The third in the Alpha Ops novella series that features an alpha Navy SEAL and the girl he thought he'd lost forever.
In high school, basketball star Charlotte Stannard and Navy SEAL Jamie Hawthorn were everything but lovers. They shared a ruthlessly competitive spirit and relentless drive, but Charlie, afraid of the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy at seventeen, drove Jamie away. But now Jamie's back in town for the banquet to honor the basketball coach, and finds Charlie, newly home from a successful career in the European leagues and coaching the girls' team. The flames between them are hotter than ever, but Charlie believes Jamie just wants what he couldn't have when they were kids. Jamie's not just playing to win. He's playing for Charlie's heart, forever.
About the Author
After doing time at Fortune 500 companies on both coasts, Anne Calhoun landed in a flyover state, where she traded business casual for yoga pants and decided to write down all the lively story ideas that got her through years of monotonous corporate meetings. Her first book, LIBERATING LACEY won the EPIC Award for Best Contemporary Erotic Romance. Her story WHAT SHE NEEDS was chosen for Smart Bitch Sarah's Sizzling Book Club. Anne holds a BA in History and English, and an MA in American Studies from Columbia University. When she's not writing her hobbies include reading, knitting, and yoga. She lives in the Midwest with her family and singlehandedly supports her local Starbucks.
Read an Excerpt
The SEAL's Second Chance
By Anne Calhoun
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Anne Calhoun
All rights reserved.
Jamie Hawthorn reached deep inside and found an extra burst of speed, putting a couple of feet between himself and his brother, Ian, as they raced up the road that wound toward their childhood home on the Hill. Ian didn't give up without a fight, heaving air into his lungs and closing the gap between them to a couple of inches before Jamie hit the designated finish line first, the lilac bush bowing over the mailbox at the end of their driveway. He slowed to a stop, slapped the pole holding up their basketball hoop, and turned to walk back down the driveway and cool off.
"Not bad," he said to Ian, who was hunched over and all but hyperventilating. "I want barbeque from that place across the river," he added, because over the years the penalty for losing had jumped from a candy bar to lunch.
Ian cut him a glance. "Do me a favor and ignore the way I'll be limping tomorrow," he said.
"It's all the running in the sand," Jamie said, hands linked behind his head as they walked the big cul-de-sac. "A solid surface is easy after that."
"Not much sand in Lancaster," Ian quipped. "Or much reason to run full out carrying the kind of gear SEALs do."
"Sometimes departments send SWAT teams to work out with SEALs," Jamie said.
"No funding for that," Ian said. "But I'll take you up on any workout ideas I can pass on to the officers on the emergency response team. We've got a couple of ex-military on the team. They're always pushing the other guys to stay in shape."
"They see action?"
"One was an MP and another guy did two infantry tours in Iraq," Ian said, breathing more normally. "He's working undercover for me now."
"No problem," Jamie said. "You can find the basic workout online, but I'll put something together for you that's more relevant to typical cop situations."
"Sounds good," Ian said, completely in character. He was more collaborative than competitive, focused on relationship-building. Jamie was the competitive one, wanting the win, the record, the championship, the SEAL's trident badge, the successful mission.
He huffed out a little laugh as the thought of championships reminded him of the real reason he was running races with his brother during his thirty-day leave in Lancaster. His foundation in competitiveness and endurance training happened here. To a certain extent, his coach laid the groundwork, but deep in his heart, he knew playing one-on-one with Charlie Stannard provided the real education in toughness, drive, and intensity.
On the surface he was back for a banquet honoring the coach and the members of the championship teams. Really, he was back for Charlie. Twenty-six days left in his leave. Twenty-six days left of Operation Buzzer Beater, in which he would convince the notoriously prickly, determined, wary Charlie that they were meant to be together forever.
They reached the driveway again and walked up the brick path, into the house. "Where's Mom?" Ian asked, elbows braced on the island in the kitchen, dripping sweat onto the granite.
"Garden Club meeting," Jamie said, running water into a glass and handing it to his brother. "Last-minute planning for the reception the day before the banquet. You gonna puke?"
"Even odds," Ian said with a grimace that was probably supposed to be a smile.
"You're in good shape," Jamie said. "Just not SEAL-shape."
"Fuck you," Ian said good-naturedly, and straightened. But he took a tentative sip of the water, knowing not to gulp it so soon after the workout. Jamie followed suit, looking out the big picture window at his mother's pride and joy, the winding paths and cultivated beds of her English garden. The house occupied a prime position at the top of the Hill, nothing behind it but sky and the long, steep drop to the tracks, and the basketball court that was the site of his crazy, magical, frustrating nights with Charlie.
Would the passion still be there? He'd spent hours with her back to the tree, her long, lean, muscled body arching wantonly into his, held all of the yearning of an adolescent hormones and all of the explosiveness of an adult's desire. So many variables might have changed: Maybe she didn't shoot hoops to relieve stress anymore. Maybe she used her key to the high school gym, rather than the rundown court next to the railroad tracks. But the rainy spring weather had cleared, and he was counting on the spring night sky and the fact that she'd have to know he was back in town to tempt her down to the court tonight.
He couldn't manufacture an excuse to see her. It had to feel normal, believable, inevitable, or the wary, wild Charlie would turtle up or bolt. He had plan B, of course, and C, and even D, because he was a SEAL and that's what he did.
"What's this?" Ian, finally recovered enough to look at the note on the island, interrupted his train of thought.
"Mom wants us to clean out the eaves and go through the stuff up there while I'm home. The neighborhood garage sale is coming up, and she's threatening to put everything out there if we don't claim what we want."
Ian blew out his breath. "Good thing we're already sweaty," he said. "It gets hot up there when the sun clears the trees."
They took the stairs to the second floor, then walked down the hallway to the suite they'd shared as kids — two bedrooms, a shared bath, and a sitting room where they'd watched TV and played video games with their friends. Only a year apart in school, they'd shared the same social circle until Jamie graduated and left for the Navy.
"Mom redecorated a few years ago," Ian said.
"I remember," Jamie replied, looking around at the delicate furniture and the white carpet. The sitting room was now a library, the fireplace cleaned, the insert holding about twenty white pillar candles, her favorite quilt folded neatly at the bottom of the chaise where she read. One of the bedrooms was now a guest room, where his seabag and hanging bag took up very little space in the closet. "We better put down drop cloths to protect the carpet."
A couple of minutes later they had most of the furniture clumped up at the far end of the sitting room and the drop cloths spread over the floor. "You ready for this?" Ian asked.
"Ready as I'll ever be," Jamie said.
They opened the narrow door leading to a narrower, steep staircase. Ian climbed to the top, looked around, and said, "Fuck."
"I think she's got every toy, book, game, and art project we ever made," Jamie said, then sneezed. "None of it dusted, ever."
"That's why Dad hired a cleaning service, remember? Mom would ignore the house for the garden seven months out of the year. Start passing me boxes," Jamie said.
Ian grabbed whatever was closest and handed it down to Jamie, who stacked the totes and boxes three high. "That's good for now," he said.
Ian came down the stairs sideways, not trusting his size-twelve feet on the shallow treads. Dust clung to his hair and shirt. "Did Mom say what she wants us to do?"
Jamie turned the note over. "'Three piles,'" he read. "'Keep, garage sale, donate. And the keep pile better be the smallest one. Tell your brother he's taking his stuff with him.'"
"I've got a one-bedroom apartment," Ian protested. "What else is she planning to keep up there?"
"'I need room for my grandkids' toys,'" Jamie read.
Ian snatched the paper from his hand. "It does not say that," he said. "Fuck. It does say that."
"Consider ourselves hinted," Jamie said. "Pick a box, any box."
Ian took a tote and popped the top off while Jamie unfolded the flaps on an unlabeled box. "What do you have?"
"Books," Ian said. "You?"
"G.I. Joe action figures and army men."
"Oh, man," Ian said. "Remember how much fun we used to have with those?"
"I'm surprised so many of them survived," Jamie said, plucking one from the box and examining it for scorch marks and gouges. "Remember when we set the fence on fire tying these guys to fireworks?"
"Mom was so pissed. We burned that entire bed of chrysanthemums," Ian said.
"Do we keep them?"
Ian looked torn, then said, "Nah. Set them aside. I'll go through them, throw out the damaged ones, and donate the rest to the boys and girls club."
They made good progress through a third of the boxes, getting hung up only when Jamie came across the binder holding his basketball trading cards. He sat down on the sheet and flipped through the plastic sleeves.
"That's a walk down memory lane," Ian said. "You used to sort those compulsively."
"I loved playing ball," Jamie said. "That was my favorite part of high school."
"I saw you down at the court last night," Ian said.
Jamie looked up sharply, about halfway through the pages. "Last night? What were you doing out?"
"Coming home from a very long meeting with the FBI. You were alone."
The weather was spotty. That's why he told himself Charlie hadn't showed up. He'd try again tonight. Jamie relaxed and went back to looking at the trading cards. "I wonder if any of these are worth anything," he said absently.
"She lives in the East Side," Ian said.
"I know," Jamie said. At first glance he was surprised she was living in Lancaster's worst neighborhood. After a decade of living in Europe, he figured she'd be in one of the condos going up in midtown, trendy, access to the cool shops and restaurants. He should have figured she'd be back in the East Side, closer to the kids who really needed her, kids who reminded her of herself at that age, full of dreams and promise, teetering between a future full of hope and a one full of disappointment.
"You want her address?" Ian asked, reading his mind.
He wasn't above asking his brother to run a name or a plate in search of information, but Plan A was still viable. "Why would you think I want her address?" Jamie countered, still paging through the trading cards.
"You've never come home for a full thirty-days leave before," Ian said. "All the hoopla around the banquet would take a couple of days, maybe three. Another couple for a family visit, and then you'd be off rock climbing or surfing or sleeping or whatever it is you do with leave. This year, Charlie's back in town."
His brother didn't make detective because their father was the former chief of police and now the mayor. His brother made detective because he was smart, quiet, insightful, a sharp judge of character and motivation. That's exactly why Jamie was back.
"I never got over her," he said, still not looking up. "I've spent the last ten years wondering what might have been, if things had been different."
"Oh," Ian said. "Does she know how you feel?"
"Then or now?"
"Then, yes," he said, remembering the last days of spring before he left for boot camp — his pleas, her refusals. "Now, not yet. But she will."
Ian was quiet for a while, absently sorting toys into the three piles. "I don't think she's been dating anyone," he said.
"How would you know?" Jamie asked, genuinely curious. Ian might spend time at the high school if they busted a pot or steroids ring, but social gossip normally wouldn't hold his interest for more than a couple of seconds.
"A couple of cops have kids in high school," Ian said. "You know the old saying about gossip ... you can telephone, tell a friend —"
"Or tell a cop," Jamie finished. "She was probably pretty busy with the school year and the team. She wouldn't let herself get distracted during the season."
Not Charlie. He flipped to the last page of the binder and froze, remembering what he'd stored there, using the trading cards as an excuse long past their sell-by date for a teenage boy. Pictures of Charlie, snapped just after she'd bounced her wicked crossover and left the opposing player stumbling in the dust; in a tight circle with her teammates, chanting Whose house? Our house! before a game. Some he'd taken himself from the stands when he'd bullied the boys' team into turning out to support the girls, others he'd cut from the local newspaper, now yellowed with age. He sorted through them, assessing the damage of a season's playing time on Charlie's body. Taped left ankle, taped right knee. She'd played the tournament with that knee so sore and swollen she'd had to ice it as soon as she was benched for a breather, or more likely, for foul trouble. Scabs on her elbows and knees from floor burns, fingers taped, a deep-purple bruise on her shoulder when she went to the floor chasing a loose ball in the quarterfinals, the muscles of her legs and arms toned curves against her frame. Her expression in his favorite picture from the paper was one of ferocious concentration. Taken just prior to tip-off, she'd been staring down the leading scorer of the North High Wildcats, letting the girl know that it was on, it was so fucking on, and that any points she got that day would be claimed through a metaphorical fistfight on the court.
Charlie had held the state's leading scorer to eight points while racking up almost thirty of her own. It was that performance that got her the scholarship to Connecticut.
God. He'd been so in love with her. It hit him like a physical punch, freezing his diaphragm as effectively as having the wind knocked out of him. He'd been so in love with her, and if this didn't work, he was totally, epically fucked.
"I always wondered if you kept your porn in there," Ian said from across the room.
"Behind the Hardy Boys books," Jamie said absently. "You knew that. You borrowed it all the time."
Ian laughed. "So what did you keep in there?"
Jamie was past the point of pride about this. He passed him the picture of Charlie, yellowed with age.
"Oh," Ian said, looking at the picture. "Damn. I'd forgotten what a competitor she was. Every time she was on the court it was all-out war."
I never forgot, Jamie thought. "What brought her back here?" he said.
"Coach Gould had a heart attack right before school started," Ian said. "Coach knew Charlie was retiring from pro ball and had a degree in education. I think they pulled some strings with the state to get her a provisional license, but she was here in a couple of weeks. That's the whole reason for the banquet, Coach Gould retiring."
"I knew that," Jamie said. "I just didn't know the details."
"I don't think anyone knew," Ian said.
"How you felt about her."
"She didn't want anyone to know," Jamie said, remembering the chip on Charlie's shoulder, remembering how nothing mattered to her, not him being cop's son, a contributor on the basketball team, popular, smart, good-looking, a good guy. The only thing that mattered to her was basketball, and a scholarship. She said the word like a prayer or a mantra, like she'd studied it carefully, broken the concept down like she broke down plays, understood what it meant. Tuition, room, board. "Tuition" meant an education. "Room" meant a place to sleep. "Board" meant food to eat. It meant that rarest of rarities, a chance to lift herself out of poverty.
"That's not what I said," Ian said carefully. "I wasn't talking about keeping your thing together a secret. I was talking about you."
"I had to keep it a secret," Jamie said. "If I couldn't tell anyone we were ... fuck. We weren't doing anything except playing ball and kissing. You put it into words and it's nothing. But yeah. Inside, it was everything to me."
"But not to her?"
He thought about the way Charlie kissed him, the way she fought on the court, her fierce, humiliated fury the night after his dad arrested her mom for shoplifting, again. "Her mom was a petty shoplifter. She wasn't going to end up like that."
"And she didn't end up like her mom," Ian said. "The question isn't whether everyone knows she's not like her mom. The question is whether she knows she's not."
"That's what I have to find out."
"Go get 'em," Ian said. "Let's get these boxes downstairs. You stink, I stink, and I want lunch."
"You're buying," Jamie reminded him.
They stacked the boxes neatly and headed out to Ian's truck. Ian drove with a cop's confidence, heading down the hill and across the tracks to the barbecue joint the state health department would close down if it wasn't the best ribs in town. They ordered the rib basket, five-alarm-fire hot, and a side of wings, then sat down at the picnic tables in the shade.
Ian looked around, then lowered his voice. "Since you're going to be around for a while, I could use your help on a professional level at the banquet."
"I'm not going to shoot DeMarco Jones for dumping honey in your shoes junior year," Jamie said, shaking pepper onto his fries.
Excerpted from The SEAL's Second Chance by Anne Calhoun. Copyright © 2016 Anne Calhoun. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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