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In the Dark
By Marliss Melton

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 In the Dark

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In the Dark
By Marliss Melton
ISBN: 0446614920
Genre: Romance

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Chapter Excerpt from: In the Dark , by Marliss Melton

Chapter One


Naval Air Station Annex Dam Neck,

Virginia Beach

16 September ~ 20:12 EST

“We’re not going to stand for this,” Luther reassured his subordinates.

The four-man SEAL squad sat on the veranda at the Shifting Sands Club, back-dropped by a darkening sky and the pitching waves of the Atlantic. Laughter and the tinkle of chinaware leaked through the panes of the restaurant. The storm sparking lightning out at sea had driven all but the SEALs indoors. There was just enough light coming out of the restaurant behind them that Luther could see each one seated around the stone-top patio table.

Chief Westy McCaffrey had grown a full beard in preparation for his assignment in Malaysia. Teddy “Bear” Brewbaker was a black junior petty officer, as broad as he was tall. Vinny “The Godfather” De Innocentis, just nineteen years old, looked amazingly like a young Al Pacino.

Luther Lindstrom was the OIC, officer in charge, of the squad. As an all-American, upper-middle-class overachiever from Houston, Luther would have sworn up until today that Uncle Sam could do no wrong, but the findings of the Naval Criminal Investigation Service had him reeling with disillusionment.

“It’s a fucking cover-up,” Westy pronounced, taking a swig of his beer.

It had to be. A week ago Admiral Johansen had assured them that Commander Lovitt would face charges for the fiasco aboard the USS Nor’Easter, yet somehow the NCIS had walked away from their investigation blaming the wrong man.

Their platoon leader, Lieutenant Gabe Renault—aka Jaguar—was going to be charged for the crimes Commander Lovitt was responsible for.

“The Navy wants to avoid a scandal,” Luther agreed.

“How’re we going to prove that Commander Lovitt wanted to kill Jaguar?” Teddy railed. “Think about it. Everyone’s dead.” He held up a beefy hand and started ticking people off his fingers. “The DIA officer who was snooping around a month ago died in a car crash. The second one, who was supposed to get us the notebook, disappeared. Then the executive officer went and shot himself in the head. Who else is there?”

No one, Luther thought. Lovitt had done a fine job of covering up his trail, except for Jaguar who hadn’t been so easy to kill. But Jaguar had memory problems from post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

“Well, fuck, we can’t just sit here!” Vinny exclaimed, thumping the tabletop.

Luther squeezed the tense muscles in his neck. He had no intention of letting Jaguar take the rap for the debacle Lovitt had caused, but short of offering their own testimony, which the NCIS had obviously ignored, how could they prove to the upper brass that Lovitt was responsible?

“Sir.”

Luther looked up. It was Sebastian León, materializing out of the dark and catching all four men by surprise. The master chief of SEAL Team Twelve had a knack for showing up when he was most needed. Luther hoped that was the case right now.

With a quick salute, Sebastian dropped onto the bench next to Vinny. “I have news,” he said. His habitually impassive expression made it impossible to tell if the news was good or bad. “The FBI believes they’ve found Hannah Geary,” he imparted in his subtly accented English. “They want our help to get her out.”

The men exchanged swift glances.

“Out of where? She’s still alive?” Vinny asked in astonishment.

“Alive,” Sebastian corroborated. “They wouldn’t tell me where.”

Luther had worked with the FBI before. “Who’s heading up the investigation?” he inquired, wondering if the request was accidental or intentional.

“One of their top men. Special Agent Valentino.”

Luther’s eyebrows went up. Valentino had made himself a legend by breaking up enormous drug cartels and arresting two untouchables from the Italian Mafia. Why would he be involved in the disappearance of a single female?

“I’ll go,” Westy volunteered, always restless. “I have two weeks before my next assignment.”

“I’m with you, Chief,” Luther said. “I want to put a bug in the FBI’s ear, if there isn’t one already.”

“Here’s the contact information, sir.” Sebastian handed him a folded piece of paper.

“Hey, if we could get Geary’s testimony, then maybe we’d have a shot at clearing Jaguar,” Vinny deduced.

Luther was counting on it. A strategy began to take shape in his head. He gave himself a second to think it through. “Okay, guys, here’s what we’re going to do. Westy and I are going to find Geary and bring her back here so she can testify for us. Master Chief, you and Vinny need to break into the XO’s apartment and see if you can find any proof that Miller didn’t kill himself.”

“I’d rather go alone, sir,” Master Chief said softly. SEALs always worked in pairs or small groups, never alone. Luther regarded him questioningly.

“We could all face charges if Jaguar is convicted,” Sebastian explained. “No one needs to cross the line right now.”

That was true, and since Sebastian had achieved the highest rank for an enlisted man, it would take an act of Congress to part him from his pension benefits. “You’re right,” said Luther, turning his attention to Teddy. “Teddy, you and Vinny keep things up and running at Spec Ops while Westy and I are wheels up.”

“Yes, sir,” they mumbled, clearly disappointed to be denied time out of the office.

A bolt of lightning lit the men’s resolute faces. Thunder rumbled overhead, and a fleck of rain struck Luther’s cheek. “We’ll all check in at the end of each day. Jaguar’s first hearing is on Friday. Make sure you show up at zero eight hundred at the Trial Services Building in dress whites. Any questions?”

The men looked at each other. “No, sir.”

“Let’s call it a night.” With a plan in place, Luther couldn’t wait to get the ball rolling. He stood up, towering over his companions.

As the only officer present, he felt a certain sense of obligation to his teammates, as well as to Jaguar, who was immediately senior to him as platoon leader. “Jaguar’s not going to take the rap for this, guys,” he reassured them, sweeping them with a steady look. “I’ll pick you up at zero four hundred hours, Chief,” he added to Westy before turning away.

“Good night, sir,” the men called.

Luther jogged down the steps that took him to the parking lot. The rain started falling in earnest as he jumped into his Ford F150. With windshield wipers slapping a fervent tempo, he drove to his ranch-style rental in a suburban neighborhood. No upscale mansion for Luther, not anymore. He’d given up his privileged lifestyle when he quit the NFL.

Pulling into the driveway of his home, he noted the darkened windows with a grimace. No one was waiting for him, but—hey—that was fine. Since he’d asked Veronica to leave, he could actually hold his head up again. Better to live alone than be made a fool of. He wouldn’t make that mistake twice.

He dashed for the door, averting his gaze from the nearly empty living area as he snapped on the lights. His ex-fiancée had taken all the furniture when she left, except a hunter-green sofa that weighed too much to move.

Kicking off his sneakers, he stripped off his damp T-shirt. It was a crying shame that Jaguar was in custody, but in a way Luther was grateful. He could channel his energies into proving Lovitt’s perfidy and Jaguar’s innocence. It sure beat prowling around his empty house wondering what part of his marriage plan had gone awry.

Ronnie had been pretty, educated, raised in a two-parent home. How could he have known that their physical attraction would fizzle, that she’d make him look like an idiot by seeing other men? His determination to live a wholesome, simple life was undermined by Ronnie’s complexity.

If he ever got engaged again, he’d make damn sure his bride was smart but uncomplicated; a sensible woman with practical plans and domestic dreams.

He just hated it when a well-laid plan went awry.

FBI Headquarters,

Washington, D.C.

17 September ~ 10:42 EST

Special Agent Rafael Valentino looked nothing like the hard-nosed FBI agent Luther had pictured in his mind. He wore a silver-gray Armani suit over a black turtleneck. His ebony hair, shot with threads of silver, was combed back from a strong Italian forehead, making him look more like the famous NBA coach, Pat Riley, than a veteran of the NYPD, which he was, according to the plaque on the wall behind his polished desk.

“Have a seat, gentlemen,” Valentino offered, his quiet baritone betraying no hint of his Italian heritage nor the inner-city dialect he’d surely spoken while growing up in New York City.

Luther and Westy eased into elegant leather armchairs as Valentino sorted gravely through the piles on his desk. The man had to be pushing forty, but aside from the silver in his hair, he looked fit and formidable. “I have a statement that your master chief gave to the military police at Quantico, back when Miss Geary’s vehicle was found there,” he said quietly. He opened a file and skimmed through it. “Apparently Miss Geary was on her way to Quantico with information that implicated your commander in stealing weapons?”

“That’s correct,” said Luther.

Valentino leaned against the high back of his thronelike chair. Through dark, inscrutable eyes, he regarded first Luther and then Westy. Luther had the distinct impression that the man was measuring their character. “I’m going to tell you something that stays within these walls,” he divulged.

Luther held his breath.

“We are aware that your commander has been stealing weapons.”

Relief welled up in Luther only to come crashing down at Valentino’s next words.

“For the time being we need to leave him alone. We want the man he works for, an entity who calls himself the Individual.”

Say what? Luther swung an astonished look at Westy, whose blue eyes were blazing.

“The Individual funnels weapons to various political groups worldwide,” Valentino added. Unlike most Italians, he spoke without using his hands. “Stolen weapons are cropping up in Nigeria, Haiti, and Yemen, in the hands of unpredictable factions. I’m sure you can appreciate how dangerous that is.”

“Absolutely,” Luther said. To think that Lovitt was involved in an operation like that! Wouldn’t it be great if they could prove it? “I suppose you have proof of Lovitt’s involvement?” he asked, wondering what it would take to get his hands on it.

Valentino just looked at him. “We have an intercepted e-mail that we’ve traced to Lovitt’s IP address. It makes reference to certain cargo being ready for shipment. But for the time being the evidence remains with me.”

“Who’s the Individual?” Westy demanded. Typically forthright, he hated batting words around.

“I’m sorry,” Valentino answered, his expression neutral. “We’ve reached a critical point in our investigation. I can’t afford a leak.” He reached for a second pile of documents and pulled it before him. “I will tell you that the Individual knows Miss Geary, which may be the reason she is still alive.”

But . . . Luther looked at Westy. They’d assumed it was Lovitt who’d made the woman disappear.

“One of the Individual’s buyers is a Cuban, a potential revolutionary named Pinzón. According to our intelligence, Pinzón is guarding an American woman in his compound, which is in Santiago.”

Luther’s eyebrows rose. “Santiago . . . Cuba?”

“That’s right.”

“How did Geary get from Quantico to Cuba?” he asked, utterly confounded.

“She never made it to Quantico. It took us a while to realize that,” the agent admitted, “especially when the guards at Quantico remembered waving in a red-haired woman in a green Mustang. Once we considered that woman wasn’t Miss Geary, we had more options to consider.”

He cracked another file and read out loud, “‘At two twenty-three P.M., August 29, state police received calls from motorists reporting a high-speed chase along Interstate 95, south of D.C. Subsequent calls notified police of an accident involving a minivan and a Mustang, with at least one injury.’” He looked up. “Our guess is that Miss Geary was grabbed at that point and put into the second vehicle. Her car, which showed up at Quantico, had a patched rear tire and showed signs of a recent collision.

“Our leads dried up until Occoquan police came forward with video footage of a man bearing a woman of Geary’s description aboard a stolen yacht. The man was Misalov Obradovitch.” He withdrew two photographs from the file and slid them across the desk for Luther’s and Westy’s inspection.

Westy scowled down at the man’s photo. “He looks familiar.”

“He should,” said Valentino. “Obradovitch is a Serbian assassin. He and his wife have been among our Most Wanted for years. Wearing a wig, the woman bears enough resemblance to Miss Geary to have used her ID at Quantico. We believe she left the car there to mislead us.”

Luther memorized the features of the stone-faced criminals. Hannah Geary must have been scared out of her mind, he considered, sparing her a thought.

“Getting back to the yacht, I was able to track its progress using commercial satellite imagery and marine radio communications. All indications point to Santiago as its final destination.”

“Why not send your own people in if you know where she is?” Luther asked. There had to be a reason Valentino had asked for them specifically.

“Because I’ve been here before,” he admitted, placing an elegant-looking hand over the file he’d just closed. “The Individual isn’t new to us; we’ve been aware of his activities for years, and the last time I got this close, he disappeared. If he senses that I’m closing in, he’ll clean up house before I can find the proof I need to shut him down. I require you to camouflage my investigation,” the agent summarized.

Luther considered him for a long, thoughtful moment. “Agreed,” he said, at last, “but we need something in return. If this woman, Geary, is alive and well, we’d like to borrow her.” He summarized Jaguar’s legal situation while explaining that Geary could potentially relieve him of his charges.

Thoughts ebbed and flowed in Valentino’s dark-as-night eyes. “You’re asking me to put her welfare into your hands,” he pointed out. “The Individual might well target her again.”

“Understood,” said Luther. “I think we’re capable of watching her, sir.” He flicked a look at Westy, who nodded.

Valentino scrutinized them through his eyelashes. “Very well,” he finally agreed. “If you can extract Geary from her current situation, then she may remain with you until my investigation is complete. But I insist that you check in with me often and keep me apprised of her situation.”

“We will,” Luther agreed. “Where do we start?”

Valentino conjured a map that he handed over to the SEALs to peruse. Luther recognized the shoreline of the eastern portion of Cuba and the familiar outline of Guantanamo Bay, where he’d spent extensive time participating in live-fire exercises. Near the city of Santiago at the mouth of the bay was a structure that resembled a fort. Valentino had circled it in red.

“Let’s go over this together,” he invited smoothly.

Excerpted from In the Dark , by Marliss Melton . Copyright (c) 2005 by Marliss Melton . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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