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SEALed Forever
Excerpt
By Mary Margret Daughtridge

Prologue

If our soldiers are not overburdened with money, it is not because they have a distaste for riches; if their lives are not unduly long, it is not because they are disinclined to longevity.

—Sun Tzu, The Art of War

 

Brilliant Light beckoned. Garth refused to look at it. He concentrated instead on the hot, earthbound smells of blood, of blasted rock, of explosive residue and helicopter exhaust. He knew what the Light was. He knew what happened to guys who let themselves go toward it.

"We gotta load you now, Lieutenant," the medic checking the straps that held him in the basket said. This medic wasn't his medic. His combat medic, the SEAL platoon's hospital corpsman, was MIA somewhere in the dun-colored, dry, rocky hills surrounding the mud-walled Afghan village.

"Can't… leave." Garth put as much force of command as he could into his voice. It wasn't much. "Have to… find Doc… first."

"They're looking for him. You're bleeding bad, Lieutenant. The pressure bandage isn't slowing it down much. I promise you, as soon as there's word, I'll find you and tell you."

Garth knew what the medic was thinking: there might not be enough left of Doc to find.

Doc hadn't been with the rest of the platoon when they were ambushed. Thinking he could be spared, Garth had sent him to another village to give medical aid. If not for Doc, they all would have died. Doc had called in air support and then had bought time with a one-man counter-attack. His courage had put him in the kill zone of the friendly fire that had saved everyone else.
The searchers might not believe Doc was alive, but as long as Garth refused to be transported until Doc was located, they would try harder to find him fast. After what was called the Golden Hour, chances of survival dramatically decreased. If by some miracle Doc was still alive, he had the same Golden Hour that Garth did—and maybe needed it more.

The Light crept a little closer. With his vision darkening at the edges, the Light was harder not to look at it. He was conscious—the most conscious he had ever been—but his leg didn't hurt as much. Which probably wasn't a good sign.
"Wait," he whispered. "Just a few more minutes. Wait."

***

The Light came closer. Suddenly it flooded down from a sky so blue that his heart lifted in joy just to look at it. Fast-moving, perfect cottony clouds sailed the sky, one after the other, and trailed shadows from one side of the meadow to the other. The shadows played tag and raced across the forest-covered encircling mountains.

Something was wrong with the way the aftermath-of-battle scene looked. Who cared? This was the prettiest meadow he'd seen in Afghanistan. A fresh breeze rippled lush green grass into satiny-looking waves. The grassy knoll Garth leaned against fit his shoulders and supported his head as if designed for him. The meadow was the perfect place for horses, and sure enough, there were two—a black one and a brown one, their coats gleaming in the sunlight, grazing on the other side of the shallow stream that gurgled through the grass.

"It's nice here." He looked over at Doc who was propped against his own grassy knoll. Finding him hadn't been hard at all. "Good choice of rest area."
"Listen to the quiet. The sun is warm, the air is cool, I smell flowers and pine trees. Pine trees! Can you believe it? It looks more like a high meadow in the Rockies than Afghanistan."

Now that Garth thought about it, the meadow looked like the one on his grandfather's small horse-ranch in Colorado. His grandfather had always called it a slice of heaven.

We're losing him, Garth heard someone say. We've got to transport now.
"Okay. Time to go back." Garth stood and dusted off his camo. The desert gray and tan looked out of place in this verdant spot.

Doc didn't move. Garth looked down, surprised. He narrowed his eyes and let a snap of impatience into his voice. "You coming?"

Doc squinted up at him. "I don't think so."

"What?" He hadn't issued an order or anything close, but the correct answer was Yes, boss. Insubordination wasn't Doc's style. Garth gave him the benefit of the doubt. "We can't stay," he explained.

Doc hooted as if he'd said something absurd. "Why not? I like it here. After I rest up, I'm going to ride the horses." He gave the intervening area the thorough perusal of a man used to sizing up territory. "I'll have to cross the stream to get to them. No cover, but I guess that won't be a problem."

"Doc, Davy," Garth switched to the more personal name, hoping to make the point that he wasn't just Doc's commanding officer. "Listen to me. Come back. Now. They think you're dead."

Davy angled an eyebrow in an excessively patient look. "I am."
Garth never lifted his voice, but his men knew to look out when it became more gravelly. "I say you're not."

Davy sighed. "You know, Darth Vader, old pal—" Davy knitted his fingers together over his stomach. "You are seriously messing with my mood. If I don't have a problem with it, I don't see why you do."

His men sometimes called Garth "Darth Vader" behind his back. It had probably started as a joking reference to his deep bass voice as well as a play on his name, but Garth had also earned it. He respected his men; he demanded their best; and he was fair in his praise and unflinching in his discipline. He watched out for them and kept careful track of their needs for food, for the comfort of a hot shower, and for rest. But he was not their pal. The more he had become what he needed to be to lead a SEAL platoon, the more permanently a mask of dark and dangerous implacability had sat on his face.

The nickname wasn't disrespectful. Vader, after all, had been the consummate warrior—he had just given up much of his humanity to become so. Still, Garth's men didn't call him Darth Vader to his face. The mild impertinence chilled Garth; it showed how far from the real world Davy had already drifted.

"Get up. Now. That's an order."

"Go to hell, Lieutenant." Davy smiled to show he meant no offense. "Go to Hell—get it? Funny, if you think about it."

"They're searching for you right now. I can't keep them searching for long. We're losing light."

Davy shrugged. "They'll find me come morning."

Garth knelt and shoved his face close to Davy's, determined to win through the sheer force of his will. "Listen up. Nobody saw you get hit. You might be alive."
Like one of the scudding clouds, gentle pity crossed Davy's face. "I told you, I'm not."

A hollow feeling of unreality opened up in Garth's chest. Unbelievably, Davy acted like the fight was already over. SEALs didn't give up, dammit. SEALs never gave up as long as there was a chance. Nonplussed, he demanded, "How can you be so sure?"

"I never wanted anything but to be a SEAL. I couldn't have gotten luckier than to die doing what I loved, serving my fellow SEALs. I fulfilled my destiny."
"So you're letting yourself die."

Davy's eyes shone. "I think it was the Plan. You know. What I was born to do."
"Bullshit! There is no destiny except the destiny we make by making choices."
Davy shrugged. "Fine. I chose to die. Happy now? I knew I wouldn't survive before I took the first shot. You know how the instructors always used to tell us, 'A man alone in battle will not survive?'" His brown eyes twinkled with gleeful understatement. "Turns out they were right."

Guilt twisted in Garth's gut. It was his fault Davy had been alone. He tried another tack. "Isn't there anything you want to live for?"

"To be a SEAL. I've done that."

At last Garth understood why Davy was content to die. He even envied him. He wished he could feel as complete and at peace. Like Davy, once upon a time all Garth had wanted to be was a SEAL. Now he was one. He just wasn't sure the SEAL he had become was the SEAL he had wanted to be.

The SEAL he had wanted to be was willing to take on the hard jobs and ready always to defend his country, a man who fought for liberty, for justice. A man of compassion who would use his strength in service of others.

The SEAL he had thought he would be was the man who went behind enemy lines and struck at the heart of a terrorist organization. He would not only protect his country; he would also spare society the chaos and destruction of a direct attack.

The SEAL he had had to be was callous. The SEAL he had become focused on the mission's objectives and ignored the screams of women and the wails of children. The SEAL he had to be was as unmoved by the pain and suffering he caused as by the pain and suffering he endured. His shell had him retreating in horror from his own self. On the inside he had contracted tighter and tighter.
He couldn't change Davy's mind, but that didn't mean he was quitting. He had come here to find Davy because he had to make something come out right from the debacle he had led his men into. Davy was the best of them. He couldn't allow Davy to be the only man he lost.

Nobody called Davy "Darth Vader" behind his back.

He was not going to let Davy die alone on some unnamed hillside. He couldn't. Davy's death would inflict deep and lasting grief on everyone in the platoon. Garth had the trust and respect of his men. Davy had their love.

"I won't leave without you. You will come back with me. You don't feel like walking? I'll carry you."

Doc's brown eyes glittered with challenge. His lip curled. "You think you can handle me?" He looked Garth up and down. His eyes widened in shock when he saw the dark blood that soaked Garth's camo pants from his hip to his knee—funny, until now Garth hadn't noticed it either. "Whoa. That doesn't look good, Boss. You've lost a lot of blood."

Garth would use any leverage he could get. He piled on the guilt. "Hell, yeah. Every minute I stand here arguing with you, I'm losing more!"
Doc scrambled to his feet, all medic now. "Where are you hit?"
"Hip, top of the thigh, something. Doesn't matter. Come on, we gotta get out of here."

"It's okay," Doc slung Garth's arm over his shoulder. With his other arm he supported Garth's back. "I've got you. We'll get you out."

The rumble of helos battered the peace of the meadow. "How's the pain, Lieutenant? Need something for the pain?"

"It was bad at first." Garth was grateful for Doc's arm. "I don't feel it much now. I can walk—only a few more steps—we can make it. Just don't let go."
"I won't let go." A warm hand clasped Garth's icy fingers. Compared to his, the hand felt almost hot.

"Corpsman, up!" Despite the heavy whoomp of helicopter blades, Garth heard the radio call for a medic. "Tell the lieutenant we've found his man. Tell 'im, it's good news."

***

The light dimmed. Garth couldn't see the meadow anymore. His eyelids were too heavy to open. He smelled blood and dust; the hot-oil-and-plastic smell of machines; the occasional clean, sharp whiff of antiseptic.

Hot fingers… the hot fingers were still… there. Garth squeezed them. Finally found the word he was trying to say. "Hurt."

"Morphine coming up."

The Light was gone. Garth felt more comfortable in the dark.

 


SEALed With A Ring
Excerpt
By Mary Margret Daughtridge

JJ's lawyer took a sip of champagne, a not-unsympathetic look in his shrewd eyes. "I'm sorry, JJ. Your grandfather is the sole owner of the business. He can sell it, and you can't stop him. He can do anything he wants with it."

JJ's heart battered her chest wall as if desperate to escape its cage of ribs. Her cheeks tingled as the blood drained from them. Her head swam. She had to get out of here before she fainted--or screamed.

After her grandfather had slapped her with his ultimatum, she had had no desire to go to a wedding, but she had reasoned that catching her lawyer at the reception would be her best chance to talk to him before Monday. But consulting her lawyer at a country club crowded with well-dressed guests celebrating a wedding? Bad idea.

She had been clutching at straws, looking for reassurance, looking for any sliver of hope. She should have known he would only confirm her fear that everything she cared about really could be imperiled by the ego of one man..

"Th-thank you." JJ stifled a bubble of hysteria at the irony of thanking someone for news as bad as this. But the impeccable manners instilled by her grandmother demanded she maintain her poise, stay in control, and, even if her world was crumbling, think of others first. "Excuse me, please, I - um - uh - "

The noise from the orchestra and the babble of well-bred voices combined in a confusing roar that drowned out coherent speech. She backed away, knowing only that she had to get out.

The country club entrance was miles away, down a long hallway. She would never make it out that way before she broke down. JJ flung herself through a door marked Staff Only.

The narrow service corridor where she found herself was lit only by the red glow of the exit sign over the half-glass exterior door. Before her mind could even register that the dark shape silhouetted against the door was a man, she slammed into him, a small startled scream escaping her. Running into him was like hitting a concrete wall.

"Hey, slow down!" The man she'd crashed into laughed as he gently set her back on her feet. It didn't take a lot of brain power to guess he was one of the SEALs - the ballroom was awash in them. The groom was a SEAL and apparently had invited his entire team to his wedding.

In her heels, she was almost the same height as him. JJ ducked her head to hide her face. "Sorry. I need to… um…" She tried to edge around him.

"Wait a minute." He snagged her arm and turned her so that he could see her face. "It's you. You're upset. Need me to take care of anybody for you?"

The cheerful bloodthirsty-ness of his offer almost failed to register, said as it was in a voice as smooth and dark as Dove chocolate. The incongruity surprised a laugh from her. Well… that and the fact that he had no idea how much she'd like to take him up on it.

"No," she shook her head, cringing at how tear-clogged she sounded.

"Okay," he agreed easily. He stepped into her path before she could try to go around him again. "How about I take care of you? Want me to kiss it better?" he teased. Again there was the cheerfully competent, dimple-decorated smile - as if he never doubted he was just as good at kissing as he was at taking care.

JJ knew the correct answer: a cool no thank you.

She didn't kiss men she didn't know - not that she'd had a lot of offers - not from men her age, anyway. Men with the confidence to come on to the working head of one of the oldest and most successful car dealerships in the state were usually a lot older. They went for smoother, less direct moves - like sending her a drink.

Tears welled in her eyes again. Really, she had to get out of here before she made a spectacle of herself and bawled. "A kiss isn't going to make it better."

"Depends on where I kiss," his voice turned deeper, mellower, "don't you think?" Without appearing to move, he was suddenly nearer. She could feel his heat and smell the masculine musk of his body. It wrapped around her the same way the chocolate of his voice did.

"Like," he murmured, "suppose I kiss you here?" He brushed the backs of his fingers over her breast, unerringly grazing the nipple through the slinky silk jersey of her dress. Only the barest touch. She'd almost think it was accidental - except for the teasing glint of a smile as he gauged her reaction and waited to see if she would stop him.

Shocked, appalled, yet mesmerized by his audacity, she couldn't speak, couldn't move. Her face, then her whole chest, got hot, and her heart lurched into a slower, deeper rhythm.

He repeated the outrageous familiarity with the other breast. The dimple in his cheek deepened. He allowed his hand to slide down the front of her body, past her waist, across her belly, until it rested at the juncture of her thighs. "Sometimes a kiss here is the most effective cure of all. Would you like for me to kiss you here?"

Would she like it? JJ struggled to review her options in spite of the hot maelstrom of emotion that threatened to suck her under. JJ's other choice was to drive home to Wilmington where not even a dog waited to comfort her and keep her company.

At last, JJ found her voice. "Yes," she whispered. "Yes, I would."


SEALed With A Promise
Excerpt
By Mary Margret Daughtridge

Emmie Caddington was looking for a man.

In a very short-term-goal, temporary sort of way, that is. Right now, before the wedding breakfast could break up, she needed to find Caleb Dulaude, the one everybody called Do-Lord.

Eastern North Carolina men carry nicknames like Potlikker, and Choo-choo to their graves without loss of dignity. Among them, a name like Do-Lord was unexceptional, but somehow, she couldn't make herself use it. There was an austere integrity to his features, not as obvious as handsomeness, that made the name all wrong for him - despite his rust-red hair, the tan-over-freckles skin of an outdoorsman, and down-home persona.

Whenever she saw him she longed for her pencil, or better yet, pen and ink to trace the relationships of broad, rather prominent brow ridges and longish nose, uncompromising cheekbones, and mobile mouth. When he was a boy, he'd probably been on the homely side. Bony features like his would take some growing into. 

Even the unconscious flexing of her fingers as she mentally drew him started up the throb in her shoulder. Having her right arm immobilized in a sling while a dislocated shoulder healed was the reason, the only reason, she needed him. If she hadn't been in denial about how long it would be before her arm was useable, she wouldn't have waited so long before seeking him out.

 Of course she might not have been in denial, if the thought of being anything but carefully polite to him wasn't anathema to her. He and those like him represented everything she thought the world would be better without.

Pickett's sister Grace, her knit dress of lapis silk jersey nailing the "dressy casual" the invitation had called for, halted Emmie's attempt to thread her way through the crowd around the buffet table.

"Where are you going," Grace demanded, "and with that look on your face?"

Emmie wasn't sure what expression might be on her face, but she didn't miss the look of exasperated affection with which Grace swept Emmie's beige Land's End blazer and matching beige skirt. Emmie wasn't against fashion. It was just that with her logical mind, the thousand slippery rules governing style were simply incomprehensible. By the time she'd entered college she was already a true eccentric - a nerd who couldn't even conform to the rules of nerd-dom.

She always bought generic clothes, efficiency and comfort being her wardrobe goals. Catalogue shopping saved time since everything already matched, and the clothes, never in, or out of, style, lasted for years.

 This morning she hadn't been able to move her arm enough to hook her bra, so she'd left it off. She'd added the blazer over her white blouse, hoping to disguise the deficiency.

Her outfit wouldn't have incited envy, but it would have passed muster as dressy casual on the campus of UNC-Wilmington where she was a junior faculty member. She already had noted it was wrong for the breakfast.

Emmie didn't know what to say. She couldn't tell Grace, of all people, the truth: that she was looking for Caleb. Grace would want to know why, and she wasn't a good liar. To lie well one had to understand a society's unwritten expectations.

Grace waived her hesitation aside. "Forget I asked. Do you have a ride back to Mother's house?"

"Yes." She would if she could find Caleb, at any rate.

"Fine, just remember it's going to take a long time to dress." Fortunately, before she could add more admonishments, someone interrupted to ask Grace for an opinion about some wedding detail.  When she turned away to answer, Emmie made her escape with a little wave.

"Aunt Lilly Hale, can I borrow Caleb for a minute?"

Do-Lord felt the odd little internal shiver, like the supercharged air of a thunderstorm, a half-second before the woman appeared at his elbow, and without turning, knew Emelina Caddington, Pickett's best friend, the maid of honor stood beside him.

Something about her irritated him, something besides the way she called him Caleb in her cool, precise voice, oddly devoid of Southern accent.  Nobody had called him Caleb since he left Alabama. He'd joined the Navy the day he turned eighteen and since then he'd been Dulaude. Do-Lord to his friends.

She wasn't attention-worthy in any way except for her wide blue eyes that gave her the look of serious, intelligent kitten. Appealing as that image was, it was canceled by her shapeless clothes and sensible shoes.

Spinsterish. The old-fashioned word fit her and matched her name, Emelina. Beside Pickett's tall, elegant sisters, who were almost awe-inspiring in their cool, blonde beauty or Pickett herself who was the sweetest, most feminine thing he'd ever seen, she didn't rate a second glance.

Which made it even more irritating that anytime she was in the room, he watched her.

"Emmie, darling! It's so good to see you." The older woman leaned forward to carefully lay her cheek against Emmie's, avoiding the bright blue harness that held Emmie's arm close to her chest. "But your poor arm! Are you still going to be Pickett's maid of honor? How are you going to manage two bouquets, and Pickett's train and everything?"

Emmie favored Pickett's great aunt with a stiff smile. "That's what I need to talk to the best man about. Excuse us please?" Without waiting for a reply Emmie looped her good arm through his and tugged him back into the house.

It went against his grain to let a stranger inside his personal space where a knife could be used; or to let anyone hamper his right arm preventing him from going for his weapon; or to let himself be taken anywhere he hadn't decided for himself to go. A tiny bit amused by her presumption in believing she could, he allowed her to lead him.

The very novelty sent a tingle of anticipation through his boredom. She seemed unaware she'd crossed lines men twice her size wouldn't have dared, and she pressed his arm so close he could feel the soft give of the side of her breast.

Her full, soft breast that wasn't confined by a bra.

He wouldn't be a man if he didn't notice.

The irritation he always felt around her morphed into a more primal awareness. He suddenly noticed her smell. She wore no scent that he could detect, she just smelled basic. Sweet. Like a woman.

She intended to pull him past the parlors into the wide hall that would take them deeper into the house. He didn't think she was coming on to him - not after the stiff way she always acted around him - but she was up to something. "Where are we going?"

"To Aunt Lilly Hale's office. Someplace we can talk."

"Talk?" Do-Lord halted so he could look into her face. He squashed an absurd blossom of hope. She was the last woman in the world who would pull him aside for a quickie. And close to the last woman in the world he would want to pull him aside. Yeah, suddenly she interested him, but not that way. Even though she reminded him more than ever of a serious, and right this minute, very determined kitten. A Siamese kitten with big, blue eyes and silvery beige fur.

Emmie intercepted the rather calculating look of masculine assessment he gave her, and suddenly became aware of the heat and steely strength of the arm under the fine tweed of his coat, and of the fact that she had left off her bra this morning. Could he tell? Surely not.

She wanted to grind her teeth with frustration at her own self. It was that goal-directed thing again making her unaware of how she was coming across. Grabbing his arm had been a stupid move, but for a man who stood out as he did, he could be amazingly elusive. For thirty minutes she'd searched the crowd for his russet head and broad shoulders, dodging jocular inanities about when she was going to find herself a man. The irony hadn't escaped her.

Or improved her disposition, she was afraid. Her shoulder hurt with a deep, grinding ache. All she really wanted to do was take her pain medication and lie very, very still until time for the wedding.

By the time she'd spotted him framed by the double doors open to the warm day, she'd been close to frantic, the sedate calm with which she usually endured these family affairs shredded. She needed him and she'd grabbed him, determined not let anyone interrupt.

But really! These jocks! He wasn't a college athlete, he was a member of a crack military team with an animal name. Navy SEALs, Miami Dolphins, what was the difference? she recognized the type. They assumed everything with a vagina was interested in them. They only had to choose which one they wanted. They walked the earth with a sense of entitlement, sure that their place in the universe guaranteed them the best.

On campus she was careful to keep her professorial distance, and make it clear in any interaction, she was in charge. Give them an inch and they'd take a mile.

She forgot her intention to get on his good side. Knowing the effect was probably ruined by the heat staining her cheeks, she aimed him a don't-mess-with-me glare, "I said what I meant. You know. The other four-letter word ending in k. Talk!"

Her faced flamed even redder. What was the matter with her? She never said things like that!

His grin widened. "Just checking."

He changed the subject. "Why do you call her 'aunt?' You're not kin with this family are you?"

Relief that she hadn't offended him made her expansive. "We're not related, but they are my adopted family. Pickett and I were college roommates. Because my parents are missionaries, going home for holidays was out of the question, so I always came home with Pickett. I just got in the habit of calling people whatever Pickett did."

Emmie opened the door into a sunny butler's pantry Pickett's aunt had converted to a home office. "Here we are."

Focused on finding a private place they could talk in, she'd forgotten how small the room was. The floor space, occupied as it was by an antique estate desk, left two adults hardly room to stand.

The unexpected intimacy rattled Emmie. He was so close she could see the shadow cast by his golden eyelashes. His eyes, a hazel mixture of brown and gold and green, reminded her of pebbles washed by a mountain stream. Cold and hard. She forced herself to look into them without flinching. Last night she'd noticed the way he looked at Pickett and thought maybe she had an ally. Now she wasn't so sure.

Underneath the sling she tugged the lapels of her jacket together, and took a fortifying breath. At this late date there wasn't anyone else she could ask.

"I understand you SEALs are pretty loyal to one another," she said getting straight to the point. "Does your loyalty extend to Pickett?"

"What are you asking?" In his lazy, liquid drawl the question didn't sound like a question. His voice was deep, sonorous, yet damped, as if he saw no need to bring its full power to this situation, and yet the power was there. His voice felt like fur stroking down her spine from her nape to the small of her back.

She ruthlessly slammed the door on the thought. Emmie, child of missionaries, had spent her teenage years with an elderly grandmother. She wasn't opposed to wholesome sex, but the temptations of sensuality were subtle and best avoided. This was for Pickett, but still, his voice, dark as burnt umber and a little gritty, compelled more honesty than she had planned on. "I'm asking, are you willing to do a favor for Pickett--no matter what the fallout."

"Do I have to kill anybody?" He didn't look like he was kidding.

"No, but if we're caught, all hell will break loose. Pickett's sister Grace might kill you."

"And you, I presume."

Emmie dismissed that. "Probably, but I don't care. Pickett's the peacemaker."

"What do you want me to do?"

Emmie took a deep breath and looked him straight in the eye. "We have to steal the wedding cake."

 

 
   
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