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Afghanistan –Winter, 2001

Staff Sergeant Dallas Garrett reined in his mount, lifted his field glasses, and scanned the switchbacks winding down the barren slopes of the mountain range 100 km south of Mazar-e-Sharif.

“Yippee ti-yi-yo, get along little Taliban,” he sang under his breath as an icy wind whistled around the steep rock walls of the pass.

He’d been five years old the first time he’d sat on the back of a horse. The memorable event had taken place back home in West Palm on one of those kiddy pony rides where the bored little critter had slogged around in a circle to the tune of a rotation about every thirty minutes. Hadn’t mattered to him. He’d thought he was Roy freaking Rogers. To this day, his brothers and sister still gave him shit about his little red straw cowboy hat, black plastic boots and toy six shooters that would have made a real cow poke laugh his ass off.

It had taken the war on terror and twenty some years for Dallas to mount up again. Good thing the horse knew what he was doing, he thought, lowering the glasses. Three days ago when he’d swung into the saddle, Dallas had still been as green as that five year old playing shoot ‘em up bang, bang in the wild, wild west. Well he wasn’t green now. He was saddle sore and trail weary. And while the terrain he rode was wild, he was half way to hell and gone from the west he’d dreamed of riding as a boy.

Cold sliced through his bones like a meat cleaver – along with an itchy, niggling feeling that this op was running way too smoothly. Snow scented the air as his team headed down a large, deep chasm toward the bottom of the Dar-i-suf valley. Okay. So this could prove to be their first glitch. Weather was a complication they didn’t need – not if they were going to accomplish their recon on the gathering hordes of Taliban-friendly Pashtun fighters who were elements in need of serious attitude adjustments. Or at the very least they needed to be destabilized to marginalize the classic war lord structure. Enter Dallas and his Force Recon team.

Behind him, Rodriquez, Gates, Stover, Stalinsky – Ski – and the rest of his men swore like the marines they were when the first flake fell. Like Dallas, they were running on guts and determination. And like him, by design, they all looked like they’d been born in these God forsaken mountains.

Their faces and hands were baked brown by wind and sun. Their dark beards were rangy and full. To further blend in with the locals, Lungees or turbans covered their heads; the wind played hell with the flapping tails of worn clothe that wrapped around their necks and kept the headgear from going airborne. Their dull brown and blue striped Chapmans were woven from coarse wool and camel hair; the loose fitting garments smelled like wet dog, scratched like hell and as an added bonus, did damn little to keep out the cold.

"When in Rome, shit," Dallas muttered.

He grunted, sucked it up and didn’t think about the Gor-tex jackets they’d had to leave behind so their bulk wouldn’t show beneath the Chapmans and give them away. He had everything he needed. His M4A1 carbine and MEU(SOC).45 pistol were hidden beneath the long, flowing folds of the robe. His team was similarly armed, combat-wise and ready.

Gates, his sniper, carried an M40 sniper rifle – lotta ‘bang’. Rodriquez’s M4 was equipped with the ‘boom’ in the form of an M203 grenade launcher. Stover was loaded ass deep in medical supplies. If all went as planned, they wouldn’t need any of it. They’d get in, get out, and report their findings back to COC before the bad guys ever got wind that they’d been made. Then the flyboys could start their destabilization efforts in the form of a few tons of smart bombs and cookie cutters.


Ahead of Dallas, Atiqualla, the Jimbush warlord whose friendly political party consisted primarily of ethnic Uzbek Afghans, guided them through the pass. Atiqualla rode the grey gelding – t’Aragh – like he’d been born in the saddle. If you could call two pieces of wood with a slice of thin carpet slapped on top a saddle. Dallas shifted, gave his ass a rest and wondered if his balls would ever be a color other than blue again.

Last night he’d dreamed of riding in a chopper. Hell. If someone had told him eight years ago when he’d made Force Recon that he’d be leading an op on horseback he’d have told them they were full of shit. Horse shit, specifically. He was a marine. He hiked. He jumped. He swam.

And yet today, he rode. Okay, fine. Whatever it took. With luck, they’d be hauling ass out of here tomorrow, the bad guys marked as targets for a precision bombing run. Mission accomplished.

Only luck, it seemed, was about to run out.

He heard the deadly whistle just before Ski called, "Heads down!" from their flank.

The first RPG hit an instant later. Then the side of the mountain started exploding around them and the world blew apart.


West Palm Beach, Florida, seven years later.

"So, what brought this on?"

Dallas didn’t so much as glance at his brother who stood in the open bedroom doorway, a root beer in hand, a dark scowl on his face.

"What? I’m not entitled to a vacation?" A man on a mission, Dallas continued rifling through his bureau drawer, ignoring Nolan’s long suffering breath. "E.D.E.N. can get along without me for a few days. You three over achievers can handle things," he pointed out, referring to his siblings who were all partners in the security firm their old man had turned over to them several years ago.

"Besides, with Jase and Manny on board now, you’ve got plenty of bodies to fill the holes," he added, reminding Nolan that E.D.E.N. was at full force with the addition of Jase Wilson and Manny Ortega, two ex-special ops brothers in arms who’d recently joined the company. "Perfect time for me to take a break from bullets and bad guys."

Bullets and bad guys.

Without warning, a vivid assault of memory hit him like a gut punch.


Ski. Gates. Rodriquez. Stover. They were all dead or dying.

He sucked in air. Stalked across the carpeted floor. But he couldn’t move fast enough to outdistance the seven year old memories.

The stench of burning flesh seared his nostrils. The sick, sweet scent of blood and gore suffocated him. And the sounds. Jesus. Terrified cries of pain from both men and horses.

The ground was grave cold and running with blood, rubble and snow when he came to. Dead ahead … awe, God. Pain throbbing through his entire body, he clawed his way to Gates’s mangled corpse. The corporal’s eyes were vacant, unfocused as he lay sprawled in the debris, half of his face shot off. Twenty-three years old. His mother would never see him whole again.

Dallas swallowed hard. Shook his head. Cleared his vision.

Seven years. Seven fucking years and the images he’d thought he’d buried with his men were once again rising up out of the mucky swamp of his memory, sucking at his soul like leeches.

Never was a good time to relive this shit. So why the hell was this happening again? Why was it happening now?


Dallas straightened. Wiped a shaking hand over his face and snapped at Nolan. "What!"

Brows knit, Nolan pushed away from the doorframe where, until now, he’d been attempting to look nonchalant. "What the hell is wrong with you? You’re either sniping like a great white, or as silent and stoic as a monk."

Dallas grunted and tossed several pair of socks into the duffel that lay open on his bed. His brother was spot on right. And he was sorry about that. Just not sorry enough to muster the will to do anything about it. Except give Nolan a break and get out of his face for a while. "So I’d think you’d be glad to get rid of me."

"Talk to me." Concern knocked the edge off the ex-Ranger’s command.

Talk to him? Christ. Dallas had made that mistake once already. Two weeks ago. The night their oldest brother, Ethan, had remarried Darcy Prescott.

Dallas had been shit-faced drunk – not his usual MO - and light-weight that he was he’d spilled his candy-ass guts. Cried to Nolan about the recent recurrence of the flashbacks, the night sweats, the black holes that had become a part of his life again. Nolan had wanted to play touchy feely ever since.

"You know, the VA has head men who specialize in-"


"Don’t even go there." Dallas cut Nolan off with a dark look. He was a Marine. Okay, ex-Marine. For over five years now. Still, the Marine doctrine was forever ingrained in his DNA. And it was pig simple: Solve your problems, live with them, or shut the fuck up. He wasn’t about to flop down on a cushy couch in some psycho-babbling little cucumber’s office and puke out his inner demons. ‘Philosophy’ battalion in the mosquito infested swamps of South Carolina had made certain of that. The head ‘philosopher’ – AKA: the drill sergeant’s therapy of choice had been to apply a size-thirteen boot directly to the ass whenever the urge to whine came over a raw recruit. Effective as hell.

"Have you thought about looking for her?" Nolan asked quietly.

Double fuck.

He’d forgotten. He’d spilled the beans about Amy Walker that same night. Boo-hooed about the fact that he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the woman he’d helped rescue from that clew of Abu Sayyaf terrorist worms with Ethan, Nolan and Manny when they’d staged an unsanctioned, civilian op to save Darcy from Jolo Island six months ago.

Amy had endured more degradation and torture at the hands of those slime than any human being should be expected to bear. She’d survived because of her strong spirit and guts. But she would carry the scars – both physical and emotional – for the rest of her life.

He respected her. Admired her. Cared about her. Wanted her.

Missed her.

Yet even though he’d suspected that she was planning to disappear from his life shortly after they’d returned to the states, he’d let her go. Because he’d known. Alone, they might have a chance. Together, their excess baggage would break an elephant’s back.

"Or is that what this sudden trip is really about?" Nolan crossed the room. Dallas watched his brother set his root beer bottle on the bedside table then lay back on the bed and get comfy, crossing his arms behind his head. "You finally going after her?"

"That’s going to leave a ring." Dallas evaded the question by glaring toward the sweating bottle.

Just like he’d been evading the probability that the ground assault they’d launched getting Darcy and Amy out of the terrorist hellhole had been the catalyst for the resurgence of his PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Long convoluted term. Shrinks preferred it to ‘fucked-up’ in the head. Go figure.

"Anal to the bone," Nolan grumbled after a long, silent stare and grudgingly moved the bottle onto a coaster. "Did you ever think that might be part of your problem?"

"No, but I’ve been thinking that you are. Don’t you have a wife and a baby to go home to and harass?"

"You know," Nolan said, purposely ignoring Dallas’s hint to leave him the hell alone, "I remember a day, not so many moons ago when you and Ethan invaded my inner sanctum and dragged my sorry hide out of a perfectly good drunken stupor."

"Too drunk to remember that Ethan came alone. If I’d been along-"

"Oh, right," Nolan interrupted with a tight grin. "You weren’t with him. Guess I was drunk."

"Well I’m not so bugger off."

According to Ethan, Nolan had been close to the edge that day, Dallas reflected. Beyond just drunk, deep in denial and ready to piss his life down the toilet. His little brother had DX’d out of the Rangers three months earlier, was laying a lot of blame on his big bad self for a buddy’s death and Dallas and Ethan had decided Nolan needed something to live for.

Joining E.D.E.N., Inc. as a securities specialist and protecting TV anchorwoman Jillian Kincaid from a crazed stalker had started out as a job. A means to bring Nolan back among the functional. Who knew he’d not only straighten up and fly right, he’d end up marrying his client, the daughter of one of the fattest cats in the publishing business.

"Okay. So drinking’s not your problem – or your forte," Nolan’s voice dragged Dallas back to the immovable object currently stretched out on his bed, "but you’re about a pin pull away from going off like a frag grenade."

Dallas worked his jaw. One thing about brothers. They understood things. Nolan wasn’t going to let up.

"I’ll handle it," Dallas said, because he also understood something. Nolan was worried about him. And he wasn’t going to back away. "I’ll handle it," he repeated with a grim nod when his brother’s expression relayed only skepticism. "I just need a little space, okay?"

Nolan studied him long and hard. "Give me more than crumbs here, D. You know I have to report back to the troops."

The ‘troops’, Dallas knew, consisted of their mom and dad, Ethan and Darcy, their sister, Eve, and her husband, Mac, and Nolan’s wife, Jillian. And he’d already figured out that they’d sent Nolan here to get the goods on the only Garrett who had broken Army tradition and opted to join the Marines – a decision that had always made his sanity suspect in their eyes.

"Do NOT sic Eve on me," he warned, figuring that would be Nolan’s next move.

Their sister – Nolan’s twin – was five feet two inches of blond hair, blue eyes and TNT. Eve loved hard, cared hard and wouldn’t think twice about pinning Dallas to the wall if she thought she could protect him by doing so. The best thing that had ever happened to that woman was marrying Tyler ‘Mac’ McClain. Mac gave back as good as Eve dished out, didn’t take any of her lip and, Dallas was relieved to know, Mac was crazy in love with her.

"Give me a reason not to send her over. Tell me where you’re going."

That was the hell of it. Dallas didn’t know. He didn’t know squat – except that he needed distance. The concerned looks were wearing on him. The worry that creased his mother’s brow fueled his guilt.

"Fishing," he said, making it up on the fly. "I’m going fishing, okay? With some buddies from my old unit."

He’d go to hell for lying but since odds were he was heading there anyway, one more sin against mankind wouldn’t make a difference.

"So when do you leave?" Nolan clearly wasn’t taking the bait and was doing a little fishing of his own trying to catch Dallas in a lie.

"In the morning. Early flight to the gulf. I’ll see you in a couple of weeks. Happy now? Good. Now get the hell out so I can finish packing."

Dragging a hand over dark hair that was badly in need of a cut, he strode out of the bedroom toward his condo’s front door, swung it open and waited for his brother to follow. The sultry heat of the Florida night slogged into the room in thick, heavy drifts. A sky that had been threatening rain all day finally let go and a burst of fat drops fell as he stood there. Needing to be alone.

After what seemed like a decade, Nolan finally sauntered toward him. Hands tucked in his hip pockets, he stopped about a foot away. Though Nolan was the youngest of the three brothers, he stood within an inch of Dallas’s 6’1’ frame, carried his weight in the same lean, rangy build, and stared at him through the same intense blue eyes.

"If your ass isn’t straightened out when you get


"Yeah, yeah, I know," Dallas interrupted. "You’re gonna introduce it to my shoulder blades."

"Damn straight."

And then Nolan did the damnedest thing. This ex-special ops soldier who was now a full partner with Ethan, Dallas and Eve at E.D.E.N. Securities, Inc., this hard as steel warrior who took no prisoners and cut no slack, grabbed him in a bear hug and squeezed until Dallas’s ribs cracked.

"Take care, man," Nolan said and let him go. Without a backward glance, he walked out the door and into the rain.

Thank God.

Thank Jesus God

Because if his little brother had taken time to look Dallas in the eyes, he would have seen they were wet. And that was one humiliation he positively could not deal with.

* * *

Dallas was dry-eyed and hard-faced when he heard the knock on his door five minutes later.

Eve, he thought with a sick knot in his gut. Damn Nolan and his good intentions. The little bastard had gone straight to Eve – and she’d tear into him like a pit bull after a T-bone until she got some answers.

Muttering under his breath, he stomped to the door and swung it open, determined to nip this little inquisition in the bud.

Only it wasn’t his sister standing there, drenched to the bone as rain came down like buckshot.

His heart cracked him sledge hammer hard, dead center in the middle of his chest as he stared into the face of a woman he’d seen for the first time in the fetid jungles of Jolo Island.

Amy Walker.

Soaking wet.

Cornflower blue eyes speaking to him without her uttering a word.

Jesus. Sweet Jesus Christ.

Dallas had thought of her, dreamed of her, worried for her, even cursed her for messing with his head after she’d disappeared. But he’d never planned on seeing her again.

Too much baggage.

Too many problems.

Too much work, he’d told himself over and over again.

Told himself now.

All of that flew out the window when she took a halting step toward him and collapsed into his arms.