Letting the love of my life go was not the hardest thing I had ever done. No, there was something much worse—pushing her away when every fiber of my being told me she should be mine yet couldn’t be.
See, when you let someone go, there was that whole cliché phrase everyone heard at least once that, if the person loved you, they would come back to you, and then they were yours forever. When you pushed the person you loved away, however … Well, that was a whole different story.
My parents had raised me to cherish and protect the ones I loved. The bonds formed in my lifetime had always run strong. The very core of who I was came down to the ideals of loyalty and responsibility. Some might say it was the first born child mentality. I didn’t give a shit what anyone called it. When it all came down to the bare bones of reality, those strong bonds were eventually what led to me ending up as I was now: alone.
Ginny DuBois was the girl who had lived across the street during my childhood. She was my baby sister’s best friend, the scared girl with big blue eyes and the face of an angel. She had worked her way into my heart, and once she’d had it, I had never wanted it back. Too bad she didn’t know what she had been carrying with her for all this time.
I had resigned myself years ago to not having her the way I wanted. To be brutally honest, it was more than mere want with Ginny. She was the only craving I couldn’t fulfill, an addiction I couldn’t ease. Eventually, I realized she was the oxygen I needed to breathe. And now, it felt like I had been slowly suffocating for years.
You see, my strategy to keep her at a distance was to protect her from the dangers and heartbreaks of the life I lived. It didn’t mean I ever planned on letting her go, at least not entirely.
Not having her the way I wanted her was never supposed to mean not having her in my life at all, only keep her at a safe distance. Never once had I planned on living a life where I didn’t see her sweet face every once in a while. I had planned on enough contact to make sure she was breathing easy, living life, and simply happy. Now I saw why “they” said the path to hell was paved with good intentions.
The sweet agony of my plan to give her up had blown up in my face when she had disappeared without a single trace.
The sooner I found her, the sooner she would know just how deep my feelings ran. The time had come for her to know what she’d had all along.
Thirty Years Old
Why couldn’t I be in Miami on vacation? Instead, I sat in my commander’s hotel room with almost all of my team members, waiting for the two Sullivan brothers to show up so we could begin our meeting on the status of our mission here.
Leaning back in the hotel’s shabby green arm chair, my hands folded over my stomach, I gave the impression that I was relaxed and nonchalant. It was a façade I had perfected years ago during my time in the Special Forces as a Green Beret. On the inside, I was ready to strike at any perceived threat, responding to any call to action from my commander or fellow team members.
I might not be in the Army anymore, but my life as a deep undercover operative in the black ops unit was not so different. There were only a handful of people who even knew of our existence, including the president of the United States and our CIA handler who had formed the Ex Ops team. My missions were always top secret, dangerous, and sometimes paramount to national security, but they were also off the government’s books. When they couldn’t send in the SEALs, Green Berets, Rangers, or the Marines, they sent us.
There was always the chance that we might be caught by our enemies, and if that ever happened, the president himself would deny any knowledge or approval of our actions. That was something we all had known when we signed on for this unit.
For some, such as my teammate Arturo Chavez, there was no family or anyone who would miss them if they disappeared. For others, like me, there was too much that had been seen, so you distanced yourself from everyone as much as they would allow, including immediate family, to keep them from the inevitable loss.
I’d let my parents, two brothers, and one very annoying little sister think I worked in private security and investigations. They didn’t need to know any differently. After all, the reality of my job would only cause them undue worry. It wasn’t that they wouldn’t understand; it was that I didn’t want to explain my decisions.
The Army had fulfilled my need to serve my country. The Ex Ops team allowed me to truly make a difference in the world when politics made things tricky for the higher ups. I still had to follow orders, and my life felt like one giant secret after another, but it felt damn good to know I served as one of the men they called in to kick ass instead of giving up.
There were only two things that bothered me about my job.
One, the men in my unit were some of the best men I had ever met in my life. I could trust every single one of them to have my back. The problem was I’d lost too many guys I had called “brother” on missions gone wrong. Somewhere along the way, I had shut down my emotions—call it emotional survival. I still did my job and still watched the other men’s backs, but I no longer invested myself in their lives like I had with other people before. Keeping myself separate allowed me to focus more on the mission and worry less about who wasn’t going to come home at the end of the day.
That might make me sound like a heartless bastard, but it made me a deadly predator. Being on the top of my game meant there was a greater chance every man on my team might come home. It also meant I could move on to the next mission without my mind and emotions tied to the last. In my world, this was a necessary skill.
I’d had more than one superior officer complain that I was too much of a lone wolf when I was still in the Army. Nothing about me had changed since then except for the fact that I had joined a unit where it was easier to hide my solo tendencies.
Regret number two about my job?
It often kept me so busy I had little time to devote to looking for the girl who had gotten away. I watched as some of the guys around me found their second chances with the things they had fucked up, and it gave me hope I shouldn’t allow myself to have. The more time that passed, the more the hope crawled inside me.
I had pushed her away, but I damn sure hadn’t let her go. I just needed to find her so I could tell her that. With every mission, I felt like I needed to right the wrong even more. The longer I waited, the more I wondered if I would ever get the chance.
“Young, did you get any further intel from your connection?” Commander Wall’s question pulled me from my dark thoughts. He was talking about my connection to the Regulators Motorcycle Club. I had served with Ice, the prez, in the Army. Brett ‘Ice’ Grady and some of our old Green Beret teammates had their own thing going on now in the Regulators MC.
I shook my head. “Trust me when I say they’re tight-lipped bastards. If they know anything more than they told us, Ice isn’t sharing it. I highly doubt that’s the case, though.” I didn’t think they would withhold anything that might help us in the current situation. Too many women in their territory were disappearing. They wanted the operation shut down as much as we did.
Jaxon gave a curt nod. “Good. As soon as Declan and Riley get here, we can debrief and plan our next move.”
Commander Jaxon Wall was a former SEAL. He lived and breathed to lead this unit. The man had no personal life to tell of or ties that could lead anyone back to anything on him.
I scanned the room. Bobby Baker was present. He, like me, had come from the Army. As a Ranger, he had taken a bullet to the leg, which had resulted in his medical discharge. Beside him sat Arturo Chavez, the Marine who had come out of MARSOC—Marine Corps Special Operations Command—with a reputation as one ruthless motherfucker. Wyatt Brooks was leaned back on the rear two legs of his chair. The former Air Force Pararescueman now served as our team medic. Chase Anderson stood silently in the corner, watching. Having been recruited from the CIA, he was the one member of our team who had not served in the military.
Logan Price was tapping some random beat on his thighs with his thumbs. He had also served in the Marines as a sniper in MARSOC. The good ol’ Texas boy swore he could shoot a flea off a cat’s ass at a thousand yards. That might have been his way of joking about his skills, but I doubted any terrorist would find anything about him a laughing matter. Besides, maybe he really could knock a flea off a cat’s ass. Either way, we were all currently waiting on the Sullivans.
It came as no surprise that the Sullivan brothers were late. The two men were some of the best the Navy SEALs had to offer, but they were also hell on wheels. Riley Sullivan was self-destructive and had apparently been that way since his marriage had ended in divorce after his wife lost their first child in a car accident. Declan Sullivan couldn’t stop sticking his dick into any pussy thrown at him.
We were all recruited from different walks of life to assemble as the proverbial boogie man to scare those in the world who wouldn’t normally fear anything or anyone. The problem was, dealing with scum like that on a regular basis tainted a man’s soul. It covered us in a film of darkness that made it hard to see the light of day sometimes.
Baker was lucky enough to have a woman he could go home to at the end of a mission, someone to help him erase the bad. The rest of us had to drown our demons in other ways. Regardless, every single man here wouldn’t turn down any mission we were given if it helped an innocent in need. Hence, why we were here in Miami—to avenge Annabelle, Laura, and every other woman who had been kidnapped, tortured, and much worse by this particular ring of slavers who were selling women like cattle—after we had gotten a tip from one of my old Army connections.
Hoping to finally shut down the man who was behind it all, I could feel my trigger finger twitching. I was ready for action. As much I liked the positives of being around scantily clad women in the strip club the Regulators MC owned and riding a kickass bike as an undercover biker in their group, I needed to be busy. This sitting idle shit was for the birds, because when I wasn’t busy, my mind travelled to the one person who was always at the back of my thoughts, haunting me like a bad dream I never woke up from.
Twenty-Seven Years Old
I had to get the hell out of Chicago for a few days before I went crazy! Or even worse … before I moved in with my new fiancé and that shiny new cage of mine. Not that Sanjay had been cruel or frightened me in the manner my own father did. It was because, if he was in business with Richard Wellington, then he couldn’t be trusted.
I wished I could comfort myself with the idea that nobody could be worse than my father, but I was smart enough to know that just wasn’t true. Subsequently, on the off chance that Sanjay Kahn was worse than Richard Wellington, I was going to take a vacation.
I needed a chance to live it up one last time before coming back to Chicago and submitting myself to a future as Mrs. Kahn. One last chance to pretend I was wild and free without a care in the world. One last chance to pretend for a few precious days that I was Ginny DuBois again.
Only, this time, Ginny DuBois wasn’t going to get her white knight drunk and seduce him. Nope. This time, Ginny DuBois was going to get drunk her damn self and have a no strings involved screw-a-thon for the first time in her life.
It sounded like a damn good vacation plan to me.
Now I just had to figure out how I was going to talk my father into letting me go.
Movement out of the corner of my eye caught my attention and reminded me that Barbara was cleaning up my suite. Somehow, my vodka-soaked brain knew that was a good sign for my vacation. Barbara had always been the one to help me with whatever I needed in the past. Lord knew I probably needed all the help I could get, and not just because I was essentially a prisoner of my own father.
Poor Barbara had gone from cleaning up cartons upon cartons of ice cream after I first arrived to now picking up vodka bottles. Half the time, she also had to help me get into bed from this very living room chair that I so often passed out in. It wasn’t like I was proud to be a drunk, but unlike ice cream, it helped me get through this hell I called my life.
“Yoo-hoo! Bar-bar-ra!” I waved in her direction, knowing I was acting ridiculous and not caring. “Help a girl out. What’s a good excuse to take an impromptu trip out of Chicago right now? Something dear ol’ Daddy will let me do?”
The maid never missed a step due to my antics, continuing to dust. Although, I did see the left side of her mouth kick up in a smile she couldn’t quite contain.
“Looking to get away, Miss Wellington?” she asked almost primly.
“Yes!” I shouted excitedly.
Barbara whipped around at my loud shout and put a finger to her lips in a shush motion. Her eyes were glued in the direction of the door that connected my suite to the other rooms. My father and/or his men could come through it at any given second.
When no one appeared, Barbara quickly made her way to my side of the living room while supposedly dusting along her way. She leaned over and whispered, “Did you hear about the new line Donna Karan is showing in Miami next week?”
Lost as to where Barbara was heading with this, I answered somewhat groggily, “No? What of it?”
The maid’s grin grew a bit more, and she shook her head at me as if she thought I was impossible. “Did you forget? You’re about to meet your intended’s parents. Surely, you need a new wardrobe for that?” she inquired somewhat tauntingly.
The idea took a few seconds to truly penetrate my drunken brain, but when it finally did, I gave the air a sloppy fist bump. “Eureka! You’re a genius, woman.”
Barbara picked up my empty vodka glass and headed toward the kitchen. “Now take a nap and sleep off what you drank. You’ll need your wits about you when you talk to your father about it later.”
Leaning back so my head was propped up on the plush, high-back of the chair, I closed my eyes and felt a genuine smile spread across my face. Barbara truly was a genius, and knowing my father, he wouldn’t say no to his daughter’s desire to go buy some new clothes to impress her future in-laws.
However, while dear ol’ Daddy thought I was shopping the runway, I was going to have my toes in the sand as I drank a margarita under a palm tree and scoped out a hot piece of man flesh to erase my self-appointed celibacy.
Before I lost consciousness, a vision of hazel eyes set in a familiar, tanned face, embellished with a teasing smile, and short, soft, brown hair so dark it almost looked black floated across my mind. As my heart clenched with a sorrow I was too drunk to brush off, I made myself a silent promise to find the hottest blond I could, pretend he was that actor who played Thor, and ride his proverbial hammer until I forgot what this pain had ever felt like.
Just the thought of her name caused my chest to seize with fresh pain. Respecting her wishes not to contact her had been the hardest thing I had done in my life, but somehow, I had managed. At least, until the day my sister had called me, sobbing because neither she nor my parents had heard from Gin in months.
They had no forwarding address, and she apparently had disconnected her cell phone a few weeks after she had left New York, practically disappearing overnight from our hometown. That was years ago now.
Guilt, rage, and unnamed emotions flooded me upon finding out she had pushed my family out of her life. Her request that I not contact her had been granted, so why had she felt my sister and family had to be punished for my mistakes?
At night, when the memories of bombs, burning bodies, and war haunted me, it was thoughts of the young woman from across the street with a soft touch, a halo of shining hair, and vibrant hues of marker smudged on her skin from her endless drawing that kept me from going completely insane.
She had never known it, but she had been my lullaby. Just the thought of her had soothed my soul, bringing me a small slice of peace to keep me from picking up my weapon and ending it all. But since she had disappeared, reality had crashed down on me.
Finding her and giving her the sort of life she deserved was going to be my redemption from all of the sins and regrets of my past. If I could get her to forgive me and love me again, that would be my reward for surviving what others around me had not. I just wished I could have figured all of this out and pulled my head from my ass before I had broken what I knew now, without a doubt, was mine to protect: her heart.
It was killing me slowly every day not to see or speak to my angel, but I kept myself going with one little hope: one day, Gin would return to me.
It might be an impossible dream, but it was all I had left to keep me going.
A knock on the hotel room’s door brought me out of dark thoughts, and I looked over to see Baker opening it. I couldn’t see his face, but I could hear the smile in his voice when he spoke to the person on the other side.
“Heard you caught yourself a pretty, little kitty.”
Riley Sullivan’s gruff voice replied swiftly, “Shut the fuck up, Baker.”
The older Sullivan brother walked into the room and gave us all a chin lift. After he scanned the entire room, he asked, “Where’s Dec?”
I coughed, trying to cover up my laugh. The man should have known exactly where his brother was. It was where he always was—inside some woman.
Declan Sullivan was by far the biggest man-whore I had ever met. That was saying something since most men in the military spent what little spare time they had on the hunt for a beautiful woman to bury themselves in.
Giving Jaxon a sideways glance, I answered, “I believe he was enjoying some Candy. He should be here soon.”
Snorting at my barely veiled answer, Baker plopped his ass in the chair next to Riley. “So … found the old ball and chain, did ya?” he asked of Riley.
This time, I did laugh and didn’t bother trying to hide it. “Yeah, shaking her ass and flashing her tits on the stage. I thought Sullivan was going to go all caveman and drag her away. It was a fuckin’ miracle he didn’t blow our cover. Of course, after seeing what she had to offer, I can’t say I blame him. I’d want to drag her off the stage, too, if I could,” I taunted him, knowing it would be easy right now.
After being divorced for eight years, Riley had run into Kara during the mission we were involved in. Although I didn’t know all of their story, I got the distinct impression that there had been enough pain between the two of them to rip them to shreds then sever them completely apart.
“Stuff it up your ass, Lucas. I can’t wait for the day some woman’s got you by the balls,” Riley snapped.
He had no idea how close to the truth he was. Except, it wasn’t my balls Ginny had in a vice grip; it was my heart. “Not happening, man,” I finally replied darkly. “When I find my girl, I’m not letting her drag me around by my dick. I’m going to show her who’s boss. If that means chaining her ass to my fuckin’ bed, that’s what the fuck I’ll do.” When we were teenagers, I had been terrified of crossing the line. I had thought I was too old for her, so no matter how much she’d thought she was in love with me, I couldn’t make that move. Now, when I found my angel, she was going to get a hard and fast lesson on just how domineering I could be.
Riley’s eyebrows shot up his forehead, seeming surprised by my vehemence. “You make it sound like you’ve already got a girl.”
I shrugged, a little uncomfortable at baring my personal business, and tried to act at least a little nonchalant. “Something like that.”
Baker leaned forward with a curious expression on his face. “When did this happen?”
“A while ago,” I answered vaguely.
Baker’s eyebrows shot up. “What’s a while ago? After our mission in Mexico?”
Shrugging again, I said, “Before then. Actually, I’ve known her most of my life.”
“I highly recommend you do not pack that scrap of fabric you call a dress, Miss Wellington.”
Barbara was jittery as I threw clothes in my suitcase as fast as I possibly could. “Look, Barb, it’s like this, I’m going to live it up while I can. Never in a million years did I think dear ol’ Daddy would let me go to Miami. Since he is, I’m going to make the most of it. Plus, this was your idea, you know.” Turning to my long dresser, I started pulling bras and underwear from my drawers, watching in the mirror as my maid pulled the slinky red dress out of my suitcase and threw it under my bed, thinking I wasn’t paying attention.
“Yes, well,” Barbara huffed after committing her devious little dress theft. “I told you to go to Miami. I didn’t tell you to go dressed like a common street walker.”
Turning back to my suitcase, I dropped my underwear in then faced my companion. The woman my father had introduced to me as my maid was a matronly woman in her late forties with short brown hair and a kind face. Today, like every other day she took care of me, she was wearing her short-sleeved, button-up, drab gray dress with a black apron. She reminded me of Mary Poppins sometimes. If only a spoon full of sugar could fix my problems.
Stepping closer to her, I did something I had not done since arriving in Chicago five years ago. I let my emotional barriers down.
Grabbing both of her hands, I held them cradled between my own. She jumped at the contact, and her eyes widened in surprise.
Squeezing her hands softly, I whispered, “Barbara, you don’t know me … not the real me, because I haven’t been able to be the real me since the moment my father took my mother. I know you probably think I’m a nutcase who drinks too much and lives my life with my head buried in the sand, which in a way is true, and I know I’m rambling, but hear me out. I’m dying here.”
Barbara’s eyebrows snapped down in confusion at my abrupt declaration, and she tilted her head to the side.
In a frantic whisper, I continued, “My mother is being held prisoner by a man she loves as much as she fears. My father is a deranged criminal control freak who’s determined to dictate my life down to the type of clothes I wear and whom I am going to marry. In a short matter of time, I’m going to become a pawn in a business deal that will cement my fate to a man I barely know.
“I need this, Barbara. I need the beach, music, and a good time. I need memories of a time when I was free to get me through the years ahead of me, serving as some man’s trophy wife. I just need to be me for a few days. Not Virginia Wellington, but the person I consider the real me: Ginny DuBois.”
Barbara’s eyes were shiny with unshed tears. That didn’t stop her from cocking one of those very prim eyebrows of hers and asking me, “And Ginny DuBois needs a little red dress to make her look like a harlot?”
I couldn’t help laughing. “No, Ginny DuBois needs a little red dress to get laid. Now pick my dress up from where you threw it underneath the bed, dust it off, and put it back in my suitcase, lady.” Turning away from Barbara again, I smiled at the snort she gave my command.
As I walked into my connected bathroom, I could hear the rustle of her picking my dress up and shaking it off. She might not like my plans, but something told me she understood my need to get away and lose myself for a little while, even if it was obvious she didn’t approve of it.
Grabbing makeup and hair stuff off of the bathroom counter, I took it back to my suitcase where Barbara stood, staring at its contents in contemplation.
As I dropped the items into my bag, Barbara asked, “Are you certain it’s physical intimacy your Ginny DuBois needs? Wouldn’t she rather run? Disappear from this life?”
I was shaking my head before Barbara finished her sentence. “I won’t leave my mother. Not permanently. Nothing in the world could keep me from coming back to my mom. This little vacation is different. It might not be the smartest decision, but it’s mine. And yes, Ginny DuBois needs to brush the cobwebs off her girly bits and live a little before I’m wearing a shiny new gold shackle on my ring finger.”
Gentle fingers wrapped around my hands to stop my movements of sorting things away. I went stock still at the contact.
I looked over at Barbara to figure out what was going on, and she gave me a sad smile with teary eyes. “I wish I could give you the life you deserve, Virginia. One filled with happiness and a man who loves you as much as you deserve.”
Now it was my turn to give her a sad smile. “No worries, Barbara. I don’t believe in love anymore. If having the man I loved break my heart wasn’t enough of a lesson, then meeting my father again scared the idea right out of me.”
A tear escaped and trailed down Barbara’s cheek. It took everything I had not to cry with her.
Brushing off the sad realities of my life, I turned my thoughts to the plane waiting to take me to Miami. Sure, my father wasn’t letting me go by myself. I would have a few of his men accompanying me to make sure I stayed “safe.” That aside, I didn’t think those men would give a crap if we made a detour to a club or two. I had only been granted a few days of freedom, and I was going to make the most of it. That didn’t leave any time to dwell on long lost loves and a boy I had lived across the street from once upon a time who had broken my heart.
Pasting a big, fake smile on, I turned the direction of our conversation. “Could you go and grab my sketchpad? I want to draw on the plane.”
My ever-efficient maid wiped the tear from her face and gave me a small smile. “Of course, Miss Wellington.” She left my bedroom and headed for the living room where my art supplies were spread across the coffee table.
A picture started to form in my head as I zipped up my suitcase: warm, lightly brown skin tanned by the sun; a hard, muscled body lying on the sand; cool, salty ocean water washing up and over the mystery man’s feet and legs, leaving him glistening in the sun. I couldn’t see his face, but he was hard and beautiful in that uber-masculine way that I imagined soldiers were. I was totally going to draw him on the plane ride to Miami. If I were lucky, I would also find someone just like him to steal a few carnal moments with on my last shot at freedom.
As I looked over the shades of pencils in my kit, my eyes got stuck on red, and my mind went back to a time when things weren’t so complicated, back to where it all began.
Once upon a time, Ginny DuBois’ life had started anew, free from the four walls of fear and thrust into a world where she could be a normal young girl. Once upon a time, Ginny DuBois had been able to believe that fairy tales could come true.