Unfaded Glory, page 1
In Glory, Kansas, a fairy-tale wedding has local tongues wagging. But through this false engagement, can a wounded warrior and the woman he’s protecting find true love?
Byron Hawkins doesn’t want to be responsible for anyone ever again. The former Black Ops soldier is better at taking lives than saving them. But on a mission in Tunisia to deliver a package to safety, Byron is dismayed to find that the precious cargo is actually a hostage rescue, and that his orders are to take Damara Petrakis back to US soil and hide her in plain sight—as his newlywed wife.
Back in Byron’s hometown of Glory, Kansas, petite, fierce Damara keeps surprising him; she may be royalty, but she’s fully trained in martial arts and will sacrifice anything for her country. As the town rallies around the returning hero and his bride-to-be, he’s finding that it’s way too easy to play the part, and after the hell he has seen, that terrifies him. Byron didn’t want another life to save, but the passionate beauty he’s sworn to protect might just turn the tables and save him instead.
Thanks so much for coming back to the world of Glory. This book isn’t so much about small-town life as it is the things we learn from the family of community. How it makes us stronger than we know, holds us up even when we let them and ourselves down. This book is about learning to forgive ourselves and finding one’s true place in the world, and best of all, being able to give and receive love knowing you’re worthy of it. That seems like such a simple thing, an obvious thing, but for a lot of us, it’s not. It’s something we have to learn, something that has to be proven to us time and again, as our hero and heroine learn.
I enjoyed making this journey with Damara and Byron, and I hope you do, too.
For Nicolase Mallat
and things both spoken and unspoken.
Back Cover Text
BYRON HAWKINS HAD an earworm.
Most people got them at one point or another—a Top 40 hit they couldn’t escape, a catchy ad jingle, a children’s song heard one time too often. A bit of auditory flotsam that’s busywork for the brain, a refrain that plays over and over.
Byron had such a loop, but he wasn’t lucky enough to have anything as innocuous as the last song he’d heard on the radio. He had the screams of his team as they died.
Their terror and pain was always with him whether it was a damning whisper or a roar that sounded like the army of hell.
He knew it was no less than he deserved for his failure. If he hadn’t given the order to pursue the guerrillas, they’d have all made it back to camp. They’d have gone home to their families at the end of the mission.
Instead, they were ambushed and tortured.
Instead, he was the only one who went home.
And Hawkins knew it was his fault no matter what the incident review board had to say about it.
It had been a mistake from the beginning to believe that he could be a good man, that he could redeem himself by sacrificing for his country. Byron Hawkins had always been better at taking life than saving it. He’d been a fuckup for as long as he could remember; nothing was ever good enough. So he’d stopped trying, and life was easier when he didn’t care—when he didn’t bother to try to fit himself into a box that was labeled “supposed to” or “should have.”
When he didn’t give a damn, he didn’t have responsibilities he couldn’t handle. No one trusted him, and no one paid for his inevitable mistakes.
It was a mercenary’s life for him. No attachments. No responsibilities. A way for him to channel all the destruction that roiled inside him like a hurricane.
The voices were especially loud tonight—the screams—they always were before a mission, but here in the darkness, he could silence them. He could shut off the outside world and hone all his highly trained senses on one target—the mission. As an “independent contractor” for the Department of Defense, he never had to be responsible for another life again.
Unless he was ending it.
He silenced the howls of his fallen brothers. He drowned out that song in his head as he moved through the darkness toward his target—the Jewel of Castallegna.
The Jewel was being kept in the Carthage National Museum in Tunisia. It would be no easy feat to get in and out with a national treasure, but breaking and entering was a skill he’d acquired during his delinquent youth.
He didn’t ask his betters how a gemstone could serve the DOD. That wasn’t his job. His job was to acquire the item and bring it home. He didn’t give a damn what they were going to do with it.
Byron entered through the front door. Security rolled in staggered shifts and there were only three officers since the museum was closed to the public. He’d tranqued an officer in his car before he’d come on duty, and taken his keys. Easy as his granny’s pecan pie.
Until he heard voices coming from the first chamber. He flattened himself against the wall and peered through the door.
Two men had cornered one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen. She was petite, but he could tell from her stance that she could hold her own. She’d been trained. Krav Maga, perhaps. She was poised for a fight. Her eyes were a most curious shade of blue, and her skin was dusky and golden. It was too bad so much of it was covered by her black fatigues. She looked ready to do battle, and Hawkins had to admit it didn’t get much hotter than a gorgeous woman with a thigh holster and a utility belt.
“You know the Jewel should never leave Castallegna,” one of the men said.
He swore under his breath. There would be bodies to dispose of. Byron wouldn’t be much of a ghost if he couldn’t get in and out without a trail of blood a mile wide in his wake, and he could tell this guy wasn’t going to let the Jewel go without a fight.
He hoped he wouldn’t have to dispose of the woman, but he would if she stood between him and his mission. He wasn’t just a trained killer; he was a born killer.
“The Jewel isn’t going back,” the woman answered defiantly.
“I can’t kill you yet,” the man said, sadistic glee lighting his cruel face. “But I can hurt you.”
Byron knew he had to act. The woman had the Jewel or she knew where it was. He launched himself from his hiding place and snapped the big man’s neck with a single fluid motion. He dropped like a stone, and the other would-be jewel thief sprang to action. He hurled himself toward the woman. Hawkins would’ve saved her, but she saved herself. As he watched her seamless movements taking the other man down, he r
Hawkins was impressed.
Even though she’d subdued the other man instead of killing him, he wouldn’t make the mistake of underestimating her.
She didn’t seem afraid of him. In fact, she looked almost happy to see him.
That didn’t bode well, not at all. It was almost as if she were expecting him, but if that were the case, that would mean his cover had been blown. If she thought he was someone else, maybe he could use that to get her to hand over the stone.
“Thanks for the assist,” she said.
Her voice was melodic and sweet with an accent he couldn’t place. She wasn’t Tunisian—it was almost Greek. The dossier said the culture and the people of Castallegna were a blend of the two. He wondered if she was a rebel or a patriot. He could tell from the fire in her eyes that she burned with one cause or another.
It would be easier if she was just a jewel thief, an unscrupulous antiquities dealer. Those could be bought off—not so much when it was a cause.
“Don’t thank me yet, sweetheart. I’m here for the Jewel.” He flashed a slow, lazy grin that belied the urgency of the operation.
She smiled, baring all of her straight white teeth at him. “You’re looking at it.”
“You’re shitting me.” There was no way, no way that this woman was the Jewel of Castallegna. His eyes narrowed, and he assessed her with a particular intensity.
“No, Mr. Hawkins. I would never do that. I’m Princess Damara Petrakis, also known as the Jewel of Castallegna. We better get moving. The last thing we need is to get caught with a dead body on our hands.”
She knew his name. She had been expecting him. Damn it. This screwed all of his plans. “That’s going to be a problem. I only made provisions for one.”
“They didn’t tell you the Jewel wasn’t a stone?” She arched a dark brow.
“No.” And Hawkins knew why. As a private contractor, he could decline an assignment. His handler, Daniel Renner, knew that Byron would decline this one if he had all the information. He wouldn’t—couldn’t—be responsible for another person’s life. Renner didn’t seem to understand that anyone under his care was more likely to die than be rescued.
Damn him. Damn him straight to hell. Renner knew what he’d been through in Uganda. Knew why he’d left the army. He knew it, and he hadn’t cared. The DOD wanted this woman on American soil whatever it took, whatever the cost to Byron.
He swallowed hard. Hawkins was a soldier to the marrow. He knew how this worked. The sacrifice of the few for the many, but this wasn’t what he’d signed up for. He was willing to give his own life, and some nights when the screaming in his head wouldn’t stop, he prayed it would be his turn to give it. He owed his team that.
But he couldn’t be responsible for someone else’s safety. Not again. Not after Uganda. If Renner had dispatched him to kill the two men on the floor in front of him, he would’ve accepted that gladly, but this... He couldn’t do it.
The petite woman seemed to know his inner turmoil. “Whatever is going through your mind, you can’t leave me here.”
Her hand was so small, so delicate on his arm, but he knew she was fierce.
“You don’t understand. I planned a water exit in a small fishing boat that’s only big enough for one. It’s hours from Tunis to Marsala by water. How long before there are others looking for you? Before they start watching the airports in this region? I only have papers for one.”
“Your Mr. Renner already provided me with documents. I won’t complain about the accommodations.” She looked down for a moment. “Please. My country—”
“I can’t be responsible for you. That’s how people die,” he confessed. He didn’t want to lay himself bare like that to someone he didn’t know, but he’d never see her again. And, for some reason, he needed her to know that he wasn’t leaving her behind to be cruel. It was the only kind thing he could do for her.
“I’ll die or worse if you don’t take me with you.” She cocked her head to the side and one lock of her hair came free from her long braid. “And of course you’re not responsible for me. I’m not a child. But you can help me. That’s what you do, isn’t it?”
“What I do is kill people,” he said, as if that wasn’t clear.
“And for that, I am grateful.” She nodded, wearing an earnest expression.
He scrubbed his hands over his face. She wasn’t giving up; she wasn’t afraid. So why was he? He’d only ever failed one mission before. His last one—and he’d failed because no one came home. Not even their bodies for their families to mourn.
Byron couldn’t help but insert her face into the macabre tableau. The burning, the screaming... Or even her pretty face made stark in death, framed by the black wings of a body bag. God, he was sick. So sick and rotten inside. He couldn’t help her. Help from him was no kind of help at all.
If he left her behind, this fearless princess, it would be Uganda all over again. He kept seeing her beautiful face bloody and beaten.... He’d heard her attacker: I can’t kill you yet, but I can hurt you.
Byron Hawkins supposed there was some decency left in him yet, some goodness that had hidden itself away from the shadow that lurked inside him. The tactician part of his brain said he had to leave her. Their probability of survival was cut in half without a clean escape. But he knew with a certainty that if he left her, there would nothing clean about his escape. His hands would be covered in one more person’s blood.
Only logic told him they might be anyway. By taking her with him, he was accepting responsibility for her. She’d said she wasn’t a child, but she was an innocent, no matter how fast or hard she could punch. He was the one with combat experience; he was the one who’d be making the calls. And he was the one who had to live with her voice in his head if he failed.
Even as he debated with himself, he knew what his answer would be. Dread curled like a poisonous snake in his gut, ready to strike.
* * *
FOR ONE HORRIBLE MOMENT, Damara thought her savior was going to leave her behind. She could see his eyes harden with what must have been resolve; then they were filled with so much pain. Something awful had happened to this man and sliced him so deep there was nothing to cauterize the wound. It was obvious in his every movement, but most especially in the darkness in his eyes. It struck Damara as strangely beautiful.
Yes, he was definitely a killer. He’d snapped Sergio’s neck with the swift and easy brutality of a predator. She hadn’t been lying when she’d said she was grateful—Sergio was her brother’s head security adviser. A pretty title for what amounted to head torturer. She needed this Byron Hawkins to make her escape, and, in doing so, to save her country from Abele.
And she knew there was more to Hawkins than this machine he’d made of himself.
Damara found herself intrigued by him, by his pain. It didn’t hurt that he was handsome and strong. He dwarfed her, a giant, deadly wall of lethal power. What woman wouldn’t find that attractive?
Damara had to remember she wasn’t just a woman. She was a princess. In her heart, there was only room for her people—her country. She understood what it was to live a life in service. She also understood that she’d do whatever was required to get herself out of Tunis.
“It’s ten minutes to the port of La Goulette, but I plan to make it in five. Let’s go.”
Relief flooded her. He would help. She followed him outside and he led her through some well-groomed shrubbery to where he’d hidden a Ducati.
He handed her the single helmet, and she took it gratefully.
“It’s a 1199 Panigale R. Wish I could take it with me,” he said, a certain amount of wistfulness in his voice.
“Did you steal this?” She eyed him.
“What do you think?” He mounted the bike, swinging one long, power
She supposed that didn’t matter. Damara had more pressing problems. The seat was tiny, and he dwarfed the machine the same way he dwarfed her. She didn’t think there was any way she was going to fit on the thing, but Damara had said she wasn’t going to complain about accommodations and she wouldn’t break her promise.
Especially not when he could still change his mind and leave her behind.
If she didn’t fly off the back end of the bike. She was very certain that on this bike lay the path to some horrible maiming.
“Don’t be shy now, Princess.”
She’d never heard anyone say princess in that way before. It made her shiver. It wasn’t reverent or at all proper. In fact, it was rather intimate. As if she was his princess to do with as he pleased rather than a head of state he’d been contracted to escort. She wasn’t sure if she liked it or not.
His arm snaked out and wrapped around her waist as he hauled her onto the front of the bike. As he revved the engine, he said, “Hold on.”
She was barely aware of the speed or even the scenery as it melted into swirling colors at the edges of her vision.
The man holding her dominated all her senses.
He was a solid wall against her back—his body was immovable like a marble statue, but he exuded heat like a bonfire. Even when she’d been surrounded by bodyguards in the royal palace, she’d never felt as safe as she did right at that moment. It was insanity. They were tearing through the streets, barreling toward even more danger. Damara was about as far from safe as she could be.
Only she was almost out of Abele’s reach, and that felt amazing, too. It made her giddy, a false sense of freedom. She knew she’d never be truly free—she had a duty—but it would be a gift to be able to serve without being under his cruel thumb.
When she tried to stop thinking about the strong man who held her, she couldn’t help but focus on how fast they hurtled through the air. She’d swear that the bike wasn’t even touching the road. It was either the bike or him.
SARA ARDEN SERIES:
Other author's books:
- Finding GloryUnfaded Glory
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