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No Regrets
By Shannon K. Butcher

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 No Regrets

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No Regrets
By Shannon K. Butcher
ISBN: 0446618659
Genre: Romance

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Chapter Excerpt from: No Regrets , by Shannon K. Butcher

CHAPTER ONE


David Wolfe’s past caught up with him in the parking lot of a small-town grocery store in the Rocky Mountains. Late-November sun warmed his dark hair but did nothing to rid him of the chill of foreboding that sank into him with every step he took toward his former commanding officer.

Colonel George Monroe lounged against David’s Jeep, blocking his escape.

“What are you doing here, sir?” asked David, his tone sharp with displeasure.

Colonel Monroe regarded David with a steady stare that would have made a less confident man go pale. Monroe’s once-black hair was shot steely gray with age, and he had the emotionless eyes of a man who’d seen too much suffering in one lifetime. But in his white knit shirt and khakis, he looked more like a retired golfer than he did a commander of the world’s most elite, secret fighting force.

“You’re a hard man to find, Wolfe,” said Monroe.

“I wasn’t wanting to be found, sir,” replied David. “I’m surprised that you got this far.”

“We traced the money you sent your sister for her son’s surgery.”

David spat a searing curse. He’d wired the funds from over a hundred miles away under an alias of an alias of a man who didn’t even exist. Monroe should never have been able to find him.

Unless he’d really been working at it.

Ripples of unease slipped down David’s spine. Whatever Monroe wanted from him, it couldn’t be good. Powerful military leaders like Monroe didn’t ambush former military men in grocery store parking lots just to catch up on old times.

“What do you want?” demanded David.

“We need you, Wolfe. There’s a … situation.”

“I don’t give a damn about your situation,“ said David, purposefully adding a belated, “Sir.”

Monroe’s mouth twitched with a hint of a smile. “I see you haven’t lost your respect for authority these past two years.”

“No, but I’m about to lose my temper, so you’d best move away from my Jeep and find yourself another man for your situation. I quit Delta Force two years ago, remember?”

Monroe didn’t budge and David was quickly beginning to think that he was going to have to show Monroe just how much he’d learned in all those years of being under his command—training to fight with whatever was at hand, and when nothing was at hand, fighting with nothing. His body tensed as he sized up Monroe for a quick, efficient takedown.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Wolfe,” said Monroe as if reading David’s violent thoughts. “I’m not stupid enough to think I could take you on in a fair fight, so I brought backup. There’s a sniper a hundred yards behind you in the trees. He’s not as good as Grant, but he’s good enough.” A brief, feral smile flashed over Monroe’s face.

David froze, suddenly feeling the weight of a lethal rifle aimed at his skull. If he touched Monroe, it would be the last thing he did.

“You’re a bastard, sir,” said David.

“So says my wife, but then she doesn’t know me like you do.” Monroe flicked a hand signal at the sniper and David recognized the command to wait—on alert. “I need you to take on an assignment and I’m not taking no for an answer.”

“Yes you will. I don’t owe you anything. I walked away with a clean slate. The only favors I owe are to Grant and Caleb, and they’re not the ones asking.” David suppressed his guilt as he mentioned his two closest friends—the men he owed his life to countless times over. The men he’d walked away from two years ago, leaving them to carry on the fight for freedom without him.

Monroe tilted his head and looked directly into David’s eyes. He was one of the few men David knew who could really look at him and not flinch. “You’re wrong. You do owe me.”

The sudden softness in Monroe’s voice worried David. Men like Monroe were never soft—not with their wives or children and certainly not with the men like David, who they ordered to the most hellish places on earth to kill some of the most vile people ever to draw breath.

“What the hell are you talking about?” asked David.

“I was the one who ordered the rest of Delta to stand down on your last op.”

Pain seared David’s chest at the mention of that failed operation and just how much it had cost him. His body shook and the groceries crunched under his tightening grip. Against his will, his eyes shut and he was forced to face the horror of his two-year-old memories, still painfully fresh in his mind.

“You were the one who gave that order?” The lack of air in his lungs made the question come out as a thready whisper.

“I did,” said Monroe. “And I’d do it again today if faced with the same choice.”

Had David not had the small outlet of revenge Monroe had given him, he wouldn’t have lasted this long. The guilt would have eaten him whole.

“Were you court-martialed?” asked David.

Monroe looked away, his gray eyes sliding uncomfortably to the woods behind David, where the sniper waited for a sign to kill. “It doesn’t matter now. What does matter is that I need your help. I never meant to call in that particular favor, but I don’t have any choice. I need you to come back for this op. Lives are at stake.”

Bleak, painful memories flooded David’s head and he fought to hold them back—to stem the flow of blood, death and pain all cloaked in shades of nightmares.

“I won’t go back,” growled David, unfamiliar with the raw sound of his own voice. “I can’t. I lost too much working for you to ever go back.”

Monroe’s mouth flattened into a grim line. “The Swarm has resurfaced. They’ve started killing again.”

David was so shocked it rocked him back onto his heels. “That’s impossible. I killed them all. I torched the building and watched to make sure not one of them made it out alive.”

David relived every single moment of his last op in the space of a heartbeat. He felt the blind rage that had gripped him as he killed, felt the grim satisfaction of knowing that the Swarm would never hurt anyone again, felt the hollow emptiness of knowing that no matter how many men he killed, he couldn’t bring back the dead. Revenge changed nothing.

After several tense moments, David was able to rebuild the barrier on the part of his mind that was a tempest of chaotic nightmares—images that beat at his sanity until only a bubble-thin film remained.

“Four civilians are dead and the life of a young woman is at stake. I need you. She needs you.”

“You want me to protect her?” asked David in disbelief. “You must be desperate.”

Monroe pulled in a deep, weary breath. “You know the Swarm. You know their tactics. You also know what will happen to her if you fail.”

Seething, violent rage billowed up into David’s throat, leaving behind the acid taste of bile. For two years he’d thought that he’d taken out every one of the Swarm’s members. Before he quit Delta Force he’d made sure that they could never harm an innocent again.

He’d been wrong. For two years, he’d been wrong.

“Tell me where the Swarm is now,” demanded David in a near growl. “I’ll kill every last one of them myself.”

“We don’t know where they are. But we know what they want.”

“The woman,” guessed David.

Monroe nodded. “Dr. Noelle Blanche. Stick with her and you won’t have to find the Swarm. They’ll find you.”

A slow, ferocious smile curled over David’s lips. “Where is she?”

“We need to talk.”

Noelle Blanche started, and she turned around to see who had interrupted her concentration.

Professor Joan Montgomery, Noelle’s longtime mentor and friend, stood in the doorway of Noelle’s cramped office, looking worried and slightly nauseated.

Joan had been one of Noelle’s undergraduate professors at the University of Kansas. She had given Noelle her first taste of Latin and, because of Joan, Noelle’s educational destiny had changed. Her career path to mathematician had taken an exit toward linguistics and she’d ended up at some wacky rest stop called Assistant Professor of Applied Mathematical Linguistics.

Noelle forced a welcoming smile on her face, pushing aside the intriguing, vaguely Cyrillic script she’d just received in an e-mail from a colleague in Russia. “I’m teaching linear algebra in fifteen minutes, but I have until then.”

Joan’s expression twisted with discomfort. “I’ve been sent by the dean to find out your final decision about that grant. He’s tired of waiting.”

Noelle stifled a resigned sigh. “I already told him I won’t accept any grants funded by the military.”

Joan tucked her graying, chin-length hair behind one ear, pulled out the orange, 1970s cast-off office chair and sat down. “Why not? You’re the only one in the department who can do the work. Hell, as far as I know, you’re the only one in the country who can do it.”

Noelle shook her head and shoved a hand through her red curls to untangle them from the hinge of her glasses. “That’s not true. There are at least four other people who know more than I do about that particular flavor of cryptology and two of them live right here in the States. It’s just a hobby for me. They do it full-time.”

“They weren’t the ones the government offered oodles of grant money,” Joan reminded her. “Apparently, you’re a lot more valuable than you think.”

Noelle made a rude, snorting noise. “My sister’s the smart one. Let them ask her. Or anyone else. Just not me.”

“Why won’t you do the work? It sounded fairly tame to me. It’s not like they’re asking you to build a bomb or something.”

“They want me to develop a mathematically based encryption system for military use.”

“So?” asked Joan, frowning at Noelle in confusion. “Don’t you think you can do it?”

Noelle waved a pale hand, almost knocking over the Leaning Tower of Paperwork. “Of course I can do it. I’m already halfway finished with the algorithms because I couldn’t stop my brain from working on the puzzle while I was sleeping. I’ll have the solution in another two months, whether or not I want to know it, but that’s not the point.”

“Then what is the point? Because I’m not seeing how turning down easy money is going to help solidify your position here at the university.”

“If I give the military a tool, they will use it. Eventually, they will use it offensively. When that happens, people will die and I’ll be partially responsible. I can’t do that.”

“If you don’t, someone else at some other university will,” said Joan, her face softening with understanding. “You’re brilliant, and it will probably take someone else five years to do what you can in two months, but eventually, someone will figure it out. Eventually, someone will give the military their tool.”

“But it won’t be me,” replied Noelle. “I won’t have that blood on my hands, even if it means I get fired.”

“Downsized,” corrected Joan with a grimace.

“Whatever.” It all meant that Noelle would be out of a job.

Silence filled the room, broken only by the faint buzzing of the cheap fluorescent light overhead.

“Not whatever,” said Joan. “Downsized.”

The apologetic tone of Joan’s voice caught Noelle’s attention. “They sent you to fire me, didn’t they?”

Joan’s dark eyes met Noelle’s green ones. “If you don’t accept this grant money, you’re going to be let go at the end of the spring semester.”

Let go. Noelle felt like her outdated chair had fallen out from under her. She probably shouldn’t have been shocked, but she was. It was one thing to think about the possibility of losing her job; it was entirely different to know it will happen. And when. “Are you sure?”

Joan nodded, making her short gray hair sway along her chin. “That’s why I was sent here. The department doesn’t want to lose you and your freakish brilliance, but we just can’t afford the additional expense right now. Since your salary comes out of the Linguistics Department budget, we had the final say. I’m so sorry.”

Noelle closed her eyes. What would she do now? Finding a job that didn’t require her to say, “Do you want fries with that?” was going to be nearly impossible. It wasn’t as if she had employers beating at her door, begging her to come to work for them. Mathematical linguistics wasn’t exactly a booming field. Someone in an obscure career like hers would need months, if not years, to find another suitable position—likely one that would have to be built specifically for her. What would she do until then?

She had racked up tons of debt in student loans just to get her Ph.D. The loan payments by themselves were more than her other living expenses combined. She could hold off the bill collectors for a while, but she was going to need a decent income—not the kind she could make flipping burgers.

Noelle swallowed past the panic that clogged her throat. It was just money. She’d find some way around this obstacle.

“You could always take the grant,” suggested Joan.

Noelle wished it was that simple. She was sorely tempted just to give in and make her life a whole lot easier. But for someone who started college at sixteen, easy clearly wasn’t her modus operandi. “I can’t do that. It’s blood money.”

“Don’t be so dramatic,” scolded Joan. “No one’s asking you to hurt anyone. In fact, it’s entirely possible that doing this could save lives.”

“And if you’re wrong?” Noelle stood and shoved her laptop into its black nylon tote. “I can’t take that chance. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night wondering if my work cost the lives of innocents.”

“This is your career we’re talking about—your entire future rests on this decision.”

“Now who’s being dramatic?” scoffed Noelle.

“I’m serious. If you walk away from this grant, chances are you won’t find another position anytime soon. If you take the job, then you stand the chance of becoming famous in academic communities as the woman who revolu-tionized mathematical linguistics.”

Noelle rolled her eyes. “I’m sure they’ll write that on my gravestone, right next to the part about how I helped kill thousands of innocent civilians in some country where the children don’t even know what math is.”

“I can’t let you do this to yourself,” said Joan. “You’re too brilliant to slaughter your career because of something that might happen.”

“It isn’t your choice to make. You’ve been by my side, supporting me when everyone else pointed fingers and laughed at the scrawny kid with more brains than social skills. You are more than just my mentor, you’re my friend, but you can’t ask me to do this. I won’t be a part of killing, no matter how necessary some general thinks it may be.”

Noelle shoved students’ homework into her bag, refusing to look at the woman who had given her nothing but good advice and steadfast support.

“I’ll call you this weekend, after you’ve had some time to think,” said Joan.

Noelle didn’t bother to tell her that she’d already done all the thinking she needed to. Her mind was made up. And just to be sure she wasn’t tempted to change her mind when the financial panic truly set in, Noelle pulled her laptop back out from its case and typed the command that would kill every trace of data on her hard drive tied to the project. There was no going back now.

She’d be out of a job come spring, but at least she’d be able to live with herself and that was something no amount of grant money could buy.

Fired or not, Noelle still had a job to do until spring, and she had just settled in for a wild Friday night of grading clumsily executed Calculus I homework when the lights in her tiny rental house went black. With a sigh that came all the way from her toes, she pulled open a drawer that held one of many flashlights in her home. She’d always been told that old houses possessed great amounts of charm and character, but in her experience, they simply possessed noisy plumbing, abundant drafts and faulty wiring. It was the third time this week that she’d blown a fuse in the house’s ancient fuse box.

Making her way to the basement more by memory than sight, Noelle descended the bare wooden stairs. With the speed of much practice, she unscrewed and replaced the same fuse she’d put in just two days ago. Mentally, she made a note to speak to Mr. Hasham about this problem when she paid him next month’s rent.

Even with the new fuse in place, the lights didn’t come on. That had never happened before.

Above her head came the crash of breaking glass, followed by the muted tinkle of brittle shards falling to the hardwood floor.

Noelle jumped, then froze, listening. The sound had come from her back door.

Someone was breaking into her house.

Excerpted from No Regrets , by Shannon K. Butcher . Copyright (c) 2007 by Shannon K. Butcher . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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