Authors: Sandra Marton
(In Wilde Country)
By SANDRA MARTON
Copyright © 2015 by Sandra Marton
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
Book One of my hot new series,
. What is
? The letters stand for
ivision. STUD operatives are chosen from Navy Seals. They receive training that is even tougher and more demanding, and they are deployed wherever the United States needs men who can carry out the most dangerous assignments, in conditions that are always secret.
For those of you who are dedicated fans of my Wilde Family series…yes,
is also about the Wildes. You’ll meet some of your favorite Wilde characters in these pages, but this is primarily the story of Alessandra Bellini Wilde and STUD Lieutenant Tanner Akecheta.
Alessandra is in the Caribbean country of San Escobal. She’s working with a new, underfunded organization to protect endangered jaguars. When she’s kidnapped by a brutal pair of bandits, Tanner is the STUD operative sent to rescue her. It’s a lone-wolf operation. Tanner is sure he knows what Alessandra will be like—a poor little rich girl, brainless and spoiled—but he’s had enough of waiting to be cleared for duty after
a bad wound he suffered in a firefight in Afghanistan. Finding and saving Alessandra will take him back into the kind of action he lives for.
Tanner is dropped into the jungle in the middle of the night. There are dangers everywhere. Domestic terrorists. Snakes. Crocodiles. But the real danger he’ll face isn’t from fierce predators, human or animal. It’s the danger of discovering he wants Alessandra more than he’s ever wanted any woman…and, in the end, it will be the danger of losing her that will almost destroy him..
Camp Condor, Santa Barbara, California:
The morning dawned
soft and perfect, the sun turning the air warm and the sand hot as it climbed over the blue Pacific.
By six, Tanner was running on the beach, his naked torso gleaming under the rays of the sun. His cotton cargo shorts were soaked with sweat despite the breeze coming in off the ocean. He figured his feet were just as sweaty, tucked as they were in socks and a pair of old combat boots, but what was the point in running if you didn’t ask your body to give all it could possibly give?
That was the same reason he was pounding through the sand high above the surf line, where it was soft enough to give muscles and sinew and bone a real workout, instead of down near the water where it was hard-packed.
A quick check of his watch told him he’d been at it for half an hour.
So far, so good.
His stride was long and even. His breathing was deep and steady.
Everything was perfect.
Or almost perfect, as long as he ignored the dull throb in his calf.
The pain had started a few minutes ago, not bad enough to stop him, just bad enough to make him aware it was there, something he was trying his best not to do.
Been there, done that, he thought grimly.
Acknowledging the pain was a way of letting it take over. It would sharpen. Deepen. It would affect everything, his stride, his speed, his balance. He’d go down on his ass.
A cripple, not a STUD warrior.
Tanner’s hands bunched into fists. He ran faster.
At first, the docs had said he might lose the leg altogether.
“No way,” he’d said, and they’d said okay, if he wanted to try to let it heal, they’d permit it, but only if the wound didn’t get infected again.
They just hadn’t understood that he was not going to let that happen.
He’d taken all their damned pills, endured their needles and surgeries. Once he was on his feet again he had put four months, six days and thirteen hours into recovery, and yeah, he knew the time down to the minutes and seconds, same as he knew that what the docs called fantastic progress wasn’t enough.
He had not been pronounced fit enough to return to his unit.
He might have been, as a regular sailor. Not that he didn’t have anything but respect for those guys, but after almost three years of SEAL training, then deployment to Afghanistan, Iraq and other places where the fighting was ugly and the politics dangerous, then two years as a STUD, he was a hardened, finely trained warrior, and STUD warriors didn’t have to be one hundred percent fit.
STUD demanded two hundred percent.
That had been made clear the day he’d been recruited.
Two years ago, he’d been summoned to his CO’s office, but when he got there, the guy sitting behind the desk, though also a captain, was someone Tanner had never seen before. He was small, wiry-looking, the kind of guy you’d have figured for a desk job, which was pretty funny considering he later learned just how wrong that early assessment had been.
Tanner had snapped to attention.
“At ease, Lieutenant,” the stranger had said. “I’m James Blake.” He’d nodded at the file folder on his desk. It was Tanner’s. “I’ve been going through your records.”
What was Tanner supposed to say to that? “Yes, sir,” had seemed the safest reply.
Captain Blake had pushed the folder aside.
“Actually, I’ve been through these records half a dozen times. They confirm what I’m sure you already know. You’re one hell of a SEAL.”
Another statement that seemed to rate a response, but again, Tanner couldn’t think of any beyond another “Thank you, sir.”
Blake had risen to his feet.
“You ever think of leaving?”
“Leaving what, sir?”
That time, the answer was easy. The question was the equivalent of asking if he’d ever thought of not breathing.
“Never,” he’d replied, and quickly added “sir.”
“You ever hear of STUD?”
Tanner assured him that he had. What he didn’t say was that they’d all heard of it, the guys in the teams. STUD was an acronym for something called Special Tactical Units Division, an elite task force of handpicked SEALs.
Assuming, of course, STUD actually existed.
There was little solid data on STUD, but then, nobody assumed there would be. Uncle Sam still knew how to keep some secrets.
That this mild-looking captain was asking if he’d ever heard of STUD was either the start of a joke or affirmation that the outfit was real.
Half an hour later, Tanner had the answer. STUD was real, and he was being invited to join it.
“It’s strictly your choice, Lieutenant Akecheta,” Blake had said, “and I want to make it understood that I can’t offer any guarantees you’ll make it through our Induction Phase. Clear?”
Tanner, tall at six foot two, had stood just a little taller. Failure was not an Akecheta option any more than it was a STUD option.
“Clear, sir,” he’d said.
That day had been the start of the best years of his life. He still loved the SEALs, but what he felt for STUD went even deeper—the sense of belonging, of doing something vital for his country, of following in the path of his ancestors…
The pain in his calf was sudden and sharp. He stumbled, recovered, leaned down and punched his fist against the scar tissue as if to beat it back.
He was not going to let the pain take him down. He’d been hurt before: a peppering of shrapnel in his shoulder in Iraq, a slash across his belly from a knife-wielding piece of crap on the Syrian-Turkish border. But each time, he’d made a quick recovery.
The wound to his leg was different. He’d taken a high-impact slug one dark night in a mountain village in Afghanistan. Luck and a tourniquet had kept him from bleeding out. He’d sure as hell been luckier than Kenny Briscoe, whose legs had been blown off.
He’d kept telling himself how lucky he’d been all through the flight back to base, through the embarrassment of being awarded a medal for having gotten Briscoe out when all he’d been doing was what any of the others would have done. He’d told himself how lucky he’d been through the three surgeries, the months of rehab…
Through the offer of a desk job.
That had damn near been an insult. Warriors were not meant for desk jobs, and a warrior was what he’d been born to be.
His very name, Akecheta, meant warrior in Sioux, and he’d taken a warrior’s approach to healing. He’d set goals that went beyond those set by his physiatrist, used pain as a way to improve his endurance. He’d had half a dozen meetings with Blake to discuss his progress. At the last one, he’d asked for just a little more time to build himself back to the man he’d been before that night in Afghanistan.
The captain had scowled, scratched his jaw, run his fingers through his thinning hair. Then he’d said yeah, okay, Tanner could have two more months.
“We don’t want to lose you, Lieutenant, but if you’re not one hundred percent, you’re a risk for every man on your team.”
Tanner understood that.
His team deserved the best.
Now, one of those months was gone. He’d worked relentlessly, pushing himself to run, to do pushups, to do ocean swims out beyond the breakers where the sea turned deep and cold. His leg had responded well. It worked the way it was supposed to work.
Most of the time.
It was only every now and then that it didn’t.
There’d be something that went beyond discomfort and then,
, the knifelike pain and his damned leg would go out from under him…
“Fuck,” he snarled, and went down in a graceless heap.
His heart was hammering. His leg was burning. He was shaking. Even so, he dragged in a breath, tried to struggle to his feet…
A shadow blocked out the sun.
“So what’s this, dude? A scene from
? Maybe a bad attempt at Shakespeare on the Beach?”
Tanner grunted. “Very amusing, Olivieri. Now do me a favor and go away. Can’t you see I’m working on my tan?”
Chayton Olivieri, who had grown up with Tanner in the Dakotas, dropped to the sand beside him.
“Really? ‘ Cause, you know, your face is kinda pale for a guy workin’ on his tan.”
Shit. Chay wasn’t going to give up. There was no way out except to deal with it.
“Hell of a thing,” Tanner said. “Calling a Lakota brother a paleface.”
Chay laughed. Tanner did his best to make a similar sound. After a few seconds, Chay reached for the canteen hanging from a loop on his belt
“Hot today,” he said.
“Is it? I hadn’t noticed.”
Chay brought the canteen to his lips. “Man, that’s good.” He drank, drank again, then held out the canteen. “Don’t suppose you’d want some water.”
Want some? Just the sight of the canteen made Tanner suddenly aware of how dry his mouth was. He’d brought water with him, of course, but he’d finished it at least a mile ago.
“No, but what the fuck, I have a kind heart. I’ll take a couple of sips so you don’t have to be burdened carrying all that extra weight back to camp.”
Chay handed him the canteen. Tanner tilted back his head, lifted the canteen to his mouth and guzzled the cool liquid. Halfway through, he paused and offered the canteen to Chay, who shook his head. Tanner drank again and felt better almost immediately. The few minutes’ rest, the water…
That was all he’d needed.
Absolutely, it was.
Chay waited a few seconds, then cleared his throat.
“So what was this? A five-mile run?”
“Seven,” Tanner said, “but who’s counting?”
“I thought you were supposed to be working up to five.”
“The way you work up to something is to do it.”
“Never occurred to you that you were getting dehydrated?”
Tanner sighed. “No, Mom, I guess it didn’t.”
“Can the ‘Mom’ crap, okay?” Chay glared at him through narrowed eyes. “You’re an asshole.”
“Hell, dude, don’t hold back. Just say what you’re thinking.”
“It’s eighty-three degrees out here, hot for Santa Barbara, and you’re running along the beach. Not even running down by the water. You’re running up here, where the sand makes each step twice as hard.”
“Wow. The man knows physics.”
“And you’re not barefoot or wearing running shoes. You’re wearing combat boots.”
“Jeez. I am? I didn’t notice.”
Chay glowered at Tanner.
“Didn’t you ever hear the saying ‘Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’?”
“I am a lot of things, but I am neither rabid nor English, and you seem a little confused about the time. It’s seven a.m., nowhere near noon.”
“It’s almost eight, and that’s not the point.”
Tanner thought about arguing, but what good would it do?
“Okay. I get the message. ”
“I don’t think so. You know what the docs say. Don’t push.”
A muscle bunched in Tanner’s jaw. “It’s great advice, dude. You should take it.”
Chay folded his arms over his chest. “Don’t be an idiot, Akecheta. I’m right, and you know it.”
“Don’t you ever get tired of being right?”
Chay’s mouth twitched. “Can’t say as I do.”
Tanner sighed. Then he reached for the canteen again and gulped down more water. “ I know you mean well.”
“You’re still in recovery.”
Tanner got to his feet. His calf felt as if somebody was digging into it with a hot poker and he cursed and rocked back on his heels. Chay rose quickly, reached out as if to grab his friend’s arm, but didn’t. After a couple of seconds, Tanner looked at him.
“Here’s the thing,” he said quietly. “I have one month left to get past this. That’s four weeks. Thirty days. After that—”
get better.” Chay paused. “But just in case… What’s wrong with becoming an instructor for STUD? You’d be great at it.”
“Maybe I’ll become an instructor in ten years. Right now, I’m not even thirty. I can’t see myself behind a desk.”
“Jesus Christ, Olivieri…”
Tanner stopped in midsentence. How could he be angry with this man? They had grown up together. Survived crap childhoods together, played high school football together and, against all odds, not only won scholarships to the same university but graduated together, gone into the teams together, been recruited for STUD together.
Chay was more than his oldest friend. He was the closest thing Tanner had to family. To a brother. And Tanner knew that what Chay felt was a brother’s concern.
“I’m okay,” he said quietly. “I mean, I have to do this. You know?”
Chay drew a long breath, then let it out. “Yeah. I know.”
Tanner smiled. Punched him lightly in the shoulder. “So, were you out for a stroll? Or did you come looking for me?”
looking for you.”
Tanner grinned. “Sweetie. I didn’t know how much you cared.”
Chay grinned too. “You wish.”
“Okay,” Tanner said, “enough for this morning. Let’s run back.”
“You mean, let’s walk back.”
“How about we compromise and jog?”
“At the waterline.”
“Pussy,” Tanner told him, but he bent down, took off his boots and his socks, jammed the socks into the boots, tied the laces together, and slung the boots around his neck as he and Chay headed for the damp, tamped-down sand that abutted the ocean. Lacy white froth rolled over his toes and he sighed with pleasure.
“I hate to admit it, but this feels good.”
“What you mean is, it feels great.”
“Yeah. Okay. It feels great.” The friends fell into an easy pace. “Were you looking for me for a particular reason?”
“And that reason was…?”
“I’ve got a pair of hot babes lined up for tonight. The kind who think STUDs always live up to their name.”
Tanner looked at Chay and waggled his eyebrows. “What’s the problem? You aren’t man enough to handle them both?”
Chay punched him in the arm. “That’s what I get for my generosity?”
“You came all the way out here to tell me that? You could have waited until chow time.”
“I know, but…” Chay glanced at Tanner. “There’s something else. The captain wants to see you.”