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Petty Officer Shane O'Brian stood at attention. Shoulders back, chin high, eyes ahead.
"Yes, sir," he barked. "Completed with resources to spare."
"Is that so. And at any time did the target become aware of your mission?"
"Hell, no." Eyes dancing, Shane grinned. "He's as clueless as a newborn. Which, I've gotta tell you, is totally weird. Of all people, you'd think he'd be suspicious."
"Nice job." Shane's commander, Mitch Donovan, slapped him on the back before dropping onto the couch. Resting his booted foot on the knee of his camouflage fatigues, Mitch laughed. "Gabriel's a wily SOB, but there's no way he'd expect an engagement party. Especially since the bride-to-be doesn't even know they're getting engaged."
"He's going to be so pissed," Shane observed, handing Mitch the list of what had and hadn't been done so far.
"That you accessed his private information, evaluated his actions, went behind his back to report said information and actions, then compounded it by bringing multiple people into it in a way that will, when it comes out, be a huge slap in the face?" Mitch jutted out his chin and considered that, then nodded. "Yup. Seriously pissed."
"I can't wait." Laughing, Shane dropped into the chair opposite Mitch. Like most everything else in the apartment, the brown furniture was butt ugly, but it was comfortable. Shane figured that's all a person could ask for with base housing.
Both he and Mitch, along with their friend Gabrielbetter known as Romeo to the SEAL teamhad got the PCSpermanent change of stationto the Coronado base a year ago. The three of them had bunked together until his buddies had hooked their perfect women. After they'd moved out, Shane hadn't seen any point in looking for other quartersor in replacing the butt-ugly furniture.
"You're sure he's going to propose?"
Shane simply raised one brow. They didn't call him Scavenger for nothing. There wasn't anything he couldn't find. Supplies, enemies, information.
"Right," Mitch said, shaking his head. "Of course you're sure. Which means he has no clue what you're planning."
"That'd be we, not me," Shane pointed out. "And yeah, I'm sure. Nobody expects a party for getting engaged. Married, having a kid, okay. But for volunteering to hook on a ball and chain?" He gave a pitying shake of his head. Not over Gabriel landing Tessa, or that Mitch was newly married with a baby due any day. His friends had scored some great women.
But Shane figured the odds of military guys, SEALs especially, making it work long-term? Of finding a woman who got what they did, was okay living their life with a man who answered to Uncle Sam, put his life on the line on a regular basis and kept 90 percent of what he did to himself? Pretty much zilch.
Hell, he'd experienced issues himself in his family alone. His own mother was so pissed about his career, she refused to acknowledge it. To keep her happy, the entire family pretended he was a traveling salesman. It'd been funny for a while, but over the past couple of years it'd started getting to him. He'd got to the point that he rarely went back home to Little Lake, Idaho, and since nobody acknowledged his career, none of the family had ever visited him here in Southern California.
Shane frowned, taking the list from Mitch. He was better off without any more emotional crap in his life.
Maybe his buddies would do better. But he doubted it. Mitch had actually walked away from a shot to join the elite Special Mission Unit, DEVGRU. Sure, he said it was because he preferred training and wanted to stay with his team, but given that it'd happened about the same time as he met Livi, Shane had his doubts. And now Romeo was getting ready to pop the question. He'd already started making noises about extended training, taking on things that would keep him stateside instead of hot zones.
Shane got it. He understood why his friends were making those choices. But those weren't the kind of choices he wanted to make.
So he'd make damned sure he didn't get himself in a situation that would call for them.
"Any thoughts on the ETA?"
"Not yet." Shane glanced over his list again. "He's bought the engagement ring, but you know Romeo. He's going to want to set the scene, make it something special. He's leaving on maneuvers in the morning and he'll be gone for the next two weeks, though, so it won't be before that."
When the front door swung open, neither Shane nor Mitch had to school their expressions. They were experts at keeping their faces blank.
And in came Romeo, in all his glory. But if you knew to look, you could see a hint of smug terror in his eyes. Yeah, he deserved this party. Shane casually folded the list into a neat rectangle and stuck it in his pocket as if he hadn't just been planning on going behind the man's back. "Yo, Scavenger."
"Mail for you." Gabriel tossed a couple of envelopes on Shane's lap on his way into the kitchen. "You got beer?"
"You're in uniform," Mitch pointed out, ever the stickler.
Gabriel simply lifted his hand, showing the gym bag he carried.
"I've got twelve hours before I have to report for maneuvers. Tessa's meeting me for dinner at Zappatos since it's halfway between here and our place," he said when he came back with his unopened beer. Just one, since Mitch and Shane were still in fatigues, too. "So I'm using your shower."
Flipping through the envelopes, Shane waved to indicate he do whatever he wanted.
"What?" Mitch leaned forward.
"A letter from home."
Knowing Shane's family situation, Mitch gave a sympathetic grimace.
Shane stared at the flowery handwriting on the pastel envelope for a second, then with a sigh, tore it open. After all, Sara wouldn't risk their mother's wrath by addressing a letter to an FPO unless there was a really good reason. And she usually took care to make the three-hour drive to Boise to mail her letter. But this one had a Little Lake postmark.
Affection, irritation and resignation all tangled together in his belly as Shane unfolded the paper. As he scanned his little sister's letter, his gut tightened.
"Huh?" He glanced at Mitch with a frown.
"The letter. What's wrong?"
They'd served together, been through too much together, for Shane not to answer.
"Drama. Sara's upset about the family rift. She wants me to come home for her birthday. Apparently she'll be miserable and her entire year ruined if I don't."
Shane frowned at Mitch's snicker.
"Go ahead, laugh. You're an only child. You have no idea what this means. I have five sisters. If one blames me for her misery, they all will."
"So? You're what? Eight hundred miles or so away. They don't even acknowledge you're here. And it'd take a hell of a lot for them to storm the base and get to you."
Shane didn't laugh because he could imagine them doing just that. Women were scary. His sisters scarier than most.
"Maybe I can volunteer for a mission. Something far, far away," he muttered.
"Or maybe you can take some of that leave you have built up and go home," Mitch suggested. "Watch your sister blow out the candles, keep her from being miserable, fix the mess with your mom."
Just the thought of it tightened his gut.
"I'm already working on an assignment," he said quickly.
"An assignment that's on hold for the next two weeks. Take a few days. Go home." Mitch waited a beat, then smiled. "Consider it an order."
"So, handsome .wanna join the Mile High Club?"
Damning Mitch for making this an order, Shane peeled his eyes off the book he'd been trying to read. He didn't turn his head. He just slid a glance to his right in hopes that the whispered question hadn't been aimed at him.
But the big-haired blonde's hungry smile dashed those hopes all to hell. And in case he'd been too dim to catch a clue, she skimmed her fingers up his thigh, those lethal nails skimming uncomfortably close to his goods. He wanted to shift away. He really wanted to move her hand. But he'd been trained to never blink first.
Shane was a SEAL. He'd faced down terrorists, shot down enemy combatants and answered to cranky Admirals. He'd once jumped from a burning plane with a wounded soldier in his arms and a parachute on his back.
And he'd done it all with nerves of steel.
But faced with a predatory woman and he froze. He specialized in communications, but he was lousy at this kind of thing. He didn't have Romeo's flirting skills. Nor did he have the social ease that Mitch was known for. Added to that, women generally either hit on him or wanted to take care of him. Both of which always confused the hell out of him.
"I'm Kathy, by the way." The lush blonde gave a low growl when she leaned closer to press her ample breasts against Shane's arm. "Mmm, you have such an impressive body. I'll bet you work out a lot, don't you? I'd love to see more of those muscles "
"Whoa." Shane clamped down on the hand that was about to test his muscle. "Sorry. I'm going to have to pass."
He hated turning women down. Even ones who looked as if they could send the plane into a tailspin during a Mile High bounce. But the thrill of being hit on for reasons that often baffled him had long since passed. The thrill of easy sex, easy women and easier times walking away had faded, too.
"Now why would you do that?" Kathy fluttered her lashes, giving him a wicked smile. "Don't you like adventures?"
Shane laughed. He couldn't help it.
"I live for adventures," he deadpanned, figuring there wasn't any point in telling her he'd scored his Mile High wings years ago, when he'd still been riding that thrill. She'd likely dare him to prove it. "I appreciate the offer, though."
As soon as the words were out, he mentally cringed. Appreciate the offer. As if she'd just suggested he take the window seat and enjoy the view. God, he was lousy at this stuff. Put him in uniform and he had no problem with communication. But when it came to witty repartee, clever conversation or easy dialogue with anyone he hadn't known for a while, he choked.
Shane didn't consider himself shy.
Shy was for girls and toddlers.
And it wasn't that he didn't know how to handle women. He was damned good when he put his hands on one. He was simply a quiet man who preferred to get the lay of the land, to get a feel for a person, before he opened up. A private man who believed fiercely in walking the talk. Since he didn't like people prying into his life, into his thoughts, he didn't ask questions. He figured if someone wanted to share, they would. Damned if most people didn't share way more than he could imagine anyone wanted to know about all sorts of things.
As if proving his point, Kathy the blonde took his refusal in good stride. Instead, she dived into a stream of chatter. Resigned, Shane tucked his book into the seat in front of him and gave her the semblance of his attention.
But he was only half listening. The rest of him was making the mental adjustment from his life in California and his job as a SEAL with its military mindset to dealing with whatever was waiting for him when he got off this plane.
Since she hadn't returned any of the messages he'd left, he didn't know if Sara told anyone he was coming home or not. Either way, it wasn't going to be pretty. All warning would do was give his mom time to stew.
It'd been rough enough when his dad had died in a skydiving accident when Shane was seven. He'd left behind a grieving wife, two sons and five daughters. Then in Shane's senior year of high school his brother, Mike, the oldest of the O'Brian siblings, had been killed in a drag racing accident.
Molly O'Brian was a strong woman. She was a loving mother. And she was the best cook in the world as far as Shane was concerned. But the loss of her husband and her oldest son had devastated her. She couldn't handle the idea of her second-to-youngest child, her only remaining son, living in danger.
And Shane couldn't set his dream aside. Not even for his mother. When he'd joined the navy right after graduation, she'd had a meltdown, but eventually, with all of his sisters persuading her, she'd dealt with it. If overcom-pensating by sending care packages that had to be delivered by forklift, insisting he call her every week he was in port and sending him job clippings from the local paper was dealing. But his joining the SEALs five years ago had been too much. This would make his third trip home since she'd issued the ultimatum that he choose between his career and his family.
By the time he'd shaken off the blonde, deplaned and made his way through the Boise Airport to baggage claim, he figured he should have argued harder with Mitch for a dangerous mission instead of this trip. Sara would have understood.
A few inches taller than most of the crowd, he easily saw his sister on the far end of the row of chairs. His height was always an advantage, but probably not necessary this time since Sara was jumping up and down.
Damn. A weight he hadn't even realized he'd been carrying lifted. There was a lightness in his chest, a sort of joy he barely recognized.
Then, because he apparently wasn't moving fast enough, Sara plowed through the crowd to throw her arms around him.
"You look so good. Oh man, I missed you," she gushed once she'd released the stranglehold enough to lean back and grin.
Shane grinned back.
Damn, his little sister had grown up pretty.
Although Sara was as blonde as all of the O'Brian sisters and Shane's hair was dark brown, nobody would mistake them as anything but siblings. From their bottle-green eyes to the squared chin, the O'Brian genes ran strong.
"Did you bring a suitcase?" she asked.
It took him a second before he remembered that yeah, he did have a suitcase. It was rare that Shane actually booked a flight. One of the perks of traveling as an active duty SEAL was flying free if he was willing to go standby.
"We'll grab it, then head back. I'm so excited you're here. It seems like forever, doesn't it?" Sara babbled, tucking her arm through his as they moved toward the baggage carousel. "Was it a safe flight? Easy? No turbulence?"
He wanted to say that he'd flown through lightning storms and dived out of a Seahawk into the raging ocean, so it was stupid to think he couldn't handle a few bumps on a commercial airline.
But he knew hearing that would freak her out, so he shrugged instead.
"It was a quick flight."
"Oh, Shane. I'm so, so happy to see you. You'll be here through next weekend, right?"
"I'm here for your birthday," he said. There was no point reminding her that his welcome was thin at best. Pushing the length of his visit past its purpose was pointless.
"But my birthday party is in two days. And on a Tuesday. Celebrating in the middle of the week is so lame. I want another party. A big one with dancing, music, fun. That means the weekend." She leaned her head against his arm and slanted him a look through her lashes. "You will be here to celebrate with me, won't you?"
Shane wanted to close his eyes against the beseeching look in her eyes. He was a SEAL, he reminded himself. SEALs didn't show weakness.
Nor did they have to keep reminding themselves of that. He scrubbed his hand over his hair. Damn, he wasn't even technically home yet and he was already acting like a dumbass.
"What did mom have to say about my visiting?" he asked instead of committing himself.
He didn't need to hear her response. Her face said it all. Downcast eyes, a pouty lip and flushed cheeks. Dammit.
"Don't be mad," she said, her words spilling out in a breathless rush. "It's going to be okay. I've got it all planned. I've got a place for you to stay until my birthday, then you'll pop in like the best present of my life. Mom will be so happy to see you that she won't have time to get upset."
He'd flown home. He'd met with his sister. He could pull a fifty out of his wallet, tell Sara it was her birthday gift and grab the next flight home. Technically, he'd followed orders. He could get away with it.
Andhe looked at Sarahe couldn't do it. His family ties were tenuous at best. He couldn't break them with the only person in the family who didn't pretend he was a traveling salesman.