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I hate using Emma against her, but at this point, it’s the only way to make her see reason.


“There’s no need to be that way, Gwendolyn. Of course I want to be in Emma’s life and yours as well. I just don’t understand all of this nonsense,” she replies with a sigh.


“And herein lies our problem. Having your husband put you down with his words and his fists for ten years isn’t nonsense. Look, I have to go. I’ll have Emma call you next week.”


I end the call before she can say anything else, tossing my cell phone angrily onto the passenger seat and bringing the camera back up to my face. I push my mother’s words out of my mind as I see Mr. Bradford swing his leg over the seat of a brand new Harley. The click of the shutter release echoes through my car as I take over fifty pictures of him starting up the motorcycle, pulling out of the dealership and gunning it top speed down the street.


Once he’s out of sight, I pull the camera way from my face and quickly scan through the photos. These should be good enough for the plant to take to their lawyer and put an end to their weekly payments to Mr. Bradford. A man with that many problems and in so much pain shouldn’t be able to drive a Harley.


There’s nothing like the feeling of closing a case. When Brady first asked me to help out at the office, I had no idea what I was doing. Now, I’m out on jobs and doing investigations on my own. William never let me have a job. He was adamant that I stay home and be at his beck and call. Being able to come and go as I please and have a job I love is the best feeling in the world.


Setting the camera down on the passenger seat, I start up my car and drive a few blocks to the grocery store to pick up a few things before Emma gets home from school. As I walk up and down the aisles, throwing random things into the cart, I stop in my tracks in the soup aisle when something makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. The overwhelming feeling of being watched fills me and I whip my head around nervously. I’m the only one in the aisle. I shake my head at my foolishness and turn back around, pushing my cart to the next aisle. The feeling of being followed lingers and I rub the goose bumps off of my arms, looking over my shoulder every few minutes as I finish my shopping.


It’s probably just because of the conversation I had with my mother. Thinking about William always leaves me feeling uneasy. Just because I had to put my whereabouts on the divorce papers, doesn’t mean he would come here and find me. My lawyer assured me that William agreed to the divorce without complaint and said that he would do whatever I asked to make things happen smoothly and without publicity. He knows that at any moment, I could out him to his colleagues as an abuser. His reputation would never recover.


Shoving aside the nerves, I load up my car with the bags of groceries and head home to Emma. Another call to my lawyer just to make sure William is still in New York probably wouldn’t hurt.


Chapter 5


Austin


Brady gave me an extra key to his office months ago in case of emergency. I never thought I would be happy to use this thing, but arriving at the dark office an hour before Gwen has its benefits – like snooping through her files, for instance. Not only do I want to see what kind of jobs Brady has going on right now, I want to see what kind of “personal issues” Gwen has. I’m pretty sure she won’t keep a list of said issues in her desk drawer, but you never know.


My cell phone buzzes, bouncing across the desk and I quickly grab it.


“Hey, asshole, how’s country living?”


I laugh when I hear Cole Vargas, the fourth member of our SEAL team, on the other end of the line. Cole took some mandatory time off after our mission in the Dominican last year to heal. We went to the Dominican to help our SEAL brother Garrett rescue the love of his life and his best friend, Parker. She was taken by a nasty son of a bitch and by the time we got to her, she had sustained a shit ton of injuries. While she was in the hospital, she became friends with Olivia, one of her nurses. Cole fell in love with Olivia and they settled down in California where she still works as a nurse.


Even though he’s living it up with a good woman in Cali, he’s never been the same since our time in the Dominican. Two of his best friends from the Naval Academy were killed right in front of him. He puts up a good front about being happy with his new, slow-paced beach life, but I know better. He’ll never be happy until the people who killed his friends are six feet under. The few times I’ve brought up the subject, he’s bitten my head off, so we both just pretend like it’s not an issue right now. One of these days though, he’s going to explode from keeping all of that shit bottled up.


“It’s not eight-thousand degrees in the middle of the desert with a rucksack on my back and an M-16 in my hands, but it will have to do,” I admit with a chuckle.


“I can’t believe you gave up a recon mission in Iraq to babysit Brady’s kid sister. Has the state of Tennessee taken a chunk out of your already tiny brain?”


Ignoring Cole’s barb, I immediately wonder how the hell he knows I was supposed to go to Baghdad, but turned the orders down to take some personal time.


“Care to tell me how your civilian ass knew about Iraq?” I question as I lean back in Gwen’s chair and kick my feet up on her desk.


“I may or may not have talked to Risner the other day.”


Hearing that Cole talked to our Captain is more than a little shocking. Last I knew he wanted to forget about the Navy and just enjoy his woman. I knew it would only be a matter of time before he came back.


“And what does Olivia have to say about this?” I question.


Olivia Laferriere is honestly the nicest woman I’ve ever met. She also doesn’t take shit from anyone and can hold her own in a room full of SEALS, but I know she’s the main reason behind Cole’s leave of absence. She doesn’t like the idea of her man going off into the unknown and possibly never coming home.


“Olivia doesn’t know,” Cole responds after a few quiet moments.


Well, that explains it.


“Enough about my shit. Seriously, what the hell are you doing in Tennessee?”


With a sigh, I explain to Cole about the phone call I received from Brady.


“Huh, so that’s it? You’re supposed to just sit on your ass and keep an eye on Gwen? Suddenly, sitting here on the deck staring out at the ocean seems like a party compared to what you’re doing,” Cole laughs.


“Fuck you. Speaking of Gwen, what do you know about her?”


Cole and Brady went to the same high school. It never even occurred to me until now that I probably should have just asked him what the deal was with her. Brady would only tell me what I needed to know and Gwen obviously isn’t going to give up the goods.


“I haven’t seen her in years. She was a few years younger than us in school so I never hung out with her or anything,” Cole explains. “She was pretty shy and quiet, blonde hair down to her ass, did whatever her parents told her to do. She married some big wig doctor back in New York and turned into the socialite her mother always wanted her to be.”


Are we talking about the same person? The Gwen I know has purple and blue streaks in her hair, a nose piercing and a mouth like a trucker. That’s a far cry from being an ass-kissing social climber.


“I was kind of surprised to hear she skipped town with her kid a few months ago and never told anyone,” Cole continues. “Definitely not something the Gwen I knew would do.”


Jesus Christ, what the fuck has Brady gotten me involved in? Even though I want to ask Cole a million questions, something now feels wrong about prying into Gwen’s life without her knowing. I’d much rather have her tell me what the fuck is going on. I end the call with Cole, making him promise to let me know the minute he decides what the hell he’s planning on doing with his life.


Forty-five minutes later, after sorting through all of the customer files in Gwen’s desk, I’m bored sitting around waiting for her to come to work so I make my way to the back room where I know Brady has a heavy bag hanging from the ceiling and a stack of free weights.


Wrapping up my hands with some of the boxing tape Brady left on the floor by the weights, I take my frustrations out on the bag, beating the shit out of it until I work up a good sweat. It was good to talk to Cole again, but doing so always brings up bad memories that are better left buried. With every punch to the bag, scenes from the past flash through my mind.


“Vargas, man, they’re dead. We have to leave them.”


Punch.


“You need to pull it together right now. We have to get the fuck out of here!”


Punch-punch.


“You can’t save them. They both took a bullet between the eyes. I’m not about to let that happen to you so get the fuck up and let’s go!”


Punch-punch-punch.


Pushing aside the memories, I hit the bag so hard that my hands sting and the muscles in my arms burn, but it doesn’t matter. The pain in my body takes away the pain in my heart from seeing one of my best friends completely lose it in the field, cradling the dead body of one of his friends to him and rocking back and forth in a daze. I need the distraction of being here, helping Brady out so I can forget about how one of the strongest SEALs I’ve ever met broke down and has never been the same since.


“What the hell are you doing?”


At the sound of Gwen’s angry shout, my arms pause mid-punch. I didn’t even hear her come in. Fuck, I’m losing it. I’m a SEAL, people aren’t supposed to sneak up on me. She’s like a Goddamn ninja.


“I was working, then I got bored waiting for you,” I tell her, glancing at my watch. “You’re fifteen minutes late.”


She slams her purse down on the table by the door and stalks around to the other side of the heavy bag. She’s wearing her usual uniform of jeans and a long-sleeved shirt that hugs her body. Just once I’d like to see her wearing something skimpy that shows a little skin and a lot of cleavage.


Fuck, I need to get laid.


“How the hell did you get in here?” she asks me angrily as I begin unwrapping the tape from my hands.


I ignore her question. “So, I’ve been bringing myself up to speed this morning. You got some good shots of Bradford on the Harley.”


She glares up at me and I smile back.


“I thought we agreed you were going to leave me alone,” she complains, crossing her arms in front of her.


“We didn’t agree on anything. I smartly kept my mouth shut so you’d stop nagging me. If you’d rather, I could go pick your kid up from school and teach her some new words.”


She groans in frustration and walks out of the room. Tossing the pile of tape into the trashcan, I follow her out to her desk.


“Did you go through my files?” she asks in irritation, sorting through the folders on her desk.


“Well, since I’m going to be working here, I needed to see what you have going on. Don Bradford is a lying sack of shit, April Marcum is a cheating whore and Chris Speedman makes enough money to finally start paying his wife child support.”


She ignores me, stacking and restacking all of the files since obviously I didn’t put them back as perfectly as she left them, so I continue. “I also checked the calendar. Looks like we have a stakeout later today to catch another cheating spouse. Do you want to drive or should I?”


Gwen finally stops playing with the files and huffs. “You’re not going with me.”


I just smile at her. “Fine, I’ll go with you to your hair appointment and make sure you don’t do something stupid like go back to blonde.”


Oops. I’m not supposed to know that.


Her head jerks up and she looks at me wide-eyed. “How the hell do you know I used to be a blonde?”


I shrug. No sense in telling her Cole spilled some of her secrets. I’d much rather have her assume I’m onto her.


“Just a hunch. For the record, I like the blue and purple. It’s hot and makes you look like you could kick some ass. You’d look like a Stepford Wife if you were blonde,” I tell her with a laugh, hoping the ‘wife’ comment will get her to admit something about the poor guy she left behind in New York.


Her shoulders lose their tension and I actually wonder if she’s letting her guard down. She cocks her head to the side and stares up at me with those gorgeous gray eyes and runs her fingers through her shoulder-length dark hair self-consciously. My dick stands at attention when I think what that hair would feel like skimming across my thighs.


Oh, hell no! There will be none of that shit going on. Time to douse some cold water on everything.


“You do know that it’s my job to find out things, right? I know you ran away from New York with your tail between your legs and have been hiding out here with your brother. What happened? Mommy and Daddy not paying enough attention to you? Or maybe the guy you left behind finally decided you weren’t worth the trouble and kicked you to the curb.”


The softness in her eyes immediately vanishes and is replaced with hurt. I have a moment of regret for saying what I did, but I don’t have time for this bullshit. We can either keep playing this stupid little game or she can tell me what the fuck is going on and why I’m here instead of out on a mission where there’s real danger.


Instead of throwing a sarcastic comment my way like she usually does, Gwen turns away from me and heads to the door.


“I need to run some errands. You can sit at Brady’s desk and go through his files until it’s time to head out and do the tail in a few hours.”


And just like that, she shuts me down. Guess I probably should have went with my first instinct and continued to grill Cole about her. It would have been much easier than trying to pry the truth out of Gwen.

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