The Darkest Hour, Page 12Maya Banks
“What’s up?” Steele asked in his impatient voice. He adjusted his arm, only a flicker in his eyes to betray the pain he must be feeling.
“I’m sending you home with our injured,” Sam said to Steele.
Steele’s lips tightened. “You’re taking me out of action?”
“Dude, you’ve been shot,” Rio said. “That’s what normally happens. ”
Sam held up his hand. Then he turned to Rio. “What I’m asking you to do is off the books. You’ll get paid just like always, but this isn’t official, and you don’t have to agree. ”
Both Steele and Rio went silent as they stared back at Sam.
“Okay,” Rio said slowly. “What are we talking about here?”
“I want you and your men to go back into Colombia. Deep cover and surveillance. Chances are the village will move since we know their location. I want their every movement closely monitored. It will require patience. I want reports, but I don’t want you to move—yet. ”
Rio nodded. “Okay, we can do that. What’s the big hairy deal? You act like this is high treason or something. ”
Sam’s jaw tightened as he tried to control the surge of anger. “This isn’t a mission, Rio. It isn’t business. This is personal. I want these bastards. I want them to pay for what they did to my family. I want information, and I don’t care what we have to do to get it. ”
Steele and Rio went still and Sam could see they were finally understanding where he was coming from.
“I want to know why they kept Rachel alive. Why the big hoax. Why would they make us believe she died and then keep her alive all this time?”
“I understand,” Rio said evenly. “I’ll get your information for you. ”
“Not just you, Rio. Me. I can’t—won’t—ask you to do something like this without me. I’m going home with my family. They need me right now. When I get everything settled, I’ll meet up with you in Colombia and we’ll go in. ”
“You’re not doing this without me,” Steele cut in.
Sam shook his head. “No. You’re going back with your team. They’re your responsibility. Cole and Dolphin need the downtime. You know the rules. We work as a team. We live as a team. The team is everything. ”
Steele swore under his breath. “I don’t like it, Sam. You have too much of a personal stake in this. If you don’t want me going, fine. Let Rio lead his team in. ”
Sam slowly shook his head. “I can’t ask someone else to do what I want done. ”
“I don’t like it,” Rio said. “If you want the job done, fine. I’ll take my team and we’ll round up the riffraff. We’ll make them talk. But I think you should go home with the others. Your family needs you right now. ”
“I’ll take care of my family,” Sam said quietly. “But then I’m going back in. I want their blood. I can’t ask you or anyone else to do my dirty work for me. ”
“Bullshit,” Steele snorted. “Think about this, Sam. Use your damn head. You’re as emotionally involved as Ethan is. You take this shit personally. Someone fucked with your family and you want revenge. Do you honestly think Garrett is going to quietly go home while you race back into the jungle? Do you think Ethan is going to just say okay while you go avenge his wife? What you need to do is go home and take your brothers with you. You know it’s the right thing to do or you wouldn’t be sneaking outside your brothers’ hearing and trying to slide one by them. ”
“That’s a load of crap about you not asking us to do something,” Rio cut in. “We’re beyond that shit. This isn’t the U. S. fucking Army. I’ll take my team back in. Steele can fly his home and you take your family home. They’re going to need you. I’ll find your answers. ”
Sam hesitated, torn between his need for vengeance and the knowledge that Rio and Steele were right. Ethan needed him. The next weeks were going to be hard on his family. But at the same time, getting answers was all important. He needed to know why Rachel had been taken. Why his family had been lied to. Why the grand deception? None of it made sense.
“Leave it to us,” Steele said bluntly. “I know it slays the control freak in you, but this is one mission you need to stay away from. I’ll get my men settled and the rest of my team will provide ground support for Rio and his team. ”
Rio raised one brow. “Wow. The mighty Steele is going to act in a support role. ” He clutched his chest and staggered backward.
Steele pinned him with the full force of his glare.
“And you wonder why I have such a hard time turning things over to you guys,” Sam muttered. He ran a hand through his hair. “Look, I appreciate the concern. But tell me this. If it was your family. If this was someone you loved we were rescuing. Would you be willing to let someone go back for vengeance?”
Rio blew out his breath. “No. I wouldn’t. ”
Steele nodded his agreement.
“Okay then it’s settled. ” He broke off and glanced back toward the cottage where his brothers were resting. “This needs to stay between us for obvious reasons. ”
“You’re the boss,” Rio said.
Sam wiped a tired hand over his face. “You guys get some rest. I want to check in with Ethan and Rachel one more time. ”
“You coming in?” Steele asked Rio as he turned in the direction of the house.
“Nah, I’ll head back to the chopper. I’ll check back with you guys in a few hours. ”
Steele shrugged. “Suit yourself. ”
A hand closed around Ethan’s shoulder and gently shook him awake. Beside him, Rachel lay curled in his arms. He turned his head to see Sam standing over him.
“What the hell happened?” Sam demanded in a whisper.
It took Ethan a few minutes to process that Sam was looking at Rachel’s blood-spattered clothes.
Carefully, Ethan eased away from Rachel and awkwardly got up from the bed. Every muscle in his body protested, and he had a monster crick in his neck from sleeping in such a cramped position.
“Get much sleep?” Sam asked.
“Not much. Rachel’s in pretty bad shape. ”
Sam put a hand on Ethan’s shoulder. “We’ll get her home. She’s going to be fine. She’s a fighter. How else would she have survived this last year?”
“She shouldn’t have had to. I should have been here for her. ”
Ethan remained silent. Only he knew the depths of his failure when it came to Rachel. He didn’t want Sam to know. Ever. He couldn’t stand the disappointment in his older brother’s eyes. Their father had always drilled a sense of honor into them. Do right by your woman. His thirty-plus years married to their mother was a testament that he lived by his word.
Not only had Ethan not done right by Rachel, but he’d ducked responsibility, and he’d laid the blame for his own unhappiness at her feet.
“You can’t live in the past, man,” Sam said in a voice barely above a whisper. “Rachel needs you. Get over your guilt and be strong for her. You’ve got some tough days ahead of you. ”
Ethan nodded, though he doubted Sam could see him in the darkness. Sam was right. For whatever reason, he’d been granted a precious second chance. No, he didn’t deserve it, but he wasn’t going to turn his back on it.
“Maren doesn’t think Rachel should go home just yet, and after what happened earlier, I think I agree. ”
Again Sam’s gaze drifted over Ethan’s clothing. “What the hell happened?”
Ethan explained Rachel’s hallucination and told Sam what Maren had said about monitoring Rachel’s withdrawal and her concern about Rachel going home to a family and life she couldn’t remember.
“She’s worried about the strain it’ll put on Rachel. She thought it would be best for you and the others to go ahead and smooth things out so that her homecoming would be as low-key as possible. ”
“I don’t like the idea of leaving you behind,” Sam muttered.
“I’ll stay. ”
han and Sam looked up to see Garrett standing in the doorway.
Sam shook his head.
“You don’t get to make all the decisions,” Garrett said evenly. “I’ll stay with Ethan and Rachel. You can take the others back. Cole, Dolphin and Steele need medical care beyond what they’re getting here. You and Donovan can break the news to the family. Whenever Rachel is well enough, Ethan and I will take her home. ”
Ethan nodded. “I think it’s best. If I call Mom and Dad, it’s just going to upset them. They’ll never believe I’m not delusional. They’ll have time to process the news before Rachel gets home. I don’t want her overwhelmed. This is going to be hard enough on her as it is. ”
Sam frowned. “I don’t like leaving either of you behind. ”
“Ethan and I can handle it,” Garrett said.
Sam let out his breath. “Okay,” he conceded. “That’s what we’ll do. If Maren gives the okay to transport the injured men, we’ll leave in the morning. I want a report every three hours. I’ll have a chopper return for you as soon as Rachel can leave. ”
“And what about Maren?” Garrett asked. “I don’t think we should just pack up and leave her without protection. ”
“She hasn’t been without protection since we got her out of Africa,” Sam said. “She’s watched. She just doesn’t know it. ”
Ethan nodded. And suddenly the thought of going home didn’t hold the comfort it had before.
“Something wrong, Ethan?”
Ethan looked up at Garrett. His brothers always picked up on his moods. Any change or shift no matter how small. At times it was like living under a microscope.
His hands shook, betraying him as he fought to remain steady and unaffected. How was he supposed to be Rachel’s rock when a good stiff wind would blow him right over?
The words stuck in his throat, refusing to roll off his tongue. He was a man who’d seen and experienced the worst the world had to offer, and he’d done it stoically and without fear.
He closed his eyes. “I’m afraid. ”
“You have every right to be,” Sam said evenly.
Ethan shook his head. “No. It’s time for me to step up to the plate. Man up and be the husband Rachel deserves. I may not have been afraid in the past, but I was a fucking coward. ”
His brothers looked at each other and Garrett shrugged. No, they wouldn’t know what he was talking about. His marriage to Rachel was a study in secrets. Secrets she would have never divulged. She would have never gone to his family with their problems. He’d known it and taken advantage of it.
“I’m afraid she’ll never remember. And then I’m afraid she will,” he said quietly.
A distinct, uncomfortable silence ensued. Ethan looked down. He’d said too much. It was harder to keep quiet now, and maybe in a twisted way, he was seeking absolution from past sins. But only Rachel could grant him that. It was her he had to make restitution to.
Garrett cleared his throat. “The best thing you can do, man, is to take her home and surround her with as much love and support as you can. We’ll all help. You won’t be doing this alone. ”
Sam leaned forward, his expression intense. “The important thing is, you have her back. Nothing else matters. ”
“You’re right. I know you’re right. I just feel like I’m going to wake up and be back home in our bed. Alone. And this will have all been a dream. ”
“I know this year hasn’t been easy for you, but you’ve been given another chance that many would kill for. Don’t waste your time borrowing trouble. Enjoy each and every moment, because you of all people know how fast it can all be snatched away. ”
Ethan raised his haunted gaze to his brother. “Yeah, I do. And I’m not going to let it happen again. I won’t lose her. Not twice. ”
THE next morning, an hour before dawn, Maren’s clinic was buzzing with activity. Cole and Dolphin were propped against the wall in the waiting area as they waited for the chopper to arrive that would carry them into Mexico. Maren had given Cole a pair of crutches, but he’d promptly discarded them with a few choice words.
Sam, Donovan and Garrett met with Ethan inside Rachel’s room. She was resting comfortably for the first time in hours, and they spoke in hushed tones so they wouldn’t disturb her.
“Maren’s right about one thing. It’s better for us to go ahead and pop the surprise so that everyone has a chance to get used to the idea before Rachel comes home. It’s going to be overwhelming enough as it is,” Donovan murmured.
“Hell, our family intimidates me half the time,” Garrett grumbled.
Ethan thrust his hands into his pockets. “I don’t want this just thrust on Mom and Dad. They loved her like a daughter. I know they’re going to be happy, but I don’t know what kind of shock this is going to be for them. ”