Former Navy SEAL Wyatt Thorn took the fall for a man he thought was his friend. But he was betrayed, charged with unspeakable crimes and tried by a court of his peers, where he was booted from the SEALs. Now Wyatt is hiding on this lonely mountain, licking his wounds.
When he receives a call from a mysterious woman, he takes it with a grain of salt. He's been offered jobs with big payoffs before, because he'd been a damn good SEAL. Then she starts throwing out information that NO ONE should know about what went on in the desert.
The man who betrayed him is dead, and the man's ex-wife, Rowan, is missing.
It's a sucker punch to the gut, because in the depths of the night, he dreams of beautiful Rowan, the only person who didn't look at him like a criminal.
He has a chance to clear his name and save her life, but it's going to come at a terrible emotional cost, for them both.
Assuming she's still alive...
The axe thumped into the wood, splitting the block of poplar in a single swing. Leaning down, Wyatt set the pieces vertical and split them again, then he moved on to the next block. He had a gas-powered splitter down at the cabin, but he preferred this method. It was good exercise, and it was a decent day to be outside. Snow was still melting on the mountain, but the sun was out and radiating heat. He’d long ago lost his jacket and shirt but sweat rolled down his head. It was well-beyond time for a haircut.
Loading his haul into the slick-bottomed sled, Wyatt slipped the harness over his chest and began to pull. Once the snow was gone, he would have to get the four-wheeler and the trailer out, but for now, the sled was easier. It glided on the snow easily. Sometimes, too easily. He’d have to be careful on the downhill sections it didn’t let loose and take him out.
After an hour of hiking, he reached the final slope down to his cabin, and his senses went on alert. There was a four-wheel drive parked at his cabin. Gray Jeep, it looked like. Kneeling down, he reached for the rifle in the sled and lifted it to his shoulder. Fitting his eye to the scope, he looked for the trespasser.
It was hard to see through the trees and brush, and the angle he was looking down on the scene, but he thought there was someone waiting in the vehicle. Who the fuck was up here? This was his property, and there were multiple no trespassing signs on the way up the mountain. This person had deliberately ignored them. At his peril.
Wyatt had no friends, so he could only assume this was a developer or something. Time to scare the shit out of him.
Leaving the sled behind, he hiked the rest of the way down to the cabin, rifle at the ready. He scanned the area, looking for others, but he saw nothing. If he came at the vehicle from the diagonal rear, the driver probably wouldn’t be able to see him. When he was within ten feet of the passenger side window, he took a steadying breath, then lunged out of the brush.
The driver, a dark-haired male, had his hands up. There was a grin on his face.
A face that Wyatt recognized. “Mitch?”
The man nodded and made a motion like he wanted to get out. Lowering the weapon, Wyatt nodded.
Abraham Mitchell had been on his SEAL team, and he’d been a decent operator. They hadn’t really been friends, though. Which had been proven when Mitch had helped pack his shit when Wyatt had been booted off the team.
Mitch held a hand out to shake, but Wyatt made a motion with the rifle, which he still held in his hands. Mitch’s hand fell to his side.
“Wyatt. Good to see you again.”
Wyatt didn’t say anything, just stared at the man. Mitch shifted on his feet. It took a lot to intimidate a SEAL, and Wyatt was glad he still had the ability to do so. “What do you want, Mitch?”
Holding up a finger, Mitch ducked back into the Jeep. He turned back with a satellite phone in his hand. “You have a phone call.”
The phone rang in his hand. Flipping the device around, he punched a button to connect the call, then held it out to Wyatt. Wyatt didn’t want to take the phone, but he shifted the rifle to his good side. If he needed to, he could still swing it up and get off a shot.
He lifted the phone to his ear, aware that this could all be an elaborate trap. Was Dillon nestled in somewhere above him ready to take a shot? Or was Hess even now weaving his way through the brush, knife in hand? He glanced around, looking for danger.
“This is not a hit,” a woman’s voice said on the other end of the line.
Wyatt drew back and stared at the phone incredulously. “Who is this?”
“This is the person who is going to change your life,” the woman said.
Wyatt rolled his eyes. He couldn’t help it. Mitch gave him an encouraging nod. “Right…” he drawled. “I think I’ve heard that before.”
“But I actually mean it,” the woman said. “My name is Charlie, and I have a proposition for you.”
Wyatt fought not to roll his eyes. Here, you live on a mountain on your own, you must need money. Which was far from the truth. He did okay. And he didn’t need much to keep him going.
He’d moved to this mountain to lick his wounds in peace, and this woman was disrupting his peace. “I’m not interested.”
“You might be when you hear that Blade is dead.”
Wyatt went still, wondering if he’d heard her right. “What happened?” he asked, despite himself. Curiosity was going to kill the cat. Him, being the cat, of course.
“Bullet to the back of the head, execution-style.”
Sweet satisfaction rolled through him. He hadn’t been the one to do it, but someone had called the man on his shit. That had been a long time coming.
“What a shame,” he said, grinning slightly. “If you’re looking for an alibi, I don’t have one. I’ve been on my mountain for the past three weeks with my dog.”
“We’re not looking for an alibi. We’re looking for someone to rescue the ex-wife.”
Wyatt went still. “Rowan?”
“Yes. You know her, I believe.”
Fuck. Yes, he knew her.
Wyatt paced through the clearing, but he could see Rowan clear as day in his mind’s eye. Rich auburn hair and a lean face. Bright green eyes that seemed to probe into his soul. She’d been a burst of color in his drab green world, an anomaly he didn’t know how to deal with. And he’d been unable to help her. She’d been as much of a victim as he had.
What the hell had she gotten herself into? Actually, what had Blade left her to deal with, might be the better question.
“We’re not sure, exactly,” the woman said. “We think she was turning something in two days ago, but we don’t know what. She was talking to a local attorney, and she disappeared from the courthouse. We have a CCTV shot of two men chasing her down an alley behind the courthouse, then nothing.”
Fuck. This was bad. “What do you know about him?”
“Blade was dirty. We knew that. He’s been under surveillance for eighteen months, but he took leave three weeks ago and kind of dropped off the grid. We know he has contacts with the cartels, as well as the Navy, so we expected it to happen at some point, but he was in the middle of a pretty big deal. Not sure what happened exactly or who he pissed off, but they were done fooling with him. Found him last week in a dumpster outside a bar in Laredo, Texas.”
“Sounds like the cartel. And where was Rowan taken from?”
“She was in Ohio. Got a job up there after she split from Blade. She was trying to get him to sign divorce papers, but he was dragging his feet for some reason. She still has family up there, a father, but he hasn’t seen her for a few days, he says.”
This was bad. “So why are you coming to me with this? I have no skin in the game.”
“We know about Qala-e-Naw,” she said simply.
Wyatt’s jaw clenched. “I very much doubt it.”
After two years, the impact should have been diminished, but it wasn’t. When he heard the name of the small town in Afghanistan, his gut clenched and he wanted to throw up. Scenes flickered through his mind as if they’d happened yesterday. His heartbeat picked up with panic, and he had to open his mouth to breathe. He heard a whine from the bushes, and he knew Echo wanted to come to him, but he made a hand motion, keeping her still. She needed to watch Mitch.
“What is it you think you know about Qala-e-Naw?” he asked, voice tight with so much emotion he knew she had to hear it.
“I know your dog was killed and you were blamed for killing part of your team.”
He felt the stab through his heart like it had happened yesterday. She continued.
“I know that Blade pinned the failed rescue attempt on you, and I think I know why you went along with it, but I’m not positive. Six SEALs died that day, including your dog, yet you took the blame for it. Blade claimed you were the dirty one, yet you had no record other than as an exemplary operator. You didn’t defend yourself at trial, you just sat through the proceeding and let them wash you out, charged with misconduct and dereliction of duty. Why is that, Whisper?”
Wyatt blinked at the call sign, something he hadn’t heard in years. He’d given up on hearing it again in his life.
If Blade was dead, what did it matter if he told her? Then the pieces rearranged themselves. “I think you know why I didn’t fight the inquest, don’t you? It’s why you came to me.”
The woman sighed on the other end of the line. “Yes, I do. He held the safety of his wife over you, didn’t he? A woman that you… had a relationship with.”
“A strictly platonic relationship with,” he said clearly.
Rowan had been his friend, in the truest sense of the word. And he would have happily died to keep her safe.
In his mind’s eye, he could see Blade’s sneer as the smoke swirled about him. “Why the fuck do you think I knocked her up? To get her to marry me. That way you had no more hold on her. You’re such a pussy, Whisper, letting a woman get to you like that. And she’s going to be your downfall. You’re taking the heat for this,” he jerked his hand at the carnage surrounding them. “Or she dies, in some tragic accident. Like your fucking dog. Do you get me?”
Wyatt could remember nodding, his cool shattered as he looked down at the body of his partner. The vest hadn’t saved him from the headshot Blade, a fellow teammate and supposedly safe, had inflicted. Four years of training and companionship gone in an instant. Blade had hated Switch, though, because the dog had barely tolerated him. The dog had known that Blade was dirty. Wyatt had picked up on the cues, but he hadn’t imagined how dirty.
“Yes, he did,” Wyatt answered, coming back to the now. “She was there for me at a very dark time in my life, and we… liked each other. He hated that. And he knew that I would do anything to keep her safe.”
“She told us that.”
Wyatt blinked. “What?”
“She gave a deposition six months ago that she thought her soon to be ex-husband was dirty. They were in the middle of a separation, and he’d been stalking her. When he was killed last week, everything went to her. She went through the house to get ready to sell and began finding things. Called DEA to come clean out her house because she found 200 pounds of opium in their garage.”
“Suddenly this guy starts getting a lot more attention. A year ago, when she split, she filed a general complaint with JAG about her ex’s behavior. It got buried, though. In that complaint she was interviewed, and she explained what she thought happened. She had submitted a recording of Blade laughing about washing you out.”
His throat tightened. Even when he wasn’t around, she was still looking out for him. “So, why didn’t they do anything to him?”
“They couldn’t verify that it was him on the recording.”
Fuck. That was ridiculous.
“Who the hell are you with? JAG?”
“No, I’m not part of the judge advocate general. I’m… with an independent group that likes to see justice served.”
Which could mean anything. But it didn’t negate the fact that Rowan was in trouble. “Okay, you have my attention.”
“I thought I would,” Charlie said. “I need you to go to Cleveland, Ohio. It was the last place she was seen, and you need to try to pick up a trail. If she’s going to ground, it’s not going to be easy. But she has information that we need. She told the lawyer that she knew who was dirty in the Teams, and she supposedly has new proof. She wanted him to set up a meeting with the Chief of Naval Operations in DC.”
“Damn,” Wyatt breathed. “She was going straight to the top.”
“Yes. But the lawyer didn’t have a chance to set anything up before he was killed.”
Damn, Wyatt thought.
“She has family in the area, but I’m sure she won’t go there to endanger them.”
“No,” Wyatt said. “She would never endanger her family.”
“I'm making resources available to you,” Charlie told him, “but it's not going to be easy. Your former boss is not going to want to see your face again, you know that. And if he’s the one that’s dirty…”
“I know, and I'm going to avoid him at all costs. And anyone he sends my way.”
“In addition to Gillette, you also have to avoid the cartels that Blade was in debt to. If there’s collateral damage, we’ll try to keep it quiet.”
“I would appreciate that,” Wyatt said.
“And if you get into a pickle, call me. I might be able to work wonders.”
He snorted, doubting it was possible, but he would keep the offer in mind. He glanced around the clearing, wondering what he needed to do before he left. Not much really. Gather his go-bag. And put something together for the dog, because there was no way he was leaving Echo here.
Wyatt glanced at Mitch. “Is Mitch supposed to be one of those tools?”
“If you need him to be,” Charlie said.
“Good, because I don't wanna be anywhere near him,” Wyatt said.
“Done. Tell him to get off your mountain.”
“Will do.” He glanced at the smartphone in his hand. “Is this how I contact you?”
“Yes,” Charlie said. “But I have to keep a low profile.”
“That being said, there's a jet for you at the airport. As well as some other toys.”
“Thank you very much. What do you get out of this?”
Charlie snorted. “Headache. And maybe some Peace of Mind that justice has been served.”
Yeah, right. Sounded like some government gobbeldy-gook.
Wyatt hit the end call button and pocketed the phone.
“Get off my mountain, Mitch,” he said, circling the Jeep.
Mitch frowned and pushed open the door. “What do you mean get off the mountain? I'm supposed to help you.”
Wyatt snorted. “Do you seriously think I would let you at my back? After what you did at the trial. I have my backup.”
With a hand motion, Echo appeared out of the brush. Mitch visibly startled. He'd had no idea she'd been less than ten feet away, ready to take him down.
“You're making a mistake, Wyatt. I had no idea what Blade was doing.”
Wyatt didn’t believe him. “You knew he was responsible for those deaths.”
Mitch shook his head. “I didn't. You have to understand, Blade was my CO For five years. I had no idea what kind of man you were. You were only there a few months before it all went to hell. When Blade told me something, I took it as gospel. You know how it is. We live and die by our trust with each other.”
“Exactly,” Wyatt said. “Now fuck off.”
Without waiting for him to respond, Wyatt turned and headed toward his cabin, Echo at his side. Eventually, the Jeep started up and headed down the mountain. He only felt contempt for Mitch. If the jeep rolled off the mountain, he would not be upset.
He looked down at the dog. She returned his look adoringly, and for a moment, he debated leaving her here. Stroking down her dark head, he fondled her big ears. He wasn't sure he had the strength to lose another partner. She was the most valuable tool he had, though.
His sidearm was already on his hip. He carried it every day he went out into the forest, just for added security. Reaching into his closet, he pulled out a shoulder harness. It was a little easier to hide under cold-weather clothing. He also grabbed Echo’s tan ballistic vest, fitting it on her and snapping the buckles. She wagged her tail, knowing they were going on an adventure.
Ducking through the doorway, he grabbed his go-bag from the top shelf of the closet. Then he started stuffing a few things more inside. By the time he was done, it was loaded down. He went through the cabin draining his water lines so that they wouldn't freeze. Then he banked down the wood burner and buttoned things up. Crossing through the breezeway, he went into his wood shop. The wood burner was already cold because he hadn’t been in here yet today. There were projects needing completed, but they were going to have to wait until he got back. He stopped in the middle of the floor space and turned around. This had been his home for the past two years. He had literally built it from the ground up. It had been his haven.
With little effort, he brought Rowan’s face to mind. The thought of her in danger gave him the motivation to leave his haven. Snatching his keys off the wall he headed toward the lean-to where he parked his truck.
They had a lot of miles to get in today.
“Let's go, girl.”