly Noah Blake. We may as well accept that."
"He's a machine now," Ian stated heavily, his expression saddened as he watched Nathan work out. "He's the best damned killer I've ever laid my eyes on. Silent as a thought."
Jordan turned to Reno Chavez, the commander of the group.
Reno shook his black head. "He's not a SEAL any longer. He questions orders continuously, lays in backup plans out the ass, and always has a plan if that one goes bad. If he feels he needs to deviate, then he deviates. He's not insubordinate, but he's a leader now. He won't follow easily unless he's assured the plan is the only way to go. He's a wild card, Jordan, but he's a damned efficient one. Like a shark. Cold-blooded. Focused. And deadly."
Jordan nodded. "Thank you, Reno. I appreciate the report."
"You have my written report as well." Reno nodded to the file that had been laid on Jordan's desk.
The monthly reports hadn't deviated in years. Nathan was barely a man any longer. He often reminded Jordan of a robot, little more.
"Jordan, he's not going to survive like this," Ian said quietly, turning back to the window, watching the man that had once been his friend. "He'll self-destruct. One of these days, he'll put a bullet in his own head."
As though Noah had heard him, sensed him, he sat up on the weight bench and grabbed a towel. His gaze sliced past the two-way mirror and stared back at them. His eyes were darker, wilder than Nathan Malone's had been. Searing navy blue in a dark, sharply defined face. His black hair was thick, long, nearly to his shoulders now. He refused to cut it. As he turned his back Jordan glimpsed the black sun pierced by a red sword that had been tattooed on the left shoulder blade of Noah's back.
The emblem of the Elite Operational Unit was another reminder of how Noah had shed his past as Nathan Malone. He had signed his life over to a unit that at times could be little more than a suicide mission.
"He'll survive." Jordan kept his response cool, but what he felt inside was anything but cool. "He's not finished yet. He just thinks he is." Nathan hadn't returned to his wife yet, and Noah, the man he was, hadn't forgotten that woman. He wouldn't find himself until he did.
Jordan had pulled his nephew into this unit because he knew the man he loved like a brother would have never survived intact if he'd had to face the world after his release from the clinic. Or if he'd had to face his wife.
The psychologist had agreed. Nathan would have taken a walk one day and just never returned. He hadn't been ready. Noah might still not be ready either. But Jordan was going to end up testing him anyway.
Three years later
"It won't be easy to get him to agree to it," Ian Richards warned Jordan as they watched the six-man unit of the Elite Ops working out in the gym through the two-way mirror that looked into it.
Noah was stronger than ever. Lean. Powerful. Cold.
"He'll go," Jordan said softly. "He'll not let her remain in danger."
Ian blew out a hard breath as they stared at the man they all knew as Noah now.
"Would she want him back like this?" he asked.
Jordan had questioned that one himself. For six years Sabella Malone had been without her husband. In the past three years, she had finally begun living again. Dating again. There was a chance Noah could lose the wife he never admitted he had, very soon, to another man's arms.
"We'll find out, won't we," Jordan mused. "We'll be your backup in the Alpine mission," Reno told him then. This small group of men had been assigned to the Elite Ops; partly privately funded, partly government backed, the unit was a test unit, a group of dead men, of rogues. In the past years they had become a highly advanced, specialized unit dealing in operations that other agencies couldn't touch either because of po liti cal sensitivity, or the level of danger involved.
Jordan nodded slowly before watching Noah once more. "We'll meet up at the command center set up in Big Bend National Park," he told them. "You'll receive your orders within the next day or so."
Ian and Reno nodded and left quickly, heading out to prepare for the coming operation. All that was left was getting Noah Blake to go along with it.
Jordan sat down at his desk, picked up the file he had on the mission, and called Noah into his office.
Noah made him wait. When he walked into Jordan's office, his hair was still damp from his shower, his blue eyes cold, no emotion, no life flickering within them.
"Are we ready?" Noah took the seat in front of the desk that Jordan indicated.
"Almost." Jordan nodded. "Command center will be broken down to night and flown to the new location. We should be set up within forty-eight hours."
Noah didn't say anything, he just stared back at Jordan, waiting. His patience was seemingly endless now. But when he erupted into action there was no one faster. No one dead-lier.
"You're delaying," Noah finally drawled, that ruined voice scraping.
That voice had once been flowing, deep. Now, it was guttural, almost raw.
"First mission is in Texas," Jordan stated.
Noah didn't respond. His gaze didn't even flicker. As though nothing in Texas concerned him. No family, no grandfather, brother, or father. No wife.
"Command center will based forty miles out of Alpine." "No." Noah's tone was icy.
Excerpted from Wild Card by Lora Leigh.
Copyright © 2008 by Lora Leigh.
Published in 2008 by St. Martin's Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher.