Undaunted, page 1
Titles by Joss Wood
Published by Berkley
An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
Copyright © 2016 by Joss Wood
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First Edition: November 2016
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Titles by Joss Wood
About the Author
Dedicated to Rourke and Tess who are, and always will be, the beat of my heart.
Ten years ago
To Reagan, grief felt like a pair of too-narrow and too-small four-inch heels she wasn’t allowed to remove. Like torturous footwear, Mike’s death at twenty-five was all she could think about, all she could focus on. Every step she took, every thought sent shooting pains through her body.
Reagan, sitting in her chair next to her brother’s grave, knew that her brother’s military funeral was over, but she remembered little of the ceremony. His casket was covered by a flag and there had been a volley of shots. A bugler sounded “Taps,” and, instead of taking one of the many empty seats on either side of her, her father stood next to Mike’s best friends, in his dress uniform, hands clasped in front of him.
The chaplain said some words. Her father received the precisely folded flag and the gratitude and salute of some high-ranking officer.
And he’d ignored her.
As in life, so in death.
Reagan leaned forward and stared at the grass beneath her feet. She didn’t want to live in a world that didn’t have her brother, her protector, her best friend, in it. She didn’t know how to live her life without him, how to behave, what she should be doing next. Behind her fingers, Reagan glared at the grave, silently telling her brother, her rock, that she didn’t how to act, what to do; frankly she didn’t know how to navigate life wearing these new, too-tight shoes. His death was the source of acute agony, a constant, repeated knife stab, a raw wound weeping.
Her pain was too deep for tears; if she allowed herself to cry she didn’t think she’d ever stop.
Reagan felt a hard, warm hand around the back of her neck and turned her head to see Axl, Mike’s best friend, take the seat next to her. She caught another flash of navy as Sawyer flanked her right side and Kai stood in front of her, his hands loosely clasped. Axl’s hand holding her neck was as warm as his hot-chocolate voice. “How are you doing, shrimp?”
Stab, stab, twist. Shrimp, Mike’s pet name for her. She lifted one shoulder and considered the contrast of color between the green grass and Kai’s shiny black shoes.
“He’s dead,” she whispered, desperately hoping that one of his friends would tell her that this was a drill, a test, that it was time for her to wake up from this nightmare.
Axl’s fingers dug into the cords of her neck. “Yeah, he is.”
Reagan lifted her head and turned her eyes to Axl’s masculine face. His gray eyes, fringed with stubby black eyelashes, held hers, and she saw her grief and anguish reflected in his. This wasn’t a dream and nobody was about to wake her up.
“I wanted to speak, to talk about the man, my brother, behind the soldier,” Reagan said, her voice cracking.
“Why didn’t you?” Kai gently asked, dropping to his haunches in front of her.
“My father said that the occasion was difficult enough without a sentimental trip down memory lane,” Reagan replied, taking the white handkerchief Sawyer laid on her knee. She had no tears but she took the square of linen and twisted it through her fingers.
Kai responded by standing, grabbing a chair, and placing it in front of her. By an unspoken agreement, Sawyer and Axl moved their chairs so that they sat closer to her.
“Tell us,” Axl said. “We knew the soldier and we loved our friend, but we want to hear about your brother.”
Reagan pulled in a deep breath and nodded. The words came slowly at first, tentative and unsure, as she told them how, after her mom died shortly after her seventh birthday, Mike slept on a mattress next to the side of her bed for the next year. How he’d hold her hand until she fell asleep. Reagan recounted his dreadful efforts at braiding her hair and how he’d make her grilled cheese sandwiches. Mike was her anchor, her best friend, her sounding board, and how mistaken she’d been in thinking that her world ended the day he left to join the Navy, leaving her alone with their highly critical and negative father.
She’d had no idea what true loss felt like until today.
“He’d write me letters and tell me about the security company you were going to set up when you leave the Navy,” Reagan said. “He sent me business plans and reams of notes, telling me to hold on to his scribbling until he needed them. He’d make you three agree to call the place Caswallawn—”
“What?” Axl asked.
Reagan’s lips lifted in an almost smile. “Caswallawn, Celtic god of war. He’s associated with protection, according to Celtic mythology. If you ever do set up the business, I hope you will call it Caswallawn; Mike would get a kick out of it.”
Three heads nodded. “If we ever do . . .” Axl quietly agreed.
At that moment, sitting with Mike’s best friends, his brothers, Reagan realized that if they did, that was where she wanted to be. She wanted to live and work and be close to these men, Mike’s best friends. They were her connection to her brother, her link to the only male who ever showed any interest in her, who noticed her, who saw her.
Reagan looked from one masculine face to another, finally meeting Axl’s pewter-gray eyes. “And when that happens, I’m coming to work for you.”
Because, in this moment of intense grief, she was sure of only one thing: Being with them was where she belonged.
BoredWife: This online forum is not half as much fun as it used to be! Nobody is misbehavin’ . . .
AmysBooks: Our book club is looking for new members. We meet on Tuesday at six at the bookstore.
BoredWife: It’s Flick’s fault, she kept us wonderfully entertained watching her rocky road to love with Kai. We need someone else to gossip about . . . Jack? Sawyer? Pippa?
Blood poured from the d
“I can’t stand crybabies. Buck up and pull yourself together.” She looked up into the hard, cold eyes of her father, Gunnery Sergeant Micah Hudson. There was no compassion in his eyes, just steely resolve and an expectation that he would be obeyed.
She wanted to please him, she wanted to be loved by him. She was slowly coming to believe that both were impossible.
Her tears disappeared and her chin lifted as she looked him dead in the eye. “I won’t cry again.”
Reagan Hudson placed her hands on her filthy knees and stared at the ground below her feet. She’d kept her promise for nearly twenty years, and today, well, today wasn’t the day to break it. If her brother’s death hadn’t caused her to break her vow, then a close encounter with a fire wouldn’t do it.
“Chin up, girl, it’s safe. Coe’s safe. It’s over.”
Reagan pushed aside the fear and ignored the emotion bubbling in the back of her throat, cursing herself for being such a girl. Would Axl or Kai or Sawyer be fighting tears? The hell they would.
But, God, at this moment she was so tired, bone-deep weary of being strong, of picking herself up, of being so damn resilient.
Reagan, too exhausted to look up, stared down at a pair of dusty work boots and sighed. She eventually looked up and saw an older man, his expression sympathetic but his eyes wary. Cop eyes. And so the questioning begins. Internally groaning, Reagan slowly stood up, begging her wobbly knees to lock.
She flicked a look to her left to Knox sitting on a bed in the ambulance, his four-year-old son in his arms. The oxygen mask covering Coe’s little face didn’t stop his animated gestures. The kid wasn’t remotely fazed at being thrown over her shoulder and dropped out of a window to escape the blaze that destroyed his father’s luxurious movie-set trailer.
Knox, in contrast to his excited son, looked like he’d aged ten years in one night. The face that caused feminine fluttering all over the world was drawn and haggard, his eyes bleak. Sitting in the ambulance, his son in his arms, he looked like a dad who’d nearly lost his only child to a crudely constructed Molotov cocktail tossed through an unlocked window.
Reagan tasted bile in the back of her throat. Keep it together, tough girl.
“Arnie Clemens, fire chief. Want to tell me what happened?”
No, not yet. I need some more time to pull myself together. “Any chance of a bottle of water before I do?” Reagan asked, her voice scratchy. “Or two?”
“Sure. I have some in a cooler in my car. I’ll be back in a couple of minutes,” Clemens replied. “In fact, why don’t you come to the car with me? You can get off your feet, you look done in.”
Reagan instantly pushed her shoulders back and shook her head. His sympathetic eyes and expression immediately inserted starch into her spine. “I’m okay. Don’t worry about the water . . .”
Clemens lifted his eyebrows at her words, shook his head, and started to walk away. Reagan tucked Coe’s favorite soft toy under her arm and jammed her hands into the back pockets of her jeans, her fingers sliding down between her butt and her phone. She looked around and took in her surroundings, the fire trucks, the ambulances. There were twenty firefighters here, a dozen more police, and nearly everyone working on Interconnected, Knox’s latest thriller, milled around, shock and excitement on their faces.
She caught the concerned look of a makeup artist and straightened her shoulders. As Knox’s bodyguard, she couldn’t show any weakness, even though she had crawled through a burning trailer . . .
Reagan closed her eyes and placed her fist into her sternum. God, it had been hot, hot, hot. And dark, so dark and so smoky. She’d never been so scared in her entire life. Reagan took her hands out of her pockets, held them straight, and cursed when she saw that they were bouncing. Knox was safe, Coe was safe—the damn bear was safe—she’d done her job.
Stop shaking, dammit!
Reagan looked at the ambulance again, met Knox’s grateful eyes, and bit her bottom lip. She was about to walk over to them when a hand on her arm stopped her. She yanked her arm away and took a step back, her hands up, ready to strike. God, she must be more rattled than she thought, since she’d nearly decked Mickey Kane, the director of Interconnected. Reagan rubbed her hand over her mouth before pushing her long, soot-stained blond hair off her face.
“Sorry. I’m a bit rattled.”
Mickey Kane’s blue eyes radiated sympathy. “Are you okay?”
“We’re all okay,” Reagan said, immediately regretting her snappy tone.
Mickey nodded to the bear under her arm. “Including, I see, the bear. That’s the kid’s, isn’t it?”
Reagan felt a small smile touch her lips as she pulled the bear out from under her arm. “Yeah, this is Mr. Brown, Coe’s favorite, and only, soft toy.” She tried to dust some soot off its stomach but ended up smearing his caramel fur with black dust. Oh well, the damn thing needed to be washed anyway. Reagan flicked his nose. “He’s lucky to be alive.”
Mickey Kane nodded somberly. “You all are.” He nodded, looking at the bear. “Want me to get him cleaned up for you? I have a couple of interns who are at my beck and call.”
It was tempting to take him up on his offer as there were a million things she had to do and washing a kid’s bear was way down on her list of priorities. Then she remembered that Coe was surgically attached to Mr. Brown and would pitch a fit if it left his sight. “Thanks, but I’ll handle it.”
Mickey looked at the smoking trailer beyond her left shoulder. “You weren’t supposed to be in the trailer, were you?”
Reagan shook her head. “We were supposed to go with Knox to the wrap-up party but Coe wasn’t feeling good, he had a stomach ache. I offered to stay with him.”
“We were,” Reagan agreed and felt relieved when he handed her another worried smile before walking away to talk to Knox.
Reagan wrapped her arms around her torso and rocked on her heels. She needed to call the office and check in. Sawyer was her direct boss and the person she reported to, but Sawyer would hear the shake in her voice and see behind her tough-girl act. It would be easier to snow Kai, boss number two, but he’d taken a couple of days’ vacation with his new fiancée, Flick, and he’d issued death threats to anyone who disturbed their time away together. Calling Axl was never an option . . . But Caswallawn policy was written in blood and concrete: If you found yourself in a situation and if you were alive and you could use a cell phone, you called in. Immediately.
Being firebombed was a fairly big situation. But she couldn’t talk to them. Reagan pulled her phone from her pocket and quickly typed a text message and sent it to Sawyer’s and Axl’s phones.
Callow’s trailer firebombed. All safe. FULL report in the morning.
It was nighttime on the East Coast, and, with any luck, they’d be asleep. That gave her eight hours. She’d have her shit together by then.
Her phone vibrated in her hand and she cursed when she saw his name on her screen. God, Axl. The last person she wanted to speak to. Partly because his voice was rough and sexy and always made her stomach feel squirmy, but also because she really wasn’t up to arguing with Axl.
Arguing was what she and Axl did best.
On the positive side, at least she wouldn’t be subjected to any sympathy from him. He’d be gruff and pissed off but he wouldn’t fuss. Reagan sighed and slid her thumb across her smartphone to answer the call.
“Reagan? What’s happened?”
Reagan pulled in a breath and forced herself to speak. “Sorry to text so late. Were you sleeping?”
Oh, God, what if she’d interrupted him in the middle of sex? A picture o
“I’m awake, I was doing some cyber tracking.”
Oh, thank God.
“You hurt?” Axl demanded in his deep, raspy voice.
“Nope. Came close though.”
“Explain.” His one-word reply bulleted into her ear.
“As you know I’m on location with Knox Callow and his four-year-old son, Coe,” Reagan explained, touching the tips of her fingers to her forehead. “Knox was at an informal party tonight to celebrate the last day of filming. Coe wasn’t feeling well and Knox asked me to stay behind to watch him.”
“Callow is your primary principal, not the kid,” Axl said, his voice flat. “He’s the one who’s had the threatening letters, the break-ins, who has had someone inside his place. You should’ve stayed with him and made another plan for the kid.”
If she had, then little Coe would be still inside that smoking trailer . . . God, how could she now feel cold, so cold?
“Knox hired another PPO, an ex–Spec Ops guy who is a family friend. Bryn was with Knox. Sawyer okayed my working with him. Don’t give me grief, Axl.”
“Carry on, Hudson.” Hudson. That was what she needed, his hard tone and a demand for the facts. Letting someone in, showing some vulnerability . . . that wasn’t safe. It would never be safe.
And once you allowed a man inside, you gave them permission to comment on your life, to dictate your actions, to criticize everything she did or said. She had to stay strong, be strong, and letting someone see past her mile-high walls was never going to happen. She was a Caswallawn operative and they did not, ever, appear weak. Hell, they weren’t weak.
She. Was. Not. Weak.
“Reagan! Concentrate! What happened next?”
Yeah, Reagan, concentrate. “The trailer is big, seriously big, with three bedrooms. I was in the kitchen making coffee and I heard the sound of breaking glass.” She remembered hearing the loud whoosh and immediately feeling the hot tongue of fire. “The firebomb was thrown into the spare bedroom window, that’s where Bryn and I sleep when we’re on duty. It’s the first bedroom, so the fire was between me and Coe.”
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