Chapter 2

 

Edge of Defiance

 

Derrick struggled to stay present. His side throbbed and his legs felt weighed down by cement blocks. Rider, the other team leader, supported him under one shoulder. The men moved in silence around them, using hand signals that he caught out of the corner of his eye but couldn’t seem to get a handle on. They moved down another street that looked exactly the same as the last one. Were they going in circles?

Fuck, he hated being so weak.

“Hang on, Hawk,” Rider said softly.

He didn’t reply. There was nothing he could say, as he relied on a stranger to lead him and his men out. At one point, Rider pushed him against a brick wall and he had to bite back a groan. The men spread out around him and the wounded man they’d rescued, a guy their medic called Twinkie – though nothing about the man looked soft or sweet. His hard face barely reflected the fact that Derrick could see blood staining his one pant leg and the man never put weight on it. But no matter how stoic he was, it was clear he needed medevac ASAP.

But shit, so did he. He was as much a liability as Twinkie now.

One of Derrick’s men signaled to his sergeant. Derrick didn’t ask what was going on. He blinked rapidly, listening hard.

Voices. Angry shouts. Gunfire…coming close.

His sergeant and Rider conferred. Derrick pushed the now-soaked bandage tight against his side and moved closer to them, holding his rifle barrel up. “Sitrep.”

Rider studied him for a split second before nodding. “There’s too many of them. We’re sending the sergeant on ahead to scout the way.”

“Good plan,” he said hoarsely. “Exfil location?”

“Keeps changing. With the bird shot down, they’re relying on vehicles. The insurgents are throwing up roadblocks all over.” He gave a glance over his shoulder. “If we don’t get out of here soon, we’ll be surrounded.”

“Your man needs to get out of here now. Give me the radio. Let’s get to a roof. Our bird can take at least half of us out.”

“The others will be sitting ducks until the bird comes back.”

It was true. Derrick knew that whoever was left behind would have their position broadcasted for the insurgents and be easily surrounded before the helicopter could come back.

Wetness coated his hand where it pressed on the bandage. He frowned, wishing his brain worked faster. He took a breath and released it slowly, pushing the pain away. “I have an idea.”

Minutes later, they’d relayed the plan to Cosmo, the pilot, as well as the American rescue party. Derrick swayed as he stood on the roof of the apartment building they’d chosen. It had taken seconds for his man to pick the door, but longer to get both him and Twinkie up the eight flights of stairs. He fought to control his breathing. Sweat snaked down his back and darkness ate at the edges of his vision. He pressed harder on the bandage. Not to stop the bleeding, but to send pain shooting through him, keeping him present.

He waved to his sergeant and Rider, who stood guard on the street. They’d made the roof as quickly as they could, but he felt each added second as a weight of the lives who waited below. They wouldn’t leave until he, Twinkie, and the four men chosen to guard them signaled they were safe on the roof.

His sergeant waved back and the four men moved off at a mile-eating run, searching for another rooftop to hole up on until the helicopter could make another run.

They would find as safe a place as they could for the helicopter to pick them up. Within moments, they’d be blocks from here. Derrick prayed that the insurgents would believe them all gone on the first trip out. No one would expect the bird to return for four men.

As long as they didn’t get caught in the ever-tightening net of roadblocks.

He shook away images of his sergeant getting surrounded by tangos. The man had too much courage and honor. He had to survive. His hands tightened on his rifle.

Be safe.

Derrick made himself stand watch until he heard the approaching thwap-thwap of rotors. Cosmo swooped down fast and leveled off. The bird had just touched down when men lifted Twinkie onto it. Derrick saw a crowd of men in the street running toward the building. He used his NVGs to search the crowd for threats.

There. A man lifted an RPG.

Derrick lifted his rifle. Sighted. Breathed out slow. Pulled the trigger.

The man jerked and fell. The crowd paused as a whole and then revived, swelled, and shouted with greater fury.

“We’ve got to go, Hawk!” someone yelled from behind him.

Another man picked up the RPG. He sighted and shot.

And again.

“Captain!”

He strafed the crowd until his rounds ran out, then turned and ran to the waiting bird. It now hovered two feet off the roof. Hands helped him inside and held him secure as the bird dipped and wove as it rocketed into the night.

Back at the FOB, they tumbled off as fast as possible so Cosmo and his crew could race back to the new coordinates to rescue the four men left in the city. The Americans now played decoy with their vehicles knowing the Canadians were using their bird for the operation.

A medic tugged at Derrick’s shirt, trying to see the bandage. “Sir, let’s get you inside. We need to check this out.”

He pulled away and almost stumbled. “I want to know the moment they’re back.”

The medic gripped him and guided him away. “You’ll be the first to know when they’re safe, sir. Come inside now.”

Derrick fought to stay conscious as the medic treated him, waiting for word of his men.

 

* * *

 

“You took a helicopter without authorization,” the colonel across from Derrick said. The man rolled his eyes and kept reading while Derrick sat in a chair in front of his desk, waiting for Colonel Jeffers’ final assessment on the complaint that had come through from that night. The colonel grunted at something else he read and then muttered, “Idiot.”

Derrick sat stiffly. His side ached and his stitches pulled every time he moved.

The colonel snapped the file down on his desk. “This report recommends that you be put on leave without pay for a month.”

Derrick nodded. He’d figured as much. The colonel at the FOB hadn’t been impressed by the rescue and had only commented that Derrick had been lucky the helicopter hadn’t been shot down like the American one had.

Colonel Jeffers snorted. “He’d have been singing a different tune if you hadn’t gotten involved. If those four navy SEALs had been killed and the press had gotten wind that we’d had the chance to help and hadn’t…” He shook his head. “Let alone the fact that it was the fucking right thing to do. But it’s a damn good thing you all made it home.” He looked Derrick right in the eye. “You’re on leave for a month.”

Outrage scorched him. “Without pay?”

The colonel laughed. “Hell no. You’re a hero whether these fools want to admit it or not. You’re on leave to satisfy the higher-ups, but with pay.”

“But, sir—”

“The doctor has also ordered you light duties for eight weeks.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

The colonel shrugged. “Take four weeks. We’ll see then if you’re ready to come back.”

Of course he’d be ready.

 

* * *

 

Derrick pushed open the door to his uncle’s pub in downtown Ottawa. The bell above the door chimed. The Black Rose was a pretty standard Irish pub, except it was actually run by an Irishman. Pat Blackwell had immigrated to Canada along with Derrick’s father when they’d graduated high school.

Uncle Pat had become Derrick’s surrogate father when his real father had died in a car crash one winter night. The Irishman had taken as much care of Derrick and his sister as Derrick’s independent mother would allow.

He smiled as he looked around the pub, with its familiar wood paneling and black-and-white pictures of Ireland lining the walls. He’d spent many hours here as a boy, polishing the dark wooden bar top. Bottles of Pat’s finest Irish whiskey stood sentry on a high shelf above. His uncle Pat had caught him sampling one of them once, and Derrick had chapped hands for a week from washing all the pint glasses by hand before the pub opened each night. But he’d never touched the whiskey again.

At least, not till he was legal.

“Derrick?” His Uncle Pat’s booming voice rang out as he came in from the back room. He was tall and lean like Derrick, his dark hair shaggier than Derrick’s own brush cut. They could have been father and son, except for their eyes. His uncle had light blue while Derrick had inherited his mother’s brown.

“Hey, Uncle Pat.”

“It’s good to see you. Now what’s this about needing a job? Don’t tell me you left the army. Aren’t you in some hotshot unit? I thought you loved that stuff.”

Derrick smiled. “I do. And I’m not leaving the military, but I’m on leave for a month and I’ll go insane with nothing to do. So put me to work.”

His uncle studied him like he was back in high school and suspected he was up to no good. “And why are you on leave, laddie?”

“Doctor’s orders,” he said. He held up his hands. “Relax, Uncle Pat. I’m okay.”

“Obviously not if you’re on leave for a month.” He crossed his arms. “Spill it, boy. If you don’t, I’ll sic your mother on you.”

Derrick sighed and surrendered to the inevitable. He lifted up his T-shirt. The bandage covered a good portion of the left side of his stomach.

His uncle grimaced. “Holy shit, Derrick. Are you still bleeding?”

Derrick glanced down. Dammit, he must have torn his stitches. Blood had turned the white bandage a red-brown color in one section. “It’s nothing, Uncle Pat.” He could already see his uncle’s concern. The old man wouldn’t let him work at the pub if he thought Derrick was hurt. Derrick dropped his shirt. “I just need to change the bandage. The wound leaks a little. It’s to be expected.”

“To be expected when you go against the doctor’s orders,” his uncle said shrewdly, but then he shook his head. “Don’t answer that. If you were anyone else, I’d order you home to rest like I’m sure you’re supposed to be doing. But I know you won’t, so you might as well be here where I can keep an eye on you. How long do I have you for?”

“A month.”

“A whole month?” The man clapped him on the shoulder. “This is gonna be a treat. You can start next week.”

His uncle was still trying to protect him. “Today.”

“Monday.”

It was Thursday. If he started to let his uncle baby him, it would be an uphill battle for the rest of the month. “Tonight.”

His uncle threw up his hands. “Only if you get that bandage changed.”

“Deal.” He paused. “And Uncle Pat? The same rules as always. You can’t tell anyone about what I do.”

“Well, what am I supposed to tell them?”

“As little as possible.”

 

* * *

 

Cassie Grant walked into The Black Rose just before five. The sun was still high in the sky and she was thankful to get out of the heat. A few people sat at the circular tables dotting the floor, some of them tourists and some were regulars, either grabbing a quick bite or a pint.

She wound her way through them and past the bar where she nodded to Frank, a greying bulldog of a man who pulled day shifts during the week. He was personable enough, but he hated when the place got busy. It was why Pat had hired her. She took the evening shifts so Frank and Pat didn’t have to. It was a good job. It allowed her time during the day and kept her busy at night. And the tips helped, too.

She strode to the back hall that led to the break room, office, and stockroom.

“I’m here, Pat,” she called as she pushed open the door to the break room.

A tall, lean man stood in the room. His back was to the door, and he was either putting on or taking off his shirt when she came in. She got a quick glimpse of a deliciously muscled back before he dropped his shirt and spun toward her.

He was a younger, much sexier version of Pat. His dark gaze perused her. Things stirred low in her core.

Much sexier. “You’re not Pat.”

“No.” His voice was low, a little rough, but soft as if he was afraid of spooking her. The thought almost made her smile.

She was staring, but wasn’t embarrassed. When a fine specimen of a man appeared in front of you, you had to take advantage of such situations. At least she wasn’t touching.

Yet.

His dark hair was cut too short for her taste, but the look did showcase his angular face and brown eyes. And that body.

Yum. Close to six feet of lean muscle under a T-shirt that she wished was a touch tighter, but his broad shoulders and sculpted biceps were definitely visible. Her heart beat a little faster as she imagined how easily he could pick her up. And hold her against a wall. To kiss. To touch. Heat washed over her. His gaze never left hers and he took a step toward her. Her insides clenched.

“Cassie, I’d like to introduce my nephew.”

She blinked. “What?”

Pat stood in the office doorway, a slight frown on his face. “My nephew.” He waved a hand toward the sex god. “Derrick.”

She turned and smiled. “Derrick. I’m Cassie.”

One side of Derrick’s mouth curled up just a bit. “Nice to meet you.”

“Derrick’s gonna take over the bar for the month.”

A month with Derrick. Yummy.

Wait. “What?” She put her hands on her hips. “But I tend bar.”

“You’ll have to wait tables with Sue.”

She hated waiting tables. It was way more fun at the bar. “But—”

“It’s okay,” Derrick said. “I can wait tables.”

“No, you can’t,” Pat said, staring at him hard.

What was going on here? “Why don’t you want him waiting tables?” she asked. “Do you think it’s a girl’s job?”

“No, he’s—”

“Uncle Pat.” Derrick’s voice was soft, but held steel.

Pat looked at Derrick and then back at Cassie. “Sorry, Cass, but it’s only for a month.” He left the room and closed the door to his office.

Coward.

Derrick gestured to her. “Aren’t you a little…”

Her irritation at being pushed out of her job spiked to anger. She stepped closer to him. “What? Short to be a bartender? Too little to reach the good stuff?”

“Hot.”

Her eyes widened. Did he just say…?

“You’re wearing a leather jacket,” he said.

Her face flushed. Thank God she had the bronzed skin of her Korean mother. No wonder she was overheating – it had nothing to do with the towering wall of muscle in front of her. Nothing.

She unzipped her jacket and stowed it in her locker. She already wore her black pub T-shirt. That and jeans were the only uniform they had to wear. Another perk of working there.

“I’m sorry,” Derrick said behind her. “I didn’t mean for my uncle to shove you out of your job.”

She turned to him and gave him a chance. “Then wait tables.” She nodded to his arms. “It’s not like you’re not strong enough to carry a tray full of pints.”

A muscle tightened in his jaw before he gave a sharp shake of his head. “Sorry. I’m stuck behind the bar. It—”

She turned and left. He may have been nice to look at, but he wasn’t much of a man if he thought waitressing was beneath him.