Being Savanna’s bodyguard is the last thing Trace wants to do, but she’s his one chance to set the record straight—and he’s her only chance at survival. When their mutual enemy closes in, will secrets, lies, and forbidden passions cost them everything?
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Navy SEAL Lieutenant Trace Hunter stood outside the Witcher prison walls in nothing but his underwear and stared at the gray Virginia skyline.
You wore the same clothes leaving prison that you wore coming in; hence his lack of street clothes.
Eighteen months since he’d been a free man. Since his world crashed down like a Black Hawk hit by a surface-to-air missile.
He drew a deep breath, the cold November air searing a line straight down his throat and into his lungs. Yes sir, the guard hadn’t been lying.
“Brisk out there,” he’d told Trace as he’d handed him a pair of sweatpants and a jacket and ushered him out a rear service door not far from solitary.
The normal guards had been missing, the numerous doors and gates opening for the two of them as if by magic. But Trace was a lifer. He didn’t understand why he was getting out, or why he wasn’t going out the front gate.
Leaving Witcher had never crossed his mind when he’d entered, so he didn’t argue as the guard directed him through the last gate. He did, however, ignore the kindness of the clothes and bugged out as fast as his feet could carry him.
Thanks to his stubbornness, his skin was now pebbling in the frosty air.
He’d briefly considered there would be a car waiting for him, or more likely, there would be a sniper on the hill and a bullet with Trace’s name on it.
Forty yards from the prison, he came to a fork in the road. According to the sign, north lay Rileyville, Population 899. South lay Murder Creek, unincorporated. Either way was a long walk in his skivvies.
Rocks and debris on the road bit into the soles of his feet as he put his head down and headed south. He’d taken off the cheap flip-flops Witcher had provided upon entry and thrown them as far as his arm allowed. He’d survived tougher conditions in hellholes like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Peru. North Korea had been a ball of laughs, too.
At least those places had been warm.
Who got me out?
Leaving the prison, he’d kept wondering if it was a joke, and that once he finally got to the last gate where the laundry trucks came and went, the normal guards would arrive back at their posts, laugh and tell him to turn the fuck around and go back to solitary.
He’d spent a lot of time there. No way in hell he’d been released early for good behavior.
When he’d asked why he was free to go, the guard with the clothes wouldn’t answer him.
He loved his country. Had done a lot of shit to keep her safe, but there was one thing he’d refused to do and it had cost him his freedom and his reputation. He knew a secret that could destroy the sitting president. Linc Norman’s enemies would give Trace anything he wanted for this tidbit of info.
He wouldn’t give it to them. None of them.
He also wouldn’t follow the last order his commander-in-chief had issued.
So he’d been branded a rogue operative, a traitor. His story—a false one—had been plastered all over the highly-rated The Bunk Stops Here and then been picked up by news stations around the world. He’d become the face on dozens of cheap tabloids, usurping the Royals’ latest baby and stealing the limelight from the current Disney star-turned-porn princess, all thanks to Savanna Bunkett, the host of TBSH who’d broken the story on him.
The all-American, girl-next-door Savanna did a three-show segment on his fall from war hero to traitor, crucifying him and calling into question every mission he’d been on, every SEAL who’d worked with him.
Not a lawyer in the country would touch him, and even if one had stepped forward to take on the U.S. Attorney General, they wouldn’t have won. He was a dead man walking. Thanks to some back-door dealing, he didn’t even get a trial; he was sent straight to Witcher, the hidden government installment built especially for high-risk prisoners like him. Prisoners who’d been the best at what they did. Highly-trained operatives and military personal who knew every trick their government had up its sleeve and how to get around all of them.
Behind him, the sound of tires on pavement broke him out of his reverie.
SUV, four-wheel drive, twenty-five miles an hour tops.
Trace didn’t turn or acknowledge the vehicle’s presence. It was traveling too slowly to be a casual traveler on his way to Murder Creek unless the driver was a blue-hair. Of course, a man his size walking on the side of the road in nothing but his underwear could cause any normal driver to slow so he or she could gawk.
Trace knew the driver wasn’t an old lady or a curious traveler. The person or persons approaching carried danger. Probably someone working for the president or Command & Control. Maybe the person who’d gotten him cut loose from Witcher so they could gun him down on the side of the road.
Hell, the president had already had him in the perfect spot to end him. People inside had tried, but he was better, faster, more deadly than his fellow inmates. He’d sent more than a few of them to the infirmary, knowing they had only come after him because the president had offered them early release if they took him out.
He’d been well-trained for evasive maneuvers. The tree line next to him would make for good cover if he needed it. He could disappear before the driver blinked. Disappear forever and reinvent himself. Go to the Caribbean, meet some sweet native gal and start a new life. Or maybe Italy. He’d always wanted to visit Italy.
Bonus, Italy was one of the few countries where he’d never killed anyone.
The SUV cruised by him, accelerating ten yards out. Cadillac Escalade. Not official government unless the mayor of Virginia was paying a visit.
Maybe it is a blue-hair gawker.
Tinted windows. All-season, heavy duty tires. If he had to guess, he’d say by the sound of those tires on the cold highway, the vehicle was carrying some reinforced side panels.
His gawker was either incredibly rich and paranoid, or Beyoncé had heard he was out and had come to pick him up.
Doesn’t matter who’s in the car. Only matters what I’m going to do about it.
Escape scenarios were limited. There was one road, the road he was walking on, and the trees.
He liked things simple.
Sure enough, the Escalade made a U-y in the valley and stopped, pointed back toward him.
Fight or flight?
While he’d kept himself in good condition inside Witcher, he was tired of fighting.
Flight it is.
He glanced over at the tree line. The shadows beckoned. The anonymity. A fresh start.
Nah. Running wasn’t his style. Instead of bailing from his very exposed line of sight, he stood stock-still and eyed the SUV, still idling a quarter mile away.
He’d pushed through pain, through war, through prison. Had gotten back up every time someone knocked him down.
Even the goddamn president of the United States.
That’s what soldiers did.
There was no point in running. The prez would come for him again and again and again.
It was time to make a stand, even if it was his last.
* * *
Savanna Jeffries Bunkett looked up from the notes on her lead story when a knock sounded on her dressing room door. She scowled at her reflection in the large mirror over her table. She needed her roots touched up.
Scribbling a reminder on the top sheet, she called out, “Yes?”
Lindsey Fey, the assistant to the assistant director at The Bunk Stops Here and Savanna’s studio-assigned assistant, poked her head in. The headphones she used to bark orders to the cameramen and crew lay around her neck. “You have a visitor.”
The word “visitor” held emphasis. Lindsey’s eyes danced and she was smiling.
Lindsey was always smiling. She ran her butt off, organizing everything from the scriptwriters to the coffee machine and her energy and aggressiveness had helped make TBSH an Emmy winner. She had Executive Producer in her sights and Savanna didn’t have the heart to tell her she was too young and lacked specific equipment between her legs to go that far with the news channel. She was related to one of the producers, however, and in the world of cable news, that would be Lindsey’s ticket to success.
Lindsey never took off her headphones while on set. Maybe not even when she was off set; Savanna couldn’t be sure, since she didn’t hang out with the staff and crew, was never invited out for drinks after filming or to the DC parties the rest of them always seemed to rush off to.
Lindsey’s smile, along with the word emphasis, made Savanna’s pulse speed up. “Is it Parker?” she asked.
Blonde eyebrows drew together and the smile flattened. “Your sister? No.” As Savanna’s hope died, Lindsey’s smile returned. She leaned in, stage-whispering, “Someone big.”
Big in television news or something else? From the excited countenance Lindsey was sporting, it could be Hollywood’s latest action star or the Dalai Lama. Hard to know. The girl was wowed by everyone.
When a recent spike in watchers made TBSH the largest cable investigative news show since Nancy Grace, Savanna’s popularity also skyrocketed. To her embarrassment, she’d become a regular face on E! News and grocery store tabloids as Americans criticized her hair and weight and wondered who she was dating since her breakup with Junior Senator Brady Garrison. Few seemed to appreciate her investigative skills and hard-hitting stories about corporate and political corruption.
Savanna looked back down at her notes. “Unless it’s the Pope”— or Parker. God, where are you? —“I don’t have time for a meeting. Whoever it is can wait until after the show.”
She heard a scuffle and, assuming Lindsey was ducking out, continued to review her notes on the latest political scandal she was about to blow the whistle on.
A moment later, however, the room behind her filled with an unmistakable presence and the scent of the man’s designer cologne. Sharp, musky, reminding her of old leather and fresh betrayal. “Not many people say no to me.”
Savanna’s stomach dropped. She clenched her fingers around the pen she’d been using, the typed words on the script in front of her blurring.
“What are you doing here?” she said without lifting her gaze. Her voice sounded steady even though she was shaking from head to toe.
A crystal vase plunked down on the dressing table next to her, overflowing with a lush mix of summer flowers. Roses, hydrangeas, sunflowers. He’d figured out all her favorites.
Damn him. She’d never be able to enjoy her favorite flowers again.
Linc Norman leaned over her shoulder, ran a finger along her hairline, and pushed a coiffured lock out of the way. “What is this I hear about you doing an exposé on Westmeyer?” His breath landed on the top of her ear and revulsion snaked through her. His Alabama drawl thickened. “Tread lightly, sweetheart. I need them come next November.”
Was he seriously throwing down a gauntlet?
Anger replaced her revulsion. He was drawing a line and daring her not to step over it.
We’ll see about that.
Savanna bit the inside of her cheek and stared holes into the paper in front of her. She’d never taken kindly to threats, and wasn’t about to now, even if the man threatening her was the president of the United States. “I told you, I won’t be your lackey. If one of your supporters is committing criminal acts or fleecing the American people in any way, I’m going after them.”
“Like you did your boyfriend?”
Low blow, but then, what did she expect?
“You’ve always been too focused on principles, Van.” Norman let his fingers travel under her chin, forcing it up. “Look at me.”
Savanna glued her eyes on the flowers, not willing to meet his eyes in the mirror.
He pinched her chin between his finger and thumb, forcing her to raise her gaze. “You don’t give me orders or deny me anything. Loosen up your journalistic ethics or I’ll burn you at the stake.”
Finally, Savanna locked eyes with him in the mirror. “I won’t abandon my principles. Ever. So let me get you a match.”
His eyes were several shades lighter than her deep blue ones, with gray streaks that mimicked the ones in his hair. He smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling as if he were teasing her instead of threatening her.
But the threat was real, coming from the most powerful man in the world. “Where is my sister?” she whispered. “What have you done with her?”
The president’s smile turned tolerant, the smooth Southern charm now mixing with the perfect touch of pity. If he’d been a television emcee or talk show host, he would have been her toughest competition. “Parker works for National Intelligence. Who knows where she is or what she’s working on.”
Perhaps Parker was on assignment, but she was a cognitive scientist who’d found a niche studying the brains and behaviors of terrorists. Her work for NI was more analyst and profiler than anything else. Occasionally, she traveled out of the country, but she always texted or called Savanna beforehand to let her know she’d be quiet for a few days or weeks.
They were close; normally they talked every day. They made time for weekly lunches, and once a month, they met their parents for Sunday dinner.
Parker was dedicated and loved her job. While she never shared intelligence or sensitive information, she had been more secretive than usual for the past year and a half.
And now, she was gone.
“If you’ve hurt her…” Savanna let the threat hang in the air. Was she really doing this? Threatening the president of the United States? “If you made her disappear, I will find out, and when I do, I will let everyone know exactly who and what you are.”
Releasing her chin, Linc Norman put his face next to hers, their reflections in the mirror looking like the Greek theatre faces of comedy and tragedy. He thought this was a joke—her fierce love and loyalty to her sister.
But the president wasn’t one to take a threat sitting down. He ran his hands over Savanna’s arms, his attention dropping to her cleavage. Holding the gaze a moment longer, purposely trying to make her uncomfortable. “You’ve pissed off a lot of high-powered people in your time at the news desk. Ruined a lot of lives and brought whole companies to their knees. Wouldn’t want any of them to retaliate, now, would you, Van?”
A master at intimidation, he closed his eyes and breathed deeply, as if soaking in her scent before he leaned his forehead against her temple. “You and I both have a role to play in leading the American people and making them feel secure. Parker had one job and she blew it. Don’t follow in her footsteps, Van. Do what I tell you and everyone will be happy.”
Her hand now shook so hard, she had to lay down the pen. It was either that, or she’d stick the pen in his eye socket. “I want my sister back.”
“We don’t always get what we want.” He chuckled and rose to his full height, checking himself out in her mirror. He straightened his tie, brushed a lock of hair off his forehead. “Except me. I am, after all, the leader of the free world.”
Savanna held his gaze, refusing to kowtow regardless of the fact that he could ruin her career, her very life, with the snap of his fingers. She mentally cursed herself that she didn’t have a way to make the bastard come clean.
But that was her forte. Digging in and unearthing dirt that could bring anyone, no matter how much power they had, to their knees. She’d known this confrontation was a strong possibility and had already taken measures to start fighting back.
He didn’t see the fire in her eyes, or, knowing him, took it as compliance rather than defiance. Everyone gave him what he wanted when he turned on the charm.
“Remember, lay off Westmeyer.” He winked and patted her back. “And enjoy the flowers.”
Two Secret Service agents closed in around him as he left. At least, she thought they were SS. They could have been his thugs. Parker had once told her Norman used various tunnels under the White House to come and go covertly on a regular basis. Often his own chief of staff had no idea where he was or what he was doing.
“The White House bad boy,” the press had nicknamed him. Savanna knew his antics hid a much deeper, much more sinister side.
Trembling, she took the vase of flowers and smashed it against the wall.
Light reflected off something among the shattered heads of the hydrangeas. Savanna stepped gingerly though the broken glass in the designer heels the audience wouldn’t see behind her news desk. Bending down, she picked up a tiny, flexible, opaque disc.
Listening device? Camera?
Throwing it down, she ground her heel into it. Small satisfaction, but she imagined it was Norman’s face.
Back at her dressing table, she withdrew her cell phone from the top drawer. No calls or texts from Parker, but there was a text from a blocked caller.
A long time ago, Parker had given Savanna a number to text, a person who went by the moniker ON16. A person—man or a woman, she didn’t know—who could help Savanna if she couldn’t get hold of her sister. Extreme emergencies only, Parker had said.
Savanna had never needed it before.
ON16’s text was two lines: a name and a phone number.
Savanna stared at the name, bells going off in her head. Emit Petit. Where had she heard that name before?
Lindsey popped in without knocking. “What did the president say? Are you going to interview him? Please say he wants to do an interview at the White House!”
She was giddy until her attention dropped to the shards of glass and limp flowers on the floor. “Oh, my God. What happened? Are you okay?”
Savanna stood, dropping the cell phone back into her drawer. She smoothed the front of her jacket and grabbed her notes. “Let’s go,” she said, hustling Lindsey out of the room. “We have a show to do.”
And then I’m going to find my sister.
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