Y'all, I'm hard at work on my military series while I'm in between Presents, and today I decided to share an excerpt with you. I've loved this story for a long time. It's undergone a few revisions, as I learned how better to tell a story, and looks almost nothing like it did when it was a Golden Heart finalist in 2008. It's my hope to make this story available in the next couple of months. There's still work to be done, but I will get it done.
Sharing this extended excerpt with you today is one way to keep me motivated. If I promise you I'm working on it, and you like what you read, how can I break that promise to make it available as soon as possible?
In this story, which has been called HOT PURSUIT for a very, very long time (even before Suz Brockmann published her story by the same title), a sexy Special Forces commander and the hometown girl whose heart he once broke team up to save her sister from a killer.
I've given you the prologue and first chapter today. I hope you enjoy it!
Two months ago…
Something was wrong.
It wasn’t anything obvious, but Captain Matthew Girard felt it in his gut nonetheless. It was an itching sensation across his skin, a buzzing in his belly. Perhaps it was simply the weight of this mission pressing down on him. Though STAG 10 always performed critical missions, this one was even more so. Failure was not an option.
Beside him, Kevin MacDonald lay in the sand, his camo clad form as still as marble until the moment he turned his head and caught Matt’s eye.
Kev’s hand moved. Doesn’t feel right, he signaled.
No, Matt signaled back. Count on Kev to pick up on it too.
“It’s awful quiet in that compound.” Jim Matuzaki’s voice came through the earpiece a few moments later.
“Yeah,” Matt answered into the mic attached to his helmet. Almost as if the tangos inside knew that STAG 10 was coming and had abandoned the compound.
The stone structure thirty meters distant rose two stories high and lacked windows. The roof was flat to enable gunmen to look out on the surrounding territory and defend their position.
But there were no gunmen. Not tonight.
In the surveillance photos, the gunmen were so many they’d stood out against the pale roof like a porcupine’s quills. And now…
Though it was quiet here, gunfire exploded in the distance at regular intervals. A pitched battle between a pocket of enemy forces and a Ranger battalion raged a few miles away. STAG 10’s mission was quieter, but no less deadly.
They were here for Jassar ibn-Rashad, the rumored new mastermind and heir to the now deceased Freedom Force leader Al Ahmad. But this mission was different. Usually, they killed the target. Tonight, they were extracting him. The bastard was wanted higher up the chain, and Matt didn’t question orders from the Pentagon. They wanted him, they were getting him.
Matt and his team had planned the mission to kidnap ibn-Rashad for weeks. Down to the last damn detail. And then they’d gotten word just a few days ago that ibn-Rashad was moving to this location. It was their best chance to get him, so they’d pressed forward with the op.
The intel was good. Damn good. And their contact had been reliable on more than one occasion. Nothing he’d ever told them hadn’t checked out.
But this time?
The bad feeling in Matt’s gut was getting stronger by the second. He’d thought the kid seemed more nervous than usual the last time he’d gone to meet with him. The kid had always been nervous, but he’d seemed to trust Matt’s word. And Matt had trusted him as much as he was able. Trust, but verify.
Which the CIA had done. All the chatter indicated that ibn-Rashad had moved to this location. Nothing indicated that the Freedom Force had any idea they were being targeted. And in spite of the niggling feeling he’d had about the whole thing, Matt had chosen to press forward with the op.
Just then, a light flashed up on the roof and blinked out again. Male voices carried in the night, followed by a bark of laughter.
“Two men,” Marco San Ramos said over the headset. “Smoking.”
Marco and Jim were closer and had a better view through the glasses.
“Richie?” Jim’s voice came through the headset again, calling Matt by his team name.
He knew what the other man was asking. What they were all waiting for. In another location close by, Billy Blake and Jack Hazelton also waited for the signal to go or to retreat. The timeline was tight, and if they didn’t go in now, they’d have to scrub the mission to make it to the extraction point on time. They had precisely twenty minutes to infiltrate the compound, kill the tangos, and extract ibn-Rashad.
If they were going in.
“Mission is a go,” he said, making the split-second decision in spite of the acid roiling in his belly. What if they didn’t get a second chance at this? Lives hung in the balance with ibn-Rashad remaining free. This mission had always been risky, but what did they ever do that wasn’t? “Repeat, mission is a go.”
“Hoo-ah,” Jim replied, giving the standard Army acknowledgement. The rest of the men chimed in. Seconds later, two cracks rang into the night. And then Billy’s voice came over the headset. “Targets on roof neutralized.”
Jack “Hawk” Hazelton could always be counted on to make the difficult shots. The dude was probably the best sharpshooter Matt had ever seen.
Everything went like clockwork from that point on. They converged on the compound from their separate locations. Kev set a charge on the door and then it exploded inward. Billy Blake tossed a flash-bang into the opening. It went off with a loud crack, the light flaring as bright as a nuclear flash for a split second. Whoever was in that room would be blind and disoriented after that baby went off.
The team rushed through the door, going right and left in succession, guns drawn as pandemonium reigned among the unsuspecting terrorists. STAG 10 worked like a well-oiled machine. Each man knew where to shoot instinctively, could have done so blindfolded if necessary.
Within seconds, the terrorists lay dead and gunpowder hung heavy in the air, along with the odors of smoke and stale sweat.
Sweat also trickled down the inside of Matt’s assault suit. He didn’t have time to be uncomfortable. Instead, he and Kev raced up the steps along with Marco and Jim, searching for ibn-Rashad, while Billy and Jack secured the perimeter.
A methodical sweep of the rooms proved futile.
“He’s not here,” Marco spat. “There’s no one else.”
“Goddamn,” Matt swore. The skin-crawling sensation he’d had from the beginning of this op was now a full-blown assault on his senses.
Kev looked at him, his face bleak behind the greasepaint, his eyes saying everything Matt was thinking.
Jassar ibn-Rashad was supposed to be here. He’d been reported here as of this afternoon, in fact. There was a price on the man’s head, and no reason to move from this location…unless he’d been tipped off they were coming.
“Do another sweep for information. West side. Three minutes, and we’re out,” Matt ordered.
“Hoo-ah,” Marco said. He and Jim headed for the west side of the house while Matt and Kev split up to cover the rooms on the east end. Matt swept into each room, weapon drawn, helmet light blazing. There was nothing. No papers, no computers, no media of any kind. Nothing they could use to determine what ibn-Rashad was planning next.
He hit the hall again, met up with Kev, who shook his head.
Jim and Marco arrived next, empty handed. The four of them pounded down the stairs. Another quick sweep of the rooms on the ground floor, and they were back into the night with Billy and Jack, running for the extraction point five miles away.
They hadn’t gone a mile when bullets blasted into the air beside them. A hot, stinging sensation bloomed in Matt’s side. He kept running anyway. Until they crested the dune they’d been traveling up and came face to face with a series of rocket-propelled grenade launchers pointed right in their faces.
Fuck. The mission was definitely a bust, and in the worst way possible.
“Mm-mm, look at that Girard boy, all grown up and better looking than a man ought to be,” said one of the ladies under the row of hairdryers.
Evie Baker’s heart did a somersault. Matt Girard. Dear God. “Careful,” Stella Dupre yelped as warm water sprayed against the side of the sink and hit her in the face.
“Sorry,” Evie replied, shifting the hose. She was a chef not a shampoo girl, but she didn’t suppose that distinction mattered anymore since the bank now owned her restaurant. Shampoo girl in her mama’s beauty salon was just about the only job she could get right now.
Mama glanced over at her, frowning even as the snip-snip of scissors continued unabated. The ladies in the salon swung to look out the picture window as Matt strode along, and the chatter ratcheted up a notch. The odor of perming solution and floral shampoo surrounded Evie like a wet blanket, squeezing her lungs. Her breath stuttered in her chest.
She hadn’t seen him in ten years. Not since that night when he’d taken her virginity and broken her heart all at once. She’d known he was back in town—hell, the whole town had talked of nothing else since his arrival yesterday. She’d even known this moment was probably inevitable, except that she’d been planning to do her best to avoid all the places he might be for as long as possible.
“Heard he got shot out there in Iraq,” Mrs. Martin said as Evie’s mama rolled a lock of grey hair around a fat pink curler.
“Yes indeed, got a Purple Heart,” Mama said. “The senator was right proud, according to Lucy Greene.”
“That’s not what I heard!” Joely Hinch crowed. “Miss Mildred told me he’s being kicked out of the Army because he didn’t obey orders.”
“Fiddlesticks,” Mrs. Martin said. “That boy bleeds red, white, and blue. Same as his daddy and every last Girard that ever was born up in that big house.”
Joely crossed her arms, looking slightly irritated to be contradicted. “You just wait and see,” she said smugly.
“Shush up, y’all,” Mama said. “I think he’s coming in.”
Evie’s heart sank to her toes. She finished Stella’s shampoo and wrapped her hair in a towel. “I’m not tipping you, Evangeline,” Stella said with a sniff. “You have to be more careful than that.”
“I know,” Evie replied. “And I don’t blame you at all.” Except, of course, she desperately needed every penny she could get if she hoped to escape this town ever again. It wasn’t that Rochambeau was bad—it’s that it was bad for her. She glanced out the window.
Matt was definitely coming this way.
Magazines snapped open in a flurry as the ladies tried to appear casually disinterested in the six-foot-two hunk of muscle about to open the glass door. More than one pair of eyes peeked over the top of the glossy pages as he stepped up to the sidewalk from the street.
No way in hell was she sticking around for this. It wouldn’t take these ladies more than a few moments to remember the scandalous rumors about her and Matt, and she didn’t want to be here when they did.
“If you’ll excuse me, I have to get some things out of the back,” she said. Without waiting for a reply, she strode toward the stockroom. Rachel Mayhew, Mama’s regular shampoo girl, looked up and smiled as she passed. Rachel was only twenty, so she probably didn’t know about Evie’s disastrous night with Matt. Or maybe she did considering the way this town talked.
Evie wasn’t sticking around to find out. As if life hadn’t beaten her up enough already.
A month ago, she’d said goodbye to her dream. It still hurt. Her lovely little bistro in Florida was now in the bank’s hands, and all because she’d trusted a man. A man who’d shared her bed, robbed her blind, and ran off with another woman. The authorities thought that David had ties to organized crime and that he’d been skimming money along with other, more nefarious schemes. She hated to think about it. Evangeline’s had been everything she’d ever wanted when she’d shaken off the dust of this one-horse town and gone to cooking school a few years ago.
But here she was again, back in Rochambeau and washing hair in her mama’s salon, just like when she’d been in high school. Loser. All she wanted was to get out again at the first opportunity. Before that loser feeling wrapped around her throat and squeezed the rest of her dreams away.
Matt reached for the door, and Evie darted behind the stockroom curtain. Her heart slammed against her ribs as the tinkling bell announced his arrival. She turned to lean against the doorjamb, pushed the rose-print polyester aside with one finger. She was being silly. He wasn’t here because of her. He was here because his sister had sent him on some errand or other for her wedding.
Hell, he probably wouldn’t even recognize Evie if he ran smack into her.
Evie frowned. She damn sure recognized him. Her eyes slid down his body, back up again. He was still something to look at.
Something easy on the eyes and hard on the senses.
He’d changed in ten years, but some things were the same. That cocky swagger as he’d approached the shop. He’d always walked like his daddy owned all the oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Which he damn near did. The Girards had been Rochambeau’s wealthiest family for as long as anyone could remember.
Matt’s dark hair was cut very short, and his shoulders were much broader than when he’d been seventeen. The fabric of his white cotton T-shirt stretched across a wide chest packed with muscle. His bare arms made her throat go dry.
Something quivered deep inside her. Something hot and dark and secret. Evie squashed the feeling ruthlessly.
He pushed a hand through his hair, every muscle of his torso seeming to bunch and flex with the movement. She would have sworn she heard a collective sigh from the ladies in the salon. Rachel absently ran water in her sink, cleaning out the soap bubbles from the last shampoo. When she got too close to the edge, the water sprayed up into her face.
Evie would have laughed if she too weren’t caught up in Matt’s every move. She’d adored him ten years ago, worshipped him from afar until the night she’d screwed up her courage—thanks to a single shot of liquor—and asked him to be her first.
What a mistake. Not because sex with him had been awful. No, it’d been pretty exciting all things considered. It was what had happened afterward that ruined it for her.
“Afternoon, ladies,” Matt said, tipping his head to them.
“Afternoon,” they murmured in unison, voices sugary and lilting, eyes assessing and cataloging him.
“Miz Breaux,” he said as he took her mother’s hand and kissed it like a courtier.
“Oh, shoot.” She smacked him playfully on the shoulder. “What do you want? Don’t you know this is a beauty parlor? Sid’s Barber Shop is on Main Street.”
“Well, ma’am,” he said, grinning that devil-may-care grin of his Evie remembered so well. “I figured Old Sid can’t see so well anymore and I’m still fond of my ears. I’d much rather have a lady’s touch, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh my,” Mama said. Then she giggled. Giggled.
Evie rolled her eyes. No wonder she couldn’t pick a decent man. She came by the defect naturally. Mama had been divorced three times. She’d gone back to using her maiden name after the second one in order to avoid confusion. Evie had her daddy’s last name, her sixteen-year-old sister had a different name, and Mama had yet another one.
But at least she’d never let a man ruin her business, a mean voice said. Or turn her into the town joke.
“You don’t even look like you need a haircut,” Mama was saying.
He scrubbed a hand over the nape of his neck. “My sister thinks I do. And it’s her wedding.”
Mama giggled again. What was it about that man that turned even the smartest woman into an airhead? “Well, we can’t let Christina be disappointed then, can we? But you’ll have to wait until I finish with Mrs. Martin.”
Mama gestured toward the pink vinyl seats in the front of the shop, and Matt gave her that famous Girard smile that used to melt the female hearts of Rochambeau High School. Evie felt a little hitch in her heart, in spite of herself.
Why did he still have to be so damn good-looking? Was it too much to ask for him to be balding, growing a potbelly? Apparently so. Mother Nature was cruel.
“Sure thing, Miz Breaux.”
Before he’d taken three steps toward the waiting area, Mama said, “You remember my daughter, Evangeline, don’t you? She was a year behind you in school.”
Evie’s heart crashed into her ribs. The ladies in the shop grew quiet while they waited for his answer. She knew what they were thinking. What they were waiting for. Why should it bother her what they thought? What any of them thought?
It had been ten years ago, and it didn’t matter anymore. She was grown up. Matt was grown up. Who cared?
Except that’s not how Rochambeau worked, and she knew it. It might have been ten years, but he’d humiliated her. He’d broken her heart and tossed her to the wolves when she wasn’t prepared to deal with the consequences of her actions. Not that anyone knew for sure what had happened, but the rumors were usually enough in Rochambeau.
“Yes ma’am, I sure do. How is she?” He didn’t sound in the least bit remorseful. But why would he? He’d gotten what he wanted out of the deal. She’d been the one left to pick up the pieces of her life once he’d gone.
“Evie’s great,” Mama announced. “Been living in Florida, but she’s home now. Maybe you can talk to her while you wait. Y’all can catch up.”
Evie’s stomach plummeted to her toes. Oh no. No, no, no. What if she went into the bathroom and refused to come out? Or just quietly slipped out the back door and disappeared for a couple of hours? It was time for her lunch break, and—
Coward. Evie stiffened her spine. She wasn’t running away. If it weren’t now, it’d be some other time. She couldn’t avoid him forever. And far better to get this over with in public, while she could maintain her dignity and show the good people of Rochambeau there was nothing whatsoever to talk about.
“That’d be great,” he said in an aw shucks way she didn’t buy for a second. He might talk smooth and act all friendly and gee-whiz ma’am, but she knew better. God, did she know better.
“Good,” her mother said as if it was the best idea in the world, her gaze sweeping the shop. “She was here just a minute ago. Evie? Evie?”
“She went in the back,” Stella offered with what Evie was convinced was an edge of glee. Bitch.
Right. There was nothing Evie could do except face the music. Because there was no way on earth she’d ever let Matt Girard humiliate her again. She’d learned the hard way, but at least she’d learned.
“I’m right here, Mama,” she said, whipping off her smock and pushing back the curtain.