Loving a Warrior Series, Book 2
Carina Press (April 29, 2019)
Contemporary Romance, Military Romance
Sometimes the only hope for the walking wounded is in each other’s arms.
Devon Lowe is a survivor.
A survivor of war. Of combat. And of a betrayal by men she considered her brothers-in-arms. But her trailblazing work as a Cultural Support Team member working alongside the navy SEALs is too important for her to back down now.
Fresh off a painful breakup, air force pararescueman Rhys Halloran recognizes Devon’s trauma for what it is—something that’s left her isolated but far from irreparably damaged.
With Devon’s trust still lying shattered back in Afghanistan, putting her faith in a man who’s nursing a broken heart isn’t easy. But she’s tired of people making her feel weak, and Rhys makes her feel anything but, sparking a heated attraction that was never part of the plan.
With all eyes on Devon to prove herself in a brutal man’s world, having it all will mean putting her heart on the line like never before. But when it comes to Rhys, it’s an uphill battle she’s ready to fight.
Publisher’s Note: Keeping a Warrior deals with topics some readers may find difficult, including past sexual assault.
One-click with confidence. This title is part of the Carina Press Romance Promise: all the romance you’re looking for with an HEA/HFN. It’s a promise!
Read an Excerpt
Four years later
“Have a great day, ma’am.”
The young master-at-arms handed Devon’s ID card back to her and snapped off a salute. She returned it crisply before navigating through the gate and onto the base. As she drove, she breathed in the briny scent of the ocean that drifted through her open windows.
Ah, San Diego.
Despite the beauty and warmth of the day, Devon was cold. She gripped the steering wheel with icy fingers, a combination of nervousness and dread roiling through her. Not for the first time, she was tempted to turn the rental car around and head back to the airport.
A few years in prison for desertion might be worth it.
With a ragged sigh, she pulled into a parking space in front of a gleaming glass and dun-colored building. She sat for a moment gazing up at it, tracing her eyes along the huge letters that hung over the entrance: AO2 (SEAL) Marc A. Lee Training Center. Her new home.
Summoning every ounce of willpower she had, Devon got out of the car. She adjusted her cover smartly over her hair, which was pulled back in a smooth bun, and tugged the bottom of her uniform blouse into place so it lay perfectly along her hips. Her trousers were freshly creased, her black shoes polished to a high gloss.
You’re ready. One foot in front of the other, girl.
At the entrance to the building, she stopped short of opening the glass door and closed her eyes.
You can do this. It’ll be different this time.
“Excuse me, ma’am.”
With a start, Devon stepped hastily out of the way. “I’m so sorry.”
“No worries, ma’am.” The man behind her saluted as she turned around. “May I be of assistance?” He was about her height, dark hair and eyes, lean and hard in his white Navy “crackerjack” uniform.
Devon’s eyes lit on the Trident pinned over his left breast. “I’m, uh, looking for the Team Three quarterdeck.”
The man nodded. “That’s actually where I’m headed, too, ma’am, if you’d like to follow me.”
“I would. Thank you.”
Once inside, they removed their covers and made their way across the lobby toward the reception desk, the heels of their shoes clicking loudly on the linoleum. A young man in blue service utilities stood as they approached.
The SEAL hung back to let her go first.
“Warrant Officer One Devon A. Lowe here to see Lieutenant Bradley.”
“I’m here to see Lieutenant Bradley, as well. AO2 Matthew G. Knytych.”
The guy at the counter consulted a clipboard, then picked up the phone and muttered into it. Devon and the SEAL waited silently through several long minutes, until at last a man wearing the collar device of a Navy lieutenant pushed through a set of double doors and beckoned to them.
“Whenever you enter and exit my quarterdeck, new guy,” he barked to Knytych, “you give me twenty.” The lieutenant pointed to a pull-up bar mounted in the doorway. Without a word, Knytych set his Dixie cup cover down on the counter, leapt up to grab the bar and hammered out a perfect set.
When he dropped lightly back to his feet, the lieutenant started to wave them in.
Before anyone could move, Devon tossed her cover onto the desk, wiped her sweaty palms on her pants and jumped for the bar, praying the seams in her tailored uniform wouldn’t split. Slowly, deliberately, she did pull-up after pull-up until she’d reached twenty-one.
One extra for a fuck-you.
All three men’s faces were slack with surprise. Devon let go of the bar.
“I don’t want any special treatment, Lieutenant,” she said coolly. “I’m a new guy, too.”
Bradley’s eyes held hers for a moment, and then his lips quirked. “Noted, Ms. Lowe.” He stood to the side to let them enter. “Welcome to Delta platoon.”
* * *
“Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow!”
Rhys Halloran was in some serious pain. Gripping his throbbing foot in one hand, he hopped up and down, teeth clenched.
Christ, that goddamn dresser was going to be the death of him yet.
Collapsing down on the side of the bed, he let out a piteous groan, then froze. Had he woken…?
Sure enough, sheets rustled behind him and a sleepy voice asked, “What time is it?”
Rhys struggled to bring the glowing red numbers of his bedside clock into focus. “Um, six thirty.” He groaned again. “God, how can a pinkie toe hurt so bad?”
“Stubbed it again, huh?” The mattress dipped and a cool hand brushed his back. “I’m sorry.”
“You should be,” he grumbled. “You bought the damn thing.” Despite the pain in his foot, the light touch galvanized Rhys into action. “Shit, we need to get moving. You want to shower first or should I?”
“You go ahead. I’ll make the coffee.”
Lurching to his feet, he hobbled to the bathroom, making sure to glare at the offending dresser as he passed it. Such a stupid, heavy thing that he hadn’t even wanted.
The least Lani could’ve done was taken it with her when she moved out.
Well, why should she? Apparently she can come over and visit it anytime she wants.
In the shower, Rhys slumped against the tile wall and let the self-recrimination rain down on him along with the water. This was the third time in as many weeks. Why couldn’t he just say no?
Because you miss her. And for some reason we’re-not-together-anymore sex is a lot better than the regular kind.
Rhys scrubbed his hair roughly with the shampoo as he mulled that over. It was true. There was something about it, a “we’re not supposed to be doing this” vibe that really appealed to him. He sighed.
Hooking up with your ex really defeats the purpose of her being an “ex,” though, doesn’t it, idiot? We’re supposed to be taking a break from each other.
Easier said than done, as they were both finding out.
When Rhys finally emerged, feeling somewhat human again, the rumpled bed was empty. Pulling on a pair of cargo pants and a gray Air Force T-shirt, he padded to the kitchen.
The scene that greeted him there was achingly familiar, just like any other Saturday morning. The mouthwatering smell of freshly ground French roast coffee. The sight of a cheerful yellow M&M’s mug and his favorite Yoda mug waiting next to the carton of sweet Italian cream.
Except the woman now sitting at the table had handed him his ring back, packed a bag and hurried out of his life a little over a month ago. It’d been a mutual decision—in theory.
“Guess we gotta quit meeting like this, huh?” Lani’s voice was quiet, rueful. “Should we blame it on the wine?” She waved her hand toward the empty bottle in the sink, bound for the recycle bin.
“Ah, babe.” Rhys leaned down to kiss the top of her head before pouring them each a steaming mug—a dollop of cream for him, an avalanche for her. What could they blame it on? Habit? Familiarity? Sheer stubbornness?
Rhys snorted to himself. How about all three?
After all, they’d been together almost their entire lives. Nearly every memory Rhys had included Lani in some form or another. She’d been his childhood playmate, his best friend. His family.
He studied her as she sipped her coffee, her eyes glued to the phone on the table in front of her, the awkwardness between them hanging almost tangibly in the air.
We don’t have anything in common anymore, do we? And I’m not sure we ever did.
As if reading his thoughts, Lani heaved an unhappy sigh. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come over.”
Rhys knew why she had. The anniversary of her brother Tyler’s death was approaching, a time of year that brought Lani’s soul-deep pain roaring to the surface and catapulting her back to that day when a fourteen-year-old girl’s life had changed forever. A girl who’d suddenly needed Rhys more than he’d been equipped to cope with, but because he loved her, he’d tried. For ten years now, he’d tried.
His heart aching, Rhys extended his hand across the table, and when she laid her fingers across his he gave them a squeeze. “You know I’ll always be here for you, Lee-Lee, but it’s these drive-by booty calls. They’re starting to hurt too much.”
It wasn’t just her fault. His face burned when Rhys thought of the daily texts he’d been sending her, with the rationale that “ex-fiancée” didn’t have to mean ex-friend.
Except maybe it did—maybe it had to, since it seemed they were both stuck in a rut neither one of them could get out of.
Rhys remained slumped in his seat as she got up and poured her mostly untouched coffee down the drain. “I’m gonna go.”
“You should probably take that with you.” He lifted his chin toward the M&M’s mug, digging his nails into his palms at the look of sadness that flitted across her face. She’d left it at his apartment on purpose, he knew—a piece of herself, a reminder of happier times.
Now it was just another way they were each keeping one foot in the past.
Grabbing her purse, Lani stuffed the mug inside, then smoothed her hands down the front of her wrinkled black dress.
“Time for the walk of shame, huh?” Her voice was husky with unshed tears.
Rhys’s throat tightened in response. “I’m leaving on that month-long training trip tonight, so I promise not to text you while we’re gone. Okay? Let’s do the giving-each-other-space thing for real this time.”
Since that’s what we agreed to. Not this half-assed shit.
“Okay.” Another beat of awkward silence before Lani leaned down to kiss him on the cheek. “Bye.”
Then she was gone.
With a groan, Rhys dropped his head onto his folded arms, until the sound of his phone buzzing broke into his misery. He flopped his hand out and pulled it to him, answering with a grunted, “What?”
“It happened again, didn’t it?”
“Aaron, don’t bust my balls—”
“Someone’s got to. Is she gone?”
“Just now. Is she on the phone with Sarah?”
“Yep. Right on cue.”
“Oh, God.” Rhys groaned again. “I’m sorry, man. We never meant to put you guys in the middle.”
“Don’t be sorry, just get a clue.” In spite of the harsh words, Aaron’s tone was gentle. “You’re not one of Lani’s girlfriends. You’re not her confidante. You’re now her ex. And we hate seeing the two of you hurting like this.”
Rhys pinched the bridge of his nose, his eyes burning along with the throb in his foot. “What am I supposed to do? It’s that time of year again—” He broke off. “Of course she’s going to come to me.”
“Ah, man. I get it. You two have been through a lot together.” Aaron paused. “But sex isn’t therapy, and if you keep doing this, you’re always gonna be stuck in the past.”
“You’re right.” Rhys cleared his throat. And with me around, the past is always right there in front of her, which is why we both agreed we needed a change.
“I wouldn’t be a friend if I didn’t say something,” Aaron said softly. “You guys wanted to get out there and experience life, man. So do it. If you and Lani are meant to be, you will be.”
Rhys couldn’t help scoffing at the platitude, but Aaron was unfazed. “Fuck you, a cliché becomes a cliché for a reason. Hear what I’m sayin’?”
“Yeah, I hear you.” Straightening from his slouch, Rhys took a long, deliberate sip of his lukewarm coffee. “And we just agreed not to talk at all during this month I’ll be gone.”
“Good. You’ll be busy and she’ll be fine. She has Sarah, plenty of support.” Aaron yawned so big Rhys could hear his jaw crack. “Speaking of work, how’s it going?”
“Great. Platoon’s down a few dudes, though. Two got picked up for sniper training, another dumbass popped positive.”
Aaron caught his breath. “Weed?”
With a whistle, Aaron said, “Flushing your damn career down the toilet for a cheap high. Well, that sucks. You guys’re next in the hopper for deployment, right? Sounds like you might need a few straphangers.”
“Yeah, keep your ears open. I’d love the chance to work with you.”
“Sarah will kill me, but you know I’ll be putting my name out there. My platoon’s having some of the same issues, sorry to say. There are lots of rumors floating around.”
Rhys winced, wondering where the hell this sudden explosion of drug use in the SEAL community had come from. Was it the slowdown in combat operations that left some hard-charging guys looking for a different kind of high after years of constant war?
Whatever the reason, it was sad.
Talk about ending your career on a low note.
“Well, if I hear anything on my end, I’ll put in a good word for you, man.”
They said their goodbyes, and then Rhys stripped the bed before checking that all the lights were off, the appliances unplugged. His bags were already packed, ready and waiting by the door.
Before he determinedly powered his phone off and stuck it in his pocket, he sent one last text to Aaron.
Thanks for the tough love, I guess.
You’re welcome. Catch ya on the flip side.
It was a short drive from Rhys’s apartment in Imperial Beach to the SEAL training detachment headquarters on the nearby amphibious base. He parked on the outer edge of the huge lot, not far from where some hapless BUD/S students were jogging along the road on their way to chow, inflatable boats held high above their heads. Although it was only seven a.m., they were already soaking wet and covered head to toe in sand and grit.
Turning away from the students’ misery, Rhys gazed up at the building for a moment, unable to deny the trepidation quivering in his gut. When he’d announced the end of his engagement, every asshole he worked with offered an opinion, which Rhys had managed to listen to more or less politely until someone said, “Eh, go fuck someone else, dude. She probably is.”
The ensuing brawl had trashed both the bar and a few noses. Of course, seeing other people was the whole goddamn point, but that didn’t mean Rhys needed to hear drunken relationship advice from some idiot who had a wife and a secret girlfriend on the side.
After the troop chief had bailed the entire platoon out of jail, he told-slash-ordered Rhys to take some leave in order to get his shit together. Wisely, Rhys hadn’t argued, but now it was time to go back.
Despite everything, a frisson of excitement zinged through him. His personal life might be in tatters, but his professional one was really starting to heat up. Oh, yeah. But first, damage control. He’d busted some chops and the team guys would be looking for revenge.
Rhys buzzed in through the entrance at the back of the building and made his way up to the second deck where his platoon had their space. He pushed inside the door, bracing for whatever came next. SEALs weren’t exactly hug-it-out, forgive-and-forget kinds of dudes. In the next few seconds, he could very well find himself crammed in a janitor’s closet somewhere with his hands and feet duct taped together.
But instead of violence, he was greeted with apathy and glum faces.
“What’s up?” he asked cautiously. “The training trip been canceled?”
Someone grunted. “Nah, man. Worse.”
Worse? This training trip was an important component of their deployment workup. Without it, they wouldn’t get their certification to go downrange. What could be worse than it being canceled?
Nobody would elaborate, so Rhys sighed and went to the small fridge to grab a Rip-It energy drink. He propped his butt against the counter as he sipped it, studying them and waiting them out. It was a motley group currently sprawled about on the ragged chairs and couches, these men of SEAL Team Three, Task Unit Rebel, Delta platoon.
There was a former lawyer, two former cops, a couple guys not long out of high school—just a bunch of dudes from varying backgrounds with differing beliefs and outlooks, all of whom had been forged in the fires of BUD/S to come together as one cohesive unit.
Then there was Rhys. A team augmentee, or enabler, he was Air Force special ops—or Chair Force, as Smudge liked to rib—not Navy. As a pararescueman, his specialty was tactical medicine, his duty to handle any battlefield casualties, which would allow the more highly trained SEALs to keep their guns in the fight.
Since team guys always wanted to keep the “Doc” happy, he hadn’t been subjected to a whole lot of hazing, which he sort of regretted. Although brutal at times, new guy hazing was a time-honored and traditional form of team building, and Rhys couldn’t help but feel a sense of disconnect from the tight-knit camaraderie the rest of the guys enjoyed.
His little tantrum over Lani hadn’t helped, either.
Rhys crumpled the Rip-It can in his fist and tossed it into the recycling bin, wishing the guys would tell him what was going on.
Finally Smudge grunted, “Today marks the end of the world as we know it, boys.”
Answering grunts from around the room, but still no one said anything. Rhys grit his teeth, his patience with the cryptic looks and statements at an end.
“Someone tell me what the fuck is going on,” he snapped. “Now.”
Even that gauntlet tossed into the middle of a room full of alpha males didn’t get a response. At last Mullet—a redneck from Kentucky, so nicknamed because of his love for ’80s music—squinted in his direction.
“Just found out we’re gettin’ a female,” he growled in his thick Southern drawl.
Rhys stared at him, at a total loss. “What? What do you mean?”
“A female enabler.”
Rhys still couldn’t figure out what the problem was. There were plenty of women attached to the SEAL teams in support roles, serving as cryptotechs or in admin. They deployed with the teams, served with them. Maybe they weren’t assaulters or had boots on the ground during missions, but women were an integral and much-needed part of any task unit.
Mullet’s squint turned into a glare, and Rhys raised his hands. “I’m not trying to be an asshole. There are women everywhere in this building. What’s the problem?”
“The problem is she’s gonna be assaulting with us, numbnuts. She’s not in admin.”
An assaulter? Rhys was totally bewildered. Although ground combat units, including special operations, had officially opened to women, none had made it through the SEAL training pipeline, as far as he knew. Not yet.
The only woman he’d ever known of enabling a direct-action mission had been—
It hit him. “A CST? You’re getting an Army CST?” Nods around the room, and Rhys laughed in relief. “Guys, that’s a good thing. I worked with a CST on my first deployment as a PJ, which was what, four years ago? She was amazing, managed to gather intel about a cave complex that ended up shutting down a major explosives corridor.”
A few of the guys perked up at that. “You worked with a CST? Was she squared away?”
“Totally,” Rhys assured them. “Professional, fit. She had no problem keeping up with us on patrol.”
He’d never forget how she’d carried that injured interpreter on her back. The sheer determination on her face, the guts…
“Yeah?” Mullet crossed his arms over his barrel chest. “Well, this one we’re getting is, uh, problematic.”
“In what way?”
Before anyone could answer, the door opened to admit Lieutenant Bradley. “Gentlemen.”
None of the guys jumped to their feet or saluted, just sort of waved their hands at him. “Hey, El-Tee.”
“Meet the newest members of our platoon.” The lieutenant stood back to beckon two people into the room. “AO2 Knytych, and Ms. Lowe.”
A pin dropping at that moment would’ve sounded like a mortar shell exploding. Rhys’s gaze zeroed in on the woman in tailored Army blues who stood inside the doorway at ramrod attention, her face blank. His mouth went slack with shock. It was her; the CST from Afghanistan who’d made such a big impression on him.
Rhys watched as she scanned the room. When her gaze reached him, he could almost hear her gasp.
Oh, yeah, she remembered him, too.
* * *