SM Excerpt

Prologue

Annabelle

 

The Georgia summer night air was hot and humid, but that didn’t stop me from cuddling as close as I could get to the boy I loved most in this world. The sweet smell from the azalea blossom that Bobby Baker had tucked behind my ear drifted around me, creating a false sense of security. My chin was settled on the back of my left hand as I lay propped up on his chest. With so much weighing on my mind, I was distractedly staring into oblivion over his body in the general direction of Bobby’s beloved 1967 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500.

The car’s black paint blended with the night, but its white racing stripes glowed brightly down the center in the soft moonlight. Bobby said the only thing that he loved more than his car was me. However, love wasn’t strong enough to stop him from leaving me behind tomorrow.

He kept telling me that I was worrying too much. That everything was going to be alright. No matter his reassurances, the massive lump of dread in the pit of my stomach wasn’t going away. The uneasy feeling you got when something terrible was about to happen was haunting my every moment, and it was only a matter of time before whatever it was would come to pass. The question was, would I come out alright on the other end of the impending catastrophe?

Sprawled on top of a blanket on the bank of the creek, my mind was moving faster than the speed of light at what lay ahead of us tomorrow. Bobby was holding me tightly while he stared at the bright stars above us. The familiar sounds of the critters in the forest, accompanied with the crickets around us, did nothing to ease the heavy silence that Bobby and I were trying carefully to tip-toe around.

What felt like a thousand pounds of pressure on my chest eventually became too much. I resigned myself to broach the subject he was trying desperately to avoid. “What time do you leave tomorrow, Ace?”

Bobby’s hand tightened on my shoulder for a second before he started stroking the bare skin above my tank top. “I’ve got to be at the bus stop at seven.”

My chest seized up and the ability to breathe suddenly felt impossible. Fighting my instincts to sob uncontrollably was almost painful, but necessary, as I reminded myself tonight would be the last night we would have to spend together for months. Tomorrow he was headed to Fort Leonard Wood in Waynesville, MO for ten weeks of Army Basic Training. After that, it would be at least fourteen weeks that he would be gone during the next phase of training for an Infantryman position. Even longer if he was selected to attend Ranger school. Months and months before I could see, taste or touch him again. I had to reassure myself in the most basic ways that Bobby Baker, one of the town’s golden boys, was really and truly all mine; that someone like him could, in fact, love a girl like me; to have the physical proof from his hands and mouth as they touched me that I was not alone in this world. Those were hard facts for me to accept when Bobby was all I genuinely had here.

Sensing the direction of my thoughts he grabbed my chin gently and turned it so I was looking at him. “Don’t think about it tonight, Belle. Tonight is just for us, remember? Come here.” Rolling to his side, Bobby pulled me up the last few inches so that we lay facing each other while he stroked his fingertips down the side of my face. “Don’t feel sad, baby. What’s our plan?”

Holding back the tears that threatened to escape from my eyes, I placed one of my trembling hands over his heart. “You’re going to basic. While you’re gone, I’m supposed to stop by your momma’s as often as possible, so everyone knows I’m okay. If Daddy gets drunk or becomes trouble again, I call your dad right away to come and get me. Then, when you’re done with all of your school, you’re going to come back and get me because I’ll finally be eighteen. You’ll take me far, far away from this small town and we’ll live happily ever after.”

Cocking his devastating good ol’ boy grin, Bobby nodded his head. “That’s right, baby. Don’t forget the plan. You’ve only got to make it a little while without me. Then first chance I get, I’ll be back for you. You’re the town tough girl. You’ll be just fine. Promise me, though, if you run out of food again, you’ll go see Mom.”

My cheeks burned with embarrassment. I knew he was looking out for me, but who wanted to admit they often went hungry because their father would rather buy his booze and cigarettes than provide a warm meal for his child. Tucking my chin to my chest I murmured, “Promise.”

“When I get back on leave, we’ll have our happily ever after, Belle. You and me forever, with no one standing in our way. I’ll get to wake you up in the morning with those slow kisses you love so much. Put you to bed at night after I’ve touched every inch of your sweet, little body with my hands.” My body gave an involuntary shiver at his words. “Come here and give me some hot memories to keep me warm on the lonely nights to come, baby.” Bobby’s mouth covered mine. His tongue caressed my own in sweet, smooth strokes that warmed me from the inside out. He kissed me senseless until I had to gasp for air. “Do you feel better now?”

He wasn’t talking about my emotional state of mind. I’d had a horrible case of strep throat that my dad had refused to take me to a doctor for. After missing a few days of school because my fever was over one hundred two degrees, Bobby finally talked me into going to his house so his parents could try and help me. His father might be a farmer, but his uncle was the small town’s physician. After one phone call, a home visit from Dr. Baker, and strict instructions for drinking as many fluids as possible while taking the medication, my fever had finally broke. Now, a week and a half later, I felt like my old self again. Or, at least, I would if my heart wasn’t breaking into a million pieces inside my chest.

“Yeah, Ace. All better. The antibiotics cleared me right up.”

“Good,” he said softly before gently brushing his lips against my own. I brought my hand up to cradle the side of his face, sweeping my thumb over his cheekbone. My eyes traveled slowly over Bobby’s face, memorizing for the millionth time every feature he had. Starting with his thick, lush, chestnut hair with subtle blond highlights, due to his long days spent in the sun. That hair curled around his ears and dropped down into his eyes since he’d forgone his usual monthly haircuts. His extraordinary baby blue eyes with flecks of white and gray reminded me of sunny days spent lazing about in a hammock, cuddled next to him in the Bakers’ backyard. They were the most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen. His prominent cheekbones, straight nose, and strong jaw completed a handsome face of a boy who was on the verge of becoming a man. The kind of good looks you knew would only get better with age. He was attractive now, but when he was older, I knew he was going to be the kind of stunning women became mesmerized with.

I felt the familiar overwhelming awe fill me for what had to be the millionth time in the past two years. I didn’t know if I would ever be able to accept that the popular, hometown boy had taken a chance on the bad girl from the wrong side of the trailer park. He was the football star. I was the angry girl with a massive chip on her shoulder and my middle finger stuck up in the air at the world. Bobby made excellent grades, and all the teachers loved him. For the most part, my teachers ignored me as long as I had a passing grade in their class. Heaven forbid any of them actually took a chance to get to know me. To see that there was a core of goodness tucked away underneath the rebel attitude. Bobby was a good ol’ boy who went hunting and fishing with his daddy, as well as their friends. He never got in a lick of trouble and seemed to excel at everything. That’s why I’d nicknamed him Ace. He was always ‘acing’ anything he tried to the point it just about made you sick that he was always so talented. No matter the difficulty level of the task you put before him, he would complete it with quiet efficiency as if he was born to do it. He was perfect. I, however, was as far from perfect as you could get. Bobby somehow managed to see the best in me. He loved me in spite of my flaws.

We were from two different worlds. The town may not think much of me, but none of that mattered because Bobby Baker had decided to chase me down, drag me home to his parents, and then do his best to show me that I could have a family that loved me. I didn’t have to resign my life to a drunken, abusive father, who beat my mother into the ground until it killed her. To open paths of possibilities for me, instead of the run down life I thought I was doomed to.

Bobby Baker was my world. My heart. My soul. The reason I woke up every day with the desire to get out of bed and face a world that seemed like its favorite hobby was to find ways to kick me when I was already down. Bobby made putting up with all of the heartache possible.

Hell, he was my hero.

Without him, I doubted I could survive in this crazy world we lived in. Luckily he was always promising that I would never have to worry about a world where there wasn’t some part of him that would always be with me. I prayed every night that he was right about that.

Oblivious to my inner turmoil, I watched as he used his free hand to smooth the hair back from my face; running his callused fingers through the strands as he leaned down over me until our faces were only an inch apart. “Love you, Belle.”

Bobby crushed his lips over mine again, stealing the breath from me as he moved his body over mine. Propping himself up on one elbow, he used his other hand to pull my tank top over my head, lying it on the grass somewhere next to the blanket. His hands roamed my body until I was burning for this boy who meant everything to me.

When it felt as if I might explode from his torturous play, he sat up to strip off his shirt. Then he shucked off his shorts and boxers so he stood proudly naked above me wearing nothing except that easy, cocky grin of his and what God graciously gave him; a trim body lightly muscled from days playing football and hard work on his parents’ farm. Chest, arms and legs were deeply tanned in stark contrast to his rich chestnut brown hair and remarkable eyes.

Kneeling next to me, he quickly pulled my cut off denim shorts and panties down my legs. Covering my body with his, he resumed to make me breathless with scorching kisses while his fingers trailed slowly down my body.

“You ready for me, baby?”

My back arched to the building sensation below. “Make love to me, Ace. I’m about to come and I wanna feel you inside me when I do.”

“First, tell me who loves you.”

“You do, Bobby.”

“That’s right, sweet baby. Remember that.”

For the next hour, two sweat-slicked, teenage bodies tangled together in passion. Every thrust became a little more desperate than the last. Every moan a little louder. Each of us determined to show the other without words how much they felt with their hands, mouths and other parts. How deeply we cared. How consuming our commitment was. Cementing the unbreakable bond that had been in place for so long now, it felt as though we were a part of each other, even when we were in separate houses.

In moments such as this, I felt as if I couldn’t tell where I began and Bobby ended. He had promised me this was what it would feel like till we were old and gray. When it was over, we laid on the blanket grasping each other tightly.

Dragging ragged breaths in, I whispered, “I love you, Ace. Forever.”

Dropping his forehead to mine, he said, “I love you, too, Belle. Forever, baby.”

***

Thirteen weeks later…

Pulling my dad’s rust bucket of a pickup truck into the Bakers’ front yard, I was a step away from hyper ventilating. This was it. I had to beg the Bakers’ to let me move in with them because things had gone from sugar to shit at my house. I didn’t have much time to convince them. If the drunken, old coot came to from the nice little nap I’d caused by knocking him over the head with his own whiskey bottle to see that I’d taken his truck, he’d probably beat me worse than he’d already tried to this afternoon.

After today, I obviously could not stay with the inebriated ass that called himself my father anymore. Lord, I was up shit’s creek without a paddle. I’d knocked that mean ol’ shit the hell out and the only reason I wasn’t having a nervous breakdown was because I’d checked his pulse before leaving the trailer. It was a sad, sad thought that as relieved as I was to feel his heartbeat still beating and knowing I wouldn’t be going to jail for killing my old man, I was equally disappointed he was still alive. He’d made my life a living hell and I couldn’t care less whether he lived or died. I didn’t want to end up behind steel bars for being the one that caused his evil ass to stop breathing. Since Bobby had left for the Army, I’d been so stressed out it had caused me to be physically sick. I’d lost a good fifteen pounds I didn’t have to lose in the first place. My clothes had gone from loose to falling off.

That I hadn’t heard from Bobby in almost two months didn’t help my nerves either. I might not have felt so lost if my best friend, Teagan, hadn’t left for the Marine Corps just weeks before Bobby had left for the Army. With her and Bobby both gone, though, my life felt like a ship tossing at sea with no land in sight.

The worst had to have been spending my eighteenth birthday alone. My father had tied one on the night before—no surprise there—and then passed out at one of his women’s houses, forgetting all about it. Not that I expected him to care anyways. I should probably consider his absence a blessing. However, it didn’t stop the little girl in me from feeling dejected. I’d received a five minute phone call from Teagan, which brightened my day, but not a word from Bobby. That had hurt the most. The rest of the evening, after Teagan’s phone call, was spent bent over the toilet. It was far from the birthday of my dreams.

Looking in the rear view mirror, I tried my best to fluff my blond hair around my face. As long as the wind didn’t blow it around too much, then the unruly waves should cover most of the purpled bruise that was left behind on the back of my jaw. I couldn’t take his crap anymore. If he so much as tried to lay a hand on me again, I was going to end up being arrested for homicide. Or, at least, attempted homicide. It was time to get out while I still could before I ended up like my mother: beaten to death. Technically, Momma had died from a heart attack, but that heart attack had been caused by too much stress from her husband pummeling her bloody, on top of an already weak heart. I didn’t think I had my mother’s weak heart and I will be damned if I let that bastard beat me to death.

Mrs. Baker walked out onto the porch holding something in her hand. A somber expression on her face. Scrubbing my hands over my face, I forced myself out of the car until I stood at the bottom of the porch steps in front of her.

“Hi Mrs. Baker, how are you?”

“Fine, Belle. I’m glad you stopped by; you’ve got a letter from Bobby here. Why don’t you sit down on the swing to read it, honey.” Holding out her hand to me, I saw the envelope extended in my direction. Walking up the steps, I took the small envelope from her and stared at it. A sense of dread eased up my spine from a combination of her careful tone and what felt like an envelope that was way too thin. Something didn’t feel right. Wouldn’t Bobby have written me a nice long letter to let me know how much he loved and missed me? I expected lots of pages from him so he could tell me about everything he had done and seen so far. Not this little envelope that only looked big enough for a few sentences. I could write a book about how much I loved and missed him, surely he wrote me more than one page? Sitting down on the swing, my hands started to shake a little as I opened the envelope and pulled the short, one page letter out.

 

Dear Belle,

Sorry it has taken me so long to write you back. Life has been kind of hectic since I reached my new base for my Advanced Individual Training. Some days it feels like my world has been flipped upside down and it’s caused me to do a lot of thinking. I’ve seen some cool things that would blow your mind. Met some interesting people, too. Guys my age and older guys who have left their families behind so they can start a military career. All these new experiences and people have given me a lot to think about. Listening to their backgrounds and stories make me realize how sheltered our life has been up until now. I’ll be honest, Belle, I’m not sure I’m ready for forever. I’m not sure we should run off and get married right now. We’re young. There are so many things we’ve yet to see and do in life. You’ve never set foot outside of Sylvania, and I don’t want us to do anything now that we may regret down the road. Maybe we should take things slower. Take some time apart to make sure this is what we actually want in life before we make such a big jump. I love you, Belle. I’ll always love you. You were the first girl who touched my heart. Who made me feel emotions outside of the ones I feel for my family. I’m sorry if this is coming out of left field for you and I hope you understand.

Love Always, Bobby

 

The words blurred together as small, wet spots started to appear on the page. In a matter of five minutes, my world had officially fallen apart. The paper trembled in my hands as my mind worked overtime and I began the process of turning my heart to solid steel in my chest; cutting off my emotions. A trick that had been in daily use every day of my life before Bobby Baker had ever stepped foot in it. I couldn’t break down here in front of Mrs. Baker. No one got to see Annabelle Smith cry. Nobody. No matter how much it hurt. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had tried to break me, but it would damn well be the last.

I should have listened to my instincts that had blared big, honking alarms the moment Bobby Baker had sat at my table in the high school cafeteria and said hello. Nobody as good and pure as Ace would ever want to settle for a girl who lived off of clearance cans of tuna fish and dressed in thrift store clothes. It was stupid to think anyone other than Teagan, who had placed herself in front of my father’s fists to protect me, was okay to let close to my heart. She’d bought that loyalty from me with bruises and blood. Looking back now, I realized Bobby hadn’t bought my loyalty with his love. He’d bought my body with false promises and kisses. Hadn’t I lived a valuable lesson watching my mother take beatings from the man she loved?

Love was a joke.

A fairytale that mother’s told their daughters while tucking them into bed at night just before the man they swore was their Prince Charming knocked the living shit out of them because supper was cold. It was a scam that conned stupid people into letting their guard down so some jerk could dig their way inside the deepest part of them, place a ticking bomb next to their soul, and then blow it to smithereens. I would never be stupid enough to let my emotional walls down again. Quickly wiping the lone tear from my face that had escaped despite my efforts, I stood and faced Mrs. Baker. A slight movement in the corner of my eye caught my attention. Looking over, I saw Mr. Baker was standing behind the screen door with his head hung almost to his chest, studying his boots in the uncomfortable silence.

“Thank you for giving me the letter, Mrs. Baker. I’ll be on my way home now.”

Side stepping her outreached hand I rushed to the truck and sped from the Bakers’ home, kicking up dirt in my screeching tires’ wake. I willed myself to keep it together long enough until I could go somewhere by myself to be alone. Somewhere, where I could fall apart before figuring out what the hell I was going to do next. It felt like the world had finally turned its back on me. With my shitty luck in life, I should have expected this sooner or later. Who would want to settle down with the town’s trailer trash? Certainly not a respectable boy like Bobby Baker.

I was well and truly on my own. Nowhere to go, no one to care, and more questions than answers about what was going to happen next. As the view in front of me became one blurry piece of landscape that no longer seemed to make any sense, I pulled the truck over on the side of the country road and parked. Dropping my head to the steering wheel, my body imploded with pain as I felt my heart shatter in my chest. What in the hell was I going to do now?

Chapter One

Bobby

Fifteen years later…

“Hey, Baker!” Riley Sullivan, a fellow member of the EX Ops team bellowed from the end of the hall in front of me. “You’re late for the meeting! Get your ass in here before the Commander has a hissy fit and abandons you to some tropical shit-hole as punishment.”

I turned on my cat-who-ate-the-canary grin and continued my lazy saunter down the hall towards the room. Abandoned to a jungle? Been there, done that. Got the stinking t-shirt to prove it, too. By stinking t-shirt, I meant the shirt I’d had to take off in the middle of the jungle and throw away because a monkey had thrown rotten fruit at me. Only the guys swore the brown stuff flung at me was not rotten fruit. The second that mission was over, I’d taken a shower so hot it could have boiled my ass alive if I’d stayed in there too long. However, if Jaxon, my stick-up-the-ass Commander, wanted to send me on a jungle vacation, I sure as shit wasn’t going to complain. All I had to do was make sure to pack my weapons, ammunition, bug spray and plenty of fresh shirts. A machete might come in handy, too. I’d be happy to prove I could take anything Jaxon threw my way, monkey shit and all. It was better than sitting in my house, staring at blank walls.

Stepping through the door, I peered around the room at the unit before making my way to the back of the room to take the last available seat at the table. It was your standard conference room equipped with dull, white walls and cheap, commercial grade, gray carpet. No windows were allowed so whatever sensitive data being passed around in the room could be kept protected by those few select souls who were privileged enough to receive it. The room was lit by bright, halogen bulbs from the ceiling; lights that reminded me too much of the ceiling fixtures I’d had to stare at while I’d been laid up in a hospital bed years ago, immobile, with a bullet in my knee.

The only decorations were a giant, dry-erase board centered on the front wall, and oversized, framed quotes from heroes like Patton, “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country.”

My personal favorite, Eisenhower’s quote, hung several feet down from Patton’s, “What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight—it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”

On the opposite wall hung Patrick Henry, “The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave…”

The fourth frame stated, “In war there is no substitute for victory,” from MacArthur.

These were the extent of Commander Jaxon’s attempts to keep his unit motivated. I thought that was crazy because we had the ultimate form of motivation whenever we were on a mission. You either stay focused or you got dead. See? Motivation. Anytime we were out doing what we were paid to do, we were on our own.

Those framed quotes existed in the real world a whole hell of a lot more than the EX Ops team did. Off the record, we were supervised by the Director of the CIA in conjunction with the Department Of Defense, and the men in this unit were mainly comprised of ex-military. We had one exception on the team because he’d been recruited from the CIA.

Most of my teammates had been actively recruited while they were still in service for whatever branch they worked for; Navy, Army, Marine Corps, and even one from the Air Force. Apparently, paperwork was nothing to those who ran EX Ops behind the scenes. Still in your four year contract with the Army? Not a problem. Suddenly you’re miraculously and honorably discharged. Already submitted your paperwork to re-up for another six years in the Marine Corps? No biggie. Wouldn’t you know there was a paperwork mix-up? You actually decided to go civilian instead of staying in the military. Lookie there, no more obligations to hold you back from joining us now.

I’d just been medically discharged due to a bullet to the knee when I was approached. Apparently, the Army thinks you can’t be a fully functioning, bad ass Ranger if your knee cap is replaced with a few metal bits. Which makes them entirely cracked in my opinion. It’s not like I was the tin man and they had to keep me loaded up with body oil.

After a year of physical therapy, energized by nothing more than my dogged determination to still be all that I could be—despite what the Army thought—I was out of my soldier’s career. Walking around in civilian life with nothing fun to do and too much time to think about shit I didn’t need to think about. Like her. Next thing I know I’m approached by a couple of guys that make spies working for the CIA look like jackass amateurs. With one question, they had my full attention, “Would you like to serve your country in ways you’ve never dreamed were possible?”

Does a monkey like to fling shit?

In other words, “Hell yes,” but I want to know a few things first. With a few well-placed questions like— “Who the hell are you?” and “What’s in it for me?” —next thing I know, I’m signing the dotted line to hand my life over to Uncle Sam in ways the Army never owned it.

I’m not talking about Uncle Sam on the Army recruitment poster either. No, I’m talking about my new boss, codename ‘Uncle Sam.’ No one knows what his real name is. I was informed during my orientation that all I needed to know was Ex Ops was secretly owned by the United States government with directives handed down by the President, sometimes at the behest of the DOD, and issued to us through our CIA handler, ‘Uncle Sam’.

Fingerprints? Who needs those? Let’s wipe the records of those suckers off the face of the earth so they’re not an issue for later. Fake IDs needed for undercover jobs? No problem. Weapons and ammunition? Step over to what we like to call Toys ‘R’ Us for grown men. Pick a weapon, any weapon. Watch out for that flame thrower, though. It goes a lot farther than you think it does.

What are the catches? Well, now that you asked…we own you. As in, you don’t take a crap without our sanctioning it first. Might as well go ahead and accept that. You have an initial six year contract you have to fulfill, with the option to renew after it’s completed. No way out of it except going six feet underground, or wherever else your body may be dumped. Also, never, ever, talk about the team. We don’t care if you’re being tortured with bamboo under your fingernails or doing the dirty with your girl in the sack. Information about your Unit never leaves your mouth.

On paper, you are a privately funded Special Operations Team hired out for hostage rescue, high target bodyguards, and security specialists. Yes, you will take the occasional side job to help keep up this public opinion. Off paper, you are the U.S. government’s go-to guy. In other words, if we can’t legally send someone in to do the job, we’ll send you instead. That way, if you screw up, there’s no blow-back on us.

Uncle Sam decided they wanted a group of the best combined into a highly classified strike force for the most delicate situations the great U.S. of A. had to handle. Okay, maybe we weren’t just the best. Some of us might be considered broken—such as myself—problem children who didn’t follow orders well, or were flat out wild to the bone, but we all held skills other men failed to excel at. Not to mention these were missions in places Uncle Sam had no legal ground to send in military teams, like the Navy Seals or the Green Berets. So lucky guys like me were approached and recruited to join EX Ops because we seemed like the most unlikely characters the government would use. Then Uncle Sam could send us off on missions we might not return from without losing sleep at night.

Have I mentioned I love my job, yet?

For three years now, I’d been working with a group of eight men that made Rambo look like a jackass. I trusted each and every one of them implicitly to watch my back and work side by side with me on our missions. They weren’t just my brothers in bullets and blood, they were also men I was fortunate enough to call my friends. We were as close as a bunch of guys who blew shit up and rescued sniveling politicians on a regular basis could get. It didn’t stop me from snorting in disgust at the bright orange paper on the dry erase board that caught my eye as I parked my ass in a chair. Written on it in black marker, it read, ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning!’ Shaking my head in disbelief, I looked over to the only idiot who would possibly tape that up there. The dumbass I grudgingly called my best friend anytime our asses were drunk at a bar and being rowdy: Declan Sullivan.

“You reject. You’ve been having one of your military movie marathons again, haven’t you?” His cheesy smile was all the answer I needed. Shaking my head in disbelief I continued, “I knew I should have dragged your ass out of the house this weekend. Now you’re going to try and do impersonations again until someone threatens to disembowel you with their KA-BAR. Fuckin’ great.”

A growl of annoyance cut through any further response I would have made. “Now that Ranger Boy has decided to grace us with his shining presence, we have a few minutes to go over some facts before our guests arrive to brief us on the mission,” Commander Jaxon barked.

“Gentlemen, Uncle Sam has become aware of a situation involving the ATF. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has been conducting an investigation in regards to black market firearms and ammunition buys from all over Texas. These supplies are being sold and then smuggled to a drug cartel in Mexico. Recently, they have received some intel from contacts that the Cartel is now in the process of a deal that would involve a bulk buy and shipment of firearms from an undisclosed location here in the U.S.”

“The President of Mexico has been in contact with our President and the Director of the CIA. He has asked for our assistance in stopping any more buys from occurring and any more shipments that may take place. Our mission is to assist the ATF agents assigned to this investigation so they can uncover the source of the thefts and sales, as well as a possible raid of the buyers in Mexico.”

A shrill beep cut through the silence of the room, and the eight men sitting around the table in their various forms of civilian clothes watched Commander Jaxon Wall, a former Navy Seal, answer his secure SAT phone. After a few tense seconds, he gave a gruff, “show them in,” before closing the phone to face his men again. The sounds of booted steps echoed closer to our conference room until the door was opened by the escort, allowing a man who looked to be in his late thirties into the room. He had short, brown hair with hazel eyes and sported a slim, well-built body encased by khaki’s and a black polo embroidered with the ATF logo on the chest.

The man was nothing noteworthy, just your average looking Joe. What made my breath catch was the woman who walked in behind him. Dirty blond hair, streaked with natural white-blond highlights was pulled back into a braid that fell halfway down her back. She wore low rise jeans that showed off a flat tummy and well-rounded ass. Her badge was belted to her waist with her gun in its holster on the opposite side. A fit black, short-sleeve polo—also embroidered with an ATF emblem—did nothing to hide her more than ample breasts; the kind that overfilled a man’s hands. Even large hands like mine.

Moss green eyes scanned the room, roaming right over me. As if she didn’t even know who the hell I was! It might have been fifteen years, but I damn sure knew who she was, despite the changes in her appearance.

Her body had changed a lot over the years. She’d been considered stick skinny back in those days because her shithead of a dad couldn’t have cared less about whether there had been food in the house as long as he’d had a bottle of whisky to drink and cigarettes to puff on like a chimney. Now her belly was slightly rounded out instead of devastatingly caved in, her hips were lush, and her damn chest looked as if it were at least two sizes larger than what I’d lovingly held in my hands long ago. She’d filled out in ways I’d dreamed about when we were kids and all I could think about was having my girl safe under my own roof, feeding her regular meals, and making her happy. Her hair was way longer, but I bet once it was out of the tight, confining braid it was still the same mass of loose curls I had run my fingers through a thousand times before.

Unbelievable. Fifteen years later and Annabelle Smith was standing in my unit’s meeting room as a freaking ATF agent after disappearing from our small hometown of Sylvania, Georgia. My first love—the one who I’d foolishly let get away—stood right in front of me, looking better than any of my vivid memories could ever do justice. My Belle.

I clenched my fists on top of my thighs to stop the urge of rushing up to grab her and drag her home with me. Years of looking, private investigators who gave me nothing except broken dreams, and she waltzed in here like she didn’t have a care in the world. I did my best to calm the heart racing in my chest like it was jacked up on meth.

“Gentlemen, these are Agents Boyd and Roberts.”

I felt my face morph into a mask of confusion. Roberts? Belle’s last name wasn’t Roberts. That was her best friend, Teagan’s, last name. What the hell was going on here?

Jaxon continued speaking, “They’re the two agents in charge of this investigation. We’re on a short time table to get these two back to Texas, so let’s get started with a brief introduction.” Turning to face Belle and her partner he pointed to himself and said, “I’m Commander Wall. The men seated in front of you are Riley Sullivan, Declan Sullivan, Logan Price, Bobby Baker, Wyatt Brooks, Arturo Chavez, Chase Anderson, and Lucas Young. Now with that out of the way, would you please inform us of your operation as it stands right now?”

My confusion was quickly morphing into anger. Belle’s eyes had passed right over me again as if she didn’t even know who I was! I knew better, though. She knew exactly who I was and when this meeting was over I was damn well going to get some answers from her.

Belle handed Agent Boyd a bag before she stepped forward, while crossing her arms over her chest to face us. “Good afternoon, gentlemen. Towards the end of 2010, Operation Fast and Furious ended shortly after the shooting death of a border patrol agent. Found with the border patrol agent’s body were two AK-47’s. It was later discovered these two weapons, along with over two thousand others, were sold to Mexican criminals under Project Fast and Furious in an attempt to trace their paths and get a larger picture of where guns like these were being used in the gun smuggling ring.

“Agent Boyd and I are here today because we have a contact inside the Rivera Cartel based outside of Monterrey, Mexico that informed us they have been buying firearms and ammunition from a source here in the U.S. They have managed to confirm several individuals the ATF already knew, or suspected, dealt with black market firearms sales. We’ve loosely connected a few of these individuals to Operation Fast and Furious. There’s not enough evidence to stick on anyone right now, though. Only leads and suspicions.

“So far, we have been unable to track down the individuals behind these sales to the Rivera Cartel. To compound this problem, our source now tells us the Cartel is in negotiations for a massive purchase of firearms from this same source. We’re not sure where the guns are or where they’re coming from, but we need to figure it out, and quickly.”

She pauses for a second and gestures towards her partner. “What Agent Boyd is passing out to you is your own dossiers on the information we have of the past sales the Rivera Cartel has obtained. You’ll find what information we have on the suspects we believe are involved in the sales, including the Cartel’s leader, Miguel Rivera. In case you’ve been hiding underneath a rock somewhere for the past twenty years and have never heard of them, the Rivera Cartel is one of the strongest, deadliest Cartels in Mexico. It was started by Ricardo Rivera, Miguel’s father, in the early 1990s. Ricardo kept the operation small, but since his death in 2008, Miguel has quadrupled his area and power. He’s ruthless and it’s paid off for him. He now owns most of the northeastern Mexican territories’ drug routes. We also have intel he’s expanding into human trafficking, pipeline trafficked oil, theft, and weapons trafficking. He’s a power player that needs to be taken out.”

Jaxon stepped forward to stand next to Belle. “Agent Roberts, if it’s okay with you, I would like the men to take their dossiers home to study while they pack up. Then, perhaps, we can resume this meeting with any questions they have later tonight. I’d like everyone to ship out for Texas early tomorrow morning.”

Nodding her head in approval, she agreed, “Sounds like a plan, Commander Wall. Contact us with the specifics later.” Sticking her hand out to Jaxon, she gave him a confident shake before grabbing her messenger bag, then turning on her booted heel and exiting the room with her fellow agent.

As the eight men around me rustled papers from their dossiers and prepared to leave, I sat there dumbstruck. Belle had walked in and out of this room without acting like she knew me. A fury of wounded male pride flooded my senses. I’d be damned if she thought she was going to get away like that! Standing abruptly, my chair loudly clattered to the floor as I rushed out the door to follow her. My neck started to itch from the curious stares of my colleagues, but I didn’t care what the hell they thought as I slowly jogged out into the hall after her.

“Belle!” She kept walking without acknowledging me. What the hell? “Belle! Wait up!” As Boyd stopped to turn at my approaching footsteps, confusion on his face, I reached out to grab Belle’s arm with my right hand to stop her. Two seconds later, a shot of pain flashed up my arm as I found my hand pulled backwards and bent at a nearly debilitating angle. Belle’s beautiful face stared back at me with bitter disdain. Anger simmered in her green eyes so fiercely, I felt the impact of it to the soles of my boots.

Boyd stepped forward to stand between us just as she released my hand and then held her other hand up to ward Boyd off from interfering. “Mr. Baker, I’ll kindly ask you not to grab me. While you’re at it, please refrain from calling me Belle. I go by Annabelle. Now, if you’ll excuse me and my partner, we have things to do before tonight’s meeting.” Belle turned away and walked confidently down the hallway while Boyd gawked at me with open curiosity. With a shake of his head, he jogged after Belle, who had turned the corner, already disappearing from sight.

Standing there, feeling a myriad of emotions—shock, anger, confusion—I watched as the only girl who had ever held my heart did her damndest to walk out of my life; acting like she didn’t give a shit as she did it. It felt like a sucker punch to the gut by a heavy-weight boxing champ. Apparently, fifteen years hadn’t calmed the obvious anger, or pain, she harbored from the letter that haunted me. The letter I should have never written. She didn’t even bother to give me five minutes to try and explain. To tell her two weeks after her receiving my letter, I’d had my parents desperately searching the entire fucking county for her, with strict instructions to tell her that I’d realized my mistake. To explain to her that I was stupid. Really, really stupid. And sorry. So fucking sorry.

A hand slapped down on my shoulder. I looked over my shoulder to see it belonged to Declan, which meant his brother, Riley, was the body standing on the other side of me. “I take it that’s the famous Belle? The sweet, southern angel from home that got away?” Declan asked.

With a gruff voice, I answered, “Yeah. That’s her, alright.”

Riley snorted. “Well, brother, looks as if your angel is gone in more ways than one.”

 

***

Annabelle

I sat with my forehead pressed to the steering wheel of the SUV rental, trying my best to take deep breaths and calm down. Was this some cruel joke from God? Had I not been good enough over the years that I could have been blessed never to see Bobby Baker for the rest of my days? Did I deserve this kind of karmic injustice? I’d been running from a shady past and some killer secrets, but I’d tried to balance out the scales by living a good life; one almost beyond reproach.

Now I’d run into Bobby-fucking-Baker, all these years later, looking better than sin on a stick in his tall, muscled, six-foot frame. Those devastating, baby blue eyes flecked with gray and white colors that reminded me of a Georgia summer sky dotted with clouds. Sexy, chestnut brown hair liberally highlighted with blond and cut short against his head. Mouthwatering lips I remember kissing me like it was yesterday and not fifteen years ago. No longer was there a young, eighteen-year-old boy to dream about. No, instead there was a hard, lusty man to drool over with the ruggedly handsome face I’d always known he’d grow into. There were probably a hundred women who’d accidentally run into glass doors or telephone poles because they’d been staring at that face of his with its rugged beauty instead of watching where they were walking. What could I have possibly done to deserve such severe punishment as having to run into the one man who’d broken my heart in so many pieces it had never been salvaged?

Boyd shifted uncomfortably in his passenger seat. “Want to talk about it Annabelle?” Yeah, emotional girl talks were not Boyd’s forte.

“No, Boyd, I don’t wanna talk about it. In fact, do me a favor. Let’s pretend all of that didn’t happen, okay?”

“That’s him, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. That’s him, alright. Hence why I don’t wanna talk about it. That’s why you’re not gonna say a damn thing about me and my personal life, right?” Turning my head to glare at my partner with an I’ll-kick-your-balls-to-your-throat look, Boyd responded by shaking his head in disapproval before sighing.

“It’s your life. I don’t agree with it, but I promise not to say a word.”

Heaving a sigh of relief I cranked the engine and reversed out of our parking spot. “Thanks, Boyd. I owe you one. Now let’s go get some beer before heading back to these apartments they’ve stuck us in, in their impenetrable fortress here. I wanna get settled before calling Seth to check in. These boys will probably be ready for the next meeting in a couple of hours, and I need time to make sure my guts are still made of steel before round two comes up. I mean, dag-gum, Boyd. Did hell start serving snow cones to its inhabitants? Have you seen any pigs flying? Has the President solved the national deficit? Better yet, did they lift the house off the Wicked Witch of the West and she’s really alive?”

Boyd chuckled. “Honey, your guts aren’t made of steel. They’re made of fucking titanium. You’ve got nothing to worry about, but I got to tell you, no snow cones, no flying pigs, the deficit still sucks, and the crazy woman with the flying monkeys and striped socks is still fictionally dead. Maybe you fell into a Twilight Zone episode instead.”

I only shook my head at his obvious amusement. Too bad I didn’t feel like my insides were all that solid at the moment. ‘Cause Lord knew seeing Bobby Baker had rocked my little world more than I ever thought was possible. With my shitty luck, I’d finally hit rock bottom, and at least it couldn’t go anywhere except up from here. Although, a little liquid fortification never hurt anyone. It would sure as hell help me get the nerve to go through the next couple of hours without murdering someone in a desperate rage.

Five hours later, I sat with Boyd, in his suite, and the nine men of EX Ops, going over the files of information piece by piece. I had to admit, I was a little impressed with their range of questions and keen insight as they looked at each reported sale of black market items in Texas; looking for any possible clues that Boyd and I might have missed. They’d already been talking things out for close to two hours and no one was any closer to a conclusion than Boyd and I had been for the past three months of our investigation. At least they were all laid back enough to be slowly drinking a beer instead of the uptight soldier boys I originally thought they’d be. On the other hand, the relaxed atmosphere also made it ten times harder to ignore Bobby’s blatant staring from time to time. The shrill ring of my cell phone cut through the quiet and the attention I’d focused on the file in my hands.

Flipping it open, I answered with the usual, “Roberts speaking.”

“Well, hello there, darlin’! How’s the prettiest ATF agent in the state of Texas doing tonight?” a seductive Texan drawl crooned through my phone. All ten men in the room, including Boyd, looked over curiously before going back to the files in their hands.

A large, genuine smile spread across my face. “Why if it isn’t my favorite Sheriff! I’m doing just fine, Charlie! How’re things your way?”

“Well, my sweet Annabelle, things have been mighty boring around here. Deputy Walters wanted to see if you could come over here and show some handcuff techniques to our new Deputy. Walt reckons the boy needs a good lesson or two and it would sure liven’ things up. I’d like to volunteer as your assistant in the presentation.” Boyd barked a laugh from clear across the room.

I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or blush in embarrassment. Rolling my eyes and rubbing a finger across my nose to hide my light blush behind my hand, I decided it was best to roll with the punches. “Well, Charlie, I’ve got some bad news for you then. I’m out of town with Boyd at the moment. I won’t be back to Texas till tomorrow. You’ll have to tell good ol’ Walters to train the new Deputy with the handcuffs himself. You can be Walter’s assistant. Besides, I might need mine to detain Boyd later if he gets on my damn nerves anymore tonight.” Silent snickers and coughs echoed around the room while Charlie’s booming laughter floated through the phone. “Is that all you needed, Charlie? I’m kind of in a meeting right now.”

“Actually, Annabelle, it looks as if my new Deputy might have seen something for you.” Charlie quickly went over what the young Deputy had seen. My heart picked up speed in my chest. After months of frustration, it looked like a possible lead.

“Hold on, Charlie, I wanna put you on speaker phone. I’m sitting here with Boyd and a team of guys that’ll be helping us out on this case. Can you repeat all of that for them?”

“Anything for you, darlin’.”

Pressing the speaker button on my phone, then turning the volume all the way up, I set the phone in the middle of the table and glanced around to make sure I had everyone’s attention before saying, “Can you hear me, Charlie?”

“Sure can.”

“Okay. Kindly repeat what you just told me.”

“Well, the new Deputy was making rounds in his civilian vehicle to learn the routes for the job on his off time. He drove by that place on the edge of town, you know, the ‘Big Bull Bar’, because it’s one of our business checks. Says there were a couple of guys holding an assault rifle by the open trunk of a car. It seemed to bug him ‘til he couldn’t get rid of the feeling they were up to no good, so he decided to come see me about it today. Sounds a little fishy, don’t you think, Annabelle?”

Boyd leaned towards the phone. “Hey, Charlie, could your Deputy tell what kind of rifle it was?”

“Sorry, Boyd. The boy is fresh out of the academy and don’t know his .308 from his .50 Cal, but I got to say it sounds funny to me.”

Commander Jaxon shrugged. “We’re talking about the state of Texas. Don’t you guys collect guns and attend football games like it’s a religion? Could be nothing but a couple of avid gun enthusiasts. Guess it wouldn’t hurt to look into if it gave the Deputy the willies, though.”

I happened to agree. “Thanks for telling us, Charlie. I appreciate the information and we’ll check into it tomorrow. Can you email any other information your Deputy noticed? Like what the guys looked like or what car they were standing by? Anything like that might help us out, too.”

“Not a problem, Annabelle, I’ll have it to you by the end of the night. Tell me, darlin’, how’s Seth doing? Is he taking good care of you?”

Hastily snatching the phone up to turn the speaker function off, I walked out to the patio and shut the door behind me before finishing my conversation with Sheriff Charlie Jenkins. Charlie was a hell of a guy I had an on-again/off-again, friends with benefits, relationship with, but right about now, I felt like sticking my pointy-toe cowboy boot up his Wrangler-encased butt for broadcasting my business to a room full of guys I didn’t know as well as one guy I knew all too well.

One guy I had absolutely no intentions of letting learn my business because boy-howdy, that would be a mess and a half to face. What I almost missed in my rapid retreat outside was the flicker of jealousy on Bobby Baker’s face at my apparent evasion to the mention of another man’s name. A reaction that was definitely not missed by the other nine men in the room.