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By DEE HENDERSON
Multnomah Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2002 Dee Henderson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSEPTEMBER 9 Sunday, 8:20 P.M. Destin, Florida
Sam Houston strolled toward the hotel outdoor pool carrying a soft drink and tugging at his tie, leaving behind the laughter of the banquet room. His buddy Tom Yates was married, and the reception was breaking up now that the bride and groom were safely away on their honeymoon. A huge weight had just lifted from Sam's shoulders.
The breeze from the Gulf brought the smell of sand and sea. Sam paused at the steps going down to the boardwalk. Florida was good to its visitors. Miles of beach and luxury hotels stretched to either side. He smiled as he contemplated his upcoming days off. Maybe do some deep-sea diving and treasure hunting-something challenging and adventurous. It wouldn't compete with his last deployment and getting shot at for an adrenaline rush, but it would do.
The past few months peacekeeping in Turkey had put him near a shooting war and turned him a little too serious for his own good. His temporary homeport with SEAL Team Nine was Little Creek Naval Base, Norfolk, Virginia. And while diving in the Atlantic could be fascinating, it couldn't compare to the vast treasures around the Gulf. A little diving, a little getting his priorities back in sync- He planned to enjoy life, not just live it.
"Now youlook like a man at the end of a good day."
He glanced to his right and felt a spark of interest. A lady sitting alone by the pool was watching him. He didn't think she'd been a guest at the wedding-he had tried to meet everyone-but Tom and Jill had more friends than he could hope to keep straight. The thick closed book in her lap, the plate set aside on the nearby table, suggested she had been comfortable there for some time. He walked her direction. "Good food, good friends: the definition of a very good evening."
She tipped her head back as he approached. He liked her smile. Her glasses were interesting: oval-shaped with gold frames and a little star in the corner. She slid them off and set them on the table, and he could see through the glass without distortion to read the print on the magazine cover. She must use them and that little star to detract attention from her eyes-no one would forget those baby blues if he got a good look at them.
"You're with the wedding party? I heard the music."
"That explains the tux and the too tight tie."
He tugged it the rest of the way free with a rueful smile. "Hazards of the day." Making a decision, he dumped his jacket on an empty chair and took a seat on the lounge chair near her, turning up the cuffs of his white shirt. Despite being a chief petty officer, he could've used an instruction book for how to give advice to the groom, keep rambunctious buddies in line, troubleshoot problems, and keep track of more guests under the age of ten than he could remember names for. It felt good to be done and able to consider time his own again. Blue lights shimmered up through the water, inviting a late-night swim. "It's a little dark for reading."
She clicked on a penlight. "Five hundred and ninety-six pages-I'm going to finish it tonight and find out whodunit if it kills me."
He laughed softly. "A committed reader." He liked the sound of her voice and the relaxed humor in her answer.
"I'm recently retired and trying to make up for all the books I missed."
The ice in her drink had melted. His drink was getting low. "Like a refill?" He caught the attention of a hotel employee. He requested a second Coke for himself and she asked for a pineapple ice slush.
It was odd that she thought of herself as retired. He put her age at maybe thirty-five, forty. A glance showed a ring on her right hand, but her left was bare. The watch looked expensive, as did the dress. This wasn't a cheap place to vacation.
"I'd ask, but that looked like a private thought."
"It was." He was single, no kids, with life insurance from the military to bury him. He had a lifelong habit of giving extra money away. Buying stuff just meant it had to be packed and shipped to the next base. But he admired the effort it suggested to be able to retire young. She'd had a plan for catching up on her reading. What other plans had she made for herself now that she set her own schedule?
Their drinks arrived. He signed the slip, putting them on his room tab.
She sipped hers. "Thanks. I love these fruit things."
"My pleasure. The only place where you can get a better one is in Hawaii."
"Really? Have you been there often?"
He nodded. "With work. They're beautiful islands."
"I'll have to go someday. I want to see the fish along the coral reefs, the lush greenery that goes forever. I hear it's good honeymoon country." She lifted an eyebrow.
"They went to the Caribbean on a cruise. Tom and I are Navy buddies. He married a sweetheart in Jill."
She tilted her head. "Did you send them off with a walk under raised swords?"
She had some knowledge of military life; he tucked that observation away to come back to later, even as he smiled. "Our team of SEALs did the honors." The last man had slapped Jill's behind with the flat of his sword in the best tradition of Navy weddings.
"She'll have great wedding pictures."
"I hope so. The photographer certainly took enough of them."
She laughed and the sound was rich, warm, and bubbled. When she spoke he heard a trace of the West and home. He wished he had met her years before. "I'm Sam by the way. Chief Petty Officer Sam Houston." He offered his hand, belatedly realizing the oversight.
"Darcy St. James."
He was careful as he took her hand. His bore rough rope burns from the work he did and had the strength to crush the bones in hers. He found her hand had an unexpected strength. "Pretty name."
She smiled and let the compliment pass, not breaking eye contact but merely not reacting beyond that slight smile.
That simple fact had him slow to release her hand. Those eyes were the unfathomable kind, as clear and deep a pool of blue as the ocean when it both welcomed and yet hid its treasures. He had never been one to miss a treasure hunt. "Listen, would you like to get a piece of wedding cake? There's plenty left."
"Actually I've been waiting for someone, but he's running late."
That was either a gentle not interested or a simple statement of fact. He held her gaze and what he saw convinced him it was worth taking the optimistic view. Besides, he admired the loyalty and patience she showed in waiting for her date. Too many people in life were impatient, and he'd long ago learned that the best things in life often involved an indefinite wait. "Have a number you could try?"
"I wish I did."
"Then while you wait, let me bring the cake to you." He got to his feet. "White or chocolate? A lot of icing or a little?"
Her hesitation was so slight as to be barely noticeable. "White with lots of icing."
"I guessed that."
She grinned and he got the feeling he'd just made an unexpected friend. Sam walked back toward the ballroom to get the cake, intrigued with her and that tantalizing hint of the West in her voice. If her date didn't show up, he'd enjoy an hour of conversation with her. And if she was interested in learning to dive ... her company would be welcome. He could hang with the guys anytime; Darcy would be much more interesting.
Darcy watched Sam walk away, leaning forward in her chair to catch a last glimpse of him as he disappeared around the decorative planters, his purposeful stride and posture signaling soldier even in his tux. She wished she wasn't working at the moment. She'd enjoy walking into the reception with him for a piece of that wedding cake and a chance to meet his friends. If there were a few SEALs still walking around in their dress uniforms carrying their swords ... She shook her head and forced herself to lean back and not follow the thought.
Sergey was late. She could continue to sit here alone and read with her light, but she would be noticed and remembered by passing guests. Sam was her solution. A couple didn't attract a second glance. And if one of them was remembered, it would more likely be him.
Sergey hadn't lost his tradecraft skills. A wedding was beautiful cover. She'd bought her dress in New York the day before and it fit her profile of a guest at this hotel: expensive, elegant blue, cut in classic lines. Sergey would appreciate it.
She shifted the leather portfolio in her lap and reopened her book. It wasn't like Sergey to be late, but she could give him another fifteen minutes. She had contingency plans and a bolthole arranged. The contrast of a wedding and the possible danger she was in just sitting here was stark. She didn't want someone making an attempt to collect that bounty while she was focused on her meeting with Sergey. She made herself relax. She'd said yes to this mission, and she was committed to seeing it through.
Was Sam short for Samuel? Maybe she would get a chance to find out. She always appreciated a man who could focus. And he'd focused on her, a pretty nice fact all the way around. The man had wasted no time making a casual scan of her left hand looking for a ring. He wore a unique one with the SEAL emblem at the center and a cross etched into the side. The cross was an unexpected surprise-it was nice to have an early clue as to what he valued.
She'd surprised him. When she interrupted his reverie, there had been just a beat of a pause as he decided how to react before he moved to join her. He hadn't been sure if he knew her but curiosity had him coming over. There were calluses on his hand when he took hers, and she'd picked up the faint smell of peppermint.
He made an impression all right. She had a feeling she would be dreaming about the man and that smile tonight. And those eyes ... He had a fascinating face. Not a pretty or overly handsome one, but compelling with blue eyes that reflected his laughter and a smile that was quick to appear.
Mid-thirties, six-foot even, fit and tough, he looked well able to take care of himself. Given the amount of trouble in the world SEALs got sent to quiet down, she doubted Sam spent much time in the States. They were Special Operations Forces trained to work covertly from Sea, Air, and Land, and only a few thousand were on active duty. She met SEALs overseas during extractions of spies and occasionally at embassy dinners where just their presence created a layer of security.
Next time choose the couple from New York, she told herself, turning pages in the book. They had been seated to her left until a few minutes before Sam appeared, and she could have easily started a conversation with them about the current Broadway plays. Instead she chose Sam and wiped out her concentration.
There weren't many strangers to bump into out in Shelton, North Dakota; a fact that was great for her security but detrimental to her social life. Maybe this meeting with Sergey would fall through, maybe Sam would be around for a few hours ... And if she didn't stop thinking about him, she was going to end up where most distracted agents did when they were working-in trouble.
Sam walked into the ballroom. Guests had regrouped around a few tables in the center of the room. Someone in the center of that mass of people was about to do something stupid; Sam could hear through the shouts of laughter someone calling off a count. If he didn't know for a fact Wolf was away on his honeymoon, Sam would have predicted his partner would be the SEAL on the spot. He considered wandering over to see, but there were priorities in life and then there were priorities. A lady with brilliant blue eyes didn't smile at him that often.
Special Operations was a small community. He'd trained or worked with most of the men here. Years of sweat equity had earned him a place in this group where respect was earned, not given, and it felt good. The guys had brought their wives and girlfriends. He'd make another effort to talk Darcy into joining him. He'd seen the way her eyes lit up at that idea of walking below raised swords. He wasn't opposed to using the trappings of his career to tip the balance in his favor.
A piece of white cake with lots of icing. Sam studied the table and chose the one with the biggest rose. He picked up a chocolate piece for himself. The evening felt a lot like icing atop an already great day.
Sam turned at the call from his boss. His instinct was to snap to attention but he overrode it. Lieutenant Joe "Bear" Baker was still in dress uniform from the wedding. "Yes, sir. Is Kelly settled for the night?" Bear's wife was five months pregnant, and since she had asked him to be the child's godfather, Sam tried to stay current on the details.
"Asleep, although she wouldn't admit she was tired." Bear nodded to the two pieces of cake. "Found some company?"
Sam heard the curiosity of a friend as well as the care of an attentive CO and smiled. "Yes."
"Then I won't keep you. I want to pass on an invitation from Kelly. If you don't end up with plans for lunch tomorrow, feel free to join us."
"Thank you, sir." It was a night for optimism. "I'm hoping for the plans."
Bear laughed. "Then I wish you luck."
Sam walked back to the pool area, still smiling. Bear was the right kind of boss; it was a twenty-four/seven commitment. The man was responsible for the lives of sixteen men. Keeping an eye out for complications on the home front went with the job. Distractions got people killed. He had smoothed out more relationships with a well-placed word than Sam could count. Even if the advice occasionally came with a bit of a growl for which he was famous-Joe was a grizzly bear early in the morning.
A small pebble bounced down the steps as a couple came up from the beach arm in arm. Darcy looked up from her book and made more than a casual inspection of everyone in sight. She was still expecting her company to arrive. Whatever had held the man up, Sam hoped he appreciated the fact that Darcy was waiting for him.
He walked over to join her. "Here you go." He offered her the slice of white cake.
She turned in her seat toward him and waited until he sat down and had sampled his cake before tasting hers. She waved her fork. "Delicious as I knew it would be." She ate another bite, edging her way around the rose to leave it for last. "You said you are a Navy SEAL?"
"For over a decade now." He waited for the follow-up on what it was like to be a soldier.
Instead she studied him over her fork. "What do they call you?"
It wasn't a question he had expected. Sam grinned. "My friends call me a lot of things. Cougar normally. Chief when they're razzing me about my recent promotion."
"There's a story behind that name Cougar."
He inclined his head. A complicated, slightly unbelievable, but true story.
Excerpted from TRUE HONOR by DEE HENDERSON Copyright © 2002 by Dee Henderson. Excerpted by permission.
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