The sound of crying echoed through the house. The place wasn’t even fully furnished yet, and Carlo Santelli had to cringe a little at just how loud Carlo Junior could get, particularly in some of the emptier rooms.
He almost didn’t hear the phone. Part of that was because of Carlo Junior’s wails, part of it was his own deafness in the aftermath of trying to walk the little tyke to quiet again. He’d failed miserably, and Melissa had come and taken the baby, leaving Santelli feeling frustrated and helpless again.
So, he wasn’t in the best frame of mind when he snatched up the phone and answered it without looking at the screen. “What?”
“Rough day, Carlo?” Brannigan asked dryly.
Santelli pressed his lips together and cussed himself silently but thoroughly. He really wasn’t cut out for this family life, and it was taking its toll. Or so he told himself.
“Sorry, sir,” he said. “The baby’s colicky, and he’s being a royal…a handful.”
“You’re even trying to watch your language,” Brannigan said, sounding congratulatory. “You’re truly becoming a family man, Carlo.”
“I’m afraid I’m not doing that great a job at it, sir,” Santelli said.
“Knowing you, you’re doing a lot better than most,” Brannigan said. He paused. “I take it that this is a bad time?”
Santelli glanced toward the other room, where Melissa had disappeared with Carlo Junior. The baby was still crying, but sounded like he was finally starting to quiet down. Maybe he’d just worn himself out. He could hope.
The truth was, he desperately wanted to go on whatever job Brannigan had, even if it was—uncharacteristic for the band of under-the-table mercenaries who called themselves Brannigan’s Blackhearts—just guarding a compound for a couple weeks. He understood that work. He’d been a Marine for twenty-three years, and retired as a Sergeant Major. He was comfortable with it. This…being a husband and a father was turning out to be more than he’d bargained for, especially as his late forties were rapidly approaching.
But at the same time, twenty-three years in the Marine Corps and eighteen years before that with a strict, traditional father had taught him that there was a time and a place for everything, and that a man had responsibilities that he couldn’t duck.
“I’m afraid it really kind of is, sir,” he said, feeling torn. “What’s the job?”
“It’s just recon for now,” Brannigan told him. “It might not need the whole gang.”
“It’s always going to need the whole gang,” Santelli said. “Anything less is asking for trouble.”
“We’ve been asking for trouble for months now,” Brannigan replied. “Take care of your family, Carlo. We’ll get this done. Don’t worry about it.”
“Telling me not to worry about it ain’t gonna work, sir,” Santelli replied, his Boston accent getting slightly thicker. “I can’t just sit back here and play house while you boys are going into the shit.”
“Call Ben Drake, then,” Brannigan told him. “You’re now our liaison with his Old Fogey network. We need to get some of those guys down to New Mexico anyway, and Don and Vinnie can’t stay lurking outside of Sam’s hospital room for this one. Make sure the families are covered. That’s your job for this one.”
Santelli stared at the wall, his throat tight, but finally nodded, though Brannigan couldn’t see him do it. “Roger that, sir,” he finally choked out. Carlo Junior had quieted, and that made it feel even more like a betrayal to be staying back. But the Colonel had spoken, and he couldn’t try to argue without going back on what he’d already said, and his pride wouldn’t stand for that.
“You’re not letting me down, Carlo,” Brannigan said after a moment. Almost as if he can read my mind. He always was good at that. “You’ve got responsibilities at home, too, and I really do need that liaison with Ben’s guys. Take care of the boy, and make sure our guys are covered while we’re gone. I’m counting on you.”
Dammit, sir, you knew that was going to get me right between the eyes. “Roger that, sir,” he managed.
“Say hi to Melissa for me,” Brannigan said. “I’ve got more calls to make.”
Roger Hancock hauled his parachute out of the back of his truck and started toward the house. That was a close one. Better not tell Tammy. Or John, for that matter. Brannigan had gotten on his case about taking too many risks while at home, given that the Colonel had tapped him as the Blackhearts’ Number Two, to take over if something happened to Brannigan. And he’d already had to fill that job once, when Brannigan had been shot up on the Tourmaline-Delta platform, months before.
But dammit, sometimes a man just needed his adrenaline rush. He knew Tammy hadn’t been particularly happy to see him head out the door that morning, but he’d been gone before she could say much. The fact that he’d almost burned in from a serious malfunction that had put him into a flat spin for almost four thousand feet would only give her a solid, “I told you so.” He’d never hear the end of it.
He shoved the hastily repacked ‘chute into its cubby in the garage and headed inside.
As soon as he saw Tammy in the kitchen, leaning against the island with her arms folded and his phone in her hand, he could have sworn the temperature in the house had just dropped ten degrees.
“Where have you been?” she asked.
“I just went out for a quick skydive, hon,” he said. “Needed to get it off my chest.”
“That’s the fifth ‘just going out for a quick thing’ this month,” she said tightly. She held up the phone. “And your old boss just called again.”
“What’d he say?” Hancock asked, already starting to feel his pulse quicken. Another job. Had to be. Finally.
The truth was, as hard as he was trying to regulate himself, especially after Brannigan’s stern words before the Burma mission, if anything, the Blackhearts’ jobs were intensifying his need to get his heart pumping, the adrenaline flowing through his veins. The work they did in the shadows of the world’s conflict zones was more intense than anything he’d done in the Marine Corps, even under Brannigan, and it was making daily life at home even more pale and lifeless by comparison.
And from the look in Tammy’s eyes, she was sensing it, and she wasn’t happy about it.
“Roger, I’ve been as supportive as I can be,” she said. “I didn’t complain when you were out surfing, or racing, or skydiving. I didn’t even complain when John Brannigan dragged you off to war again. I told myself that you just needed to get it out of your system, that you were still in transition.” Hancock suppressed a wince. That had been a transition that had already taken almost four years, and was still nowhere near finished. In fact, if he was being honest with himself, it had flat-out stalled since joining up with Brannigan again.
“But this is getting out of hand.” Her voice was starting to sound choked. Oh, hell, here we go. “I barely see you anymore. Even when you’re here, you’re not here. You care more about your damned adrenaline rush than you do about me! You’re retired, for fuck’s sake! It’s not like we’re hurting for money. This was supposed to be our time. And you’re pissing it away, running after your glory days like you’re an eighteen-year-old grunt again!”
“What do you want me to say, Tammy?” Hancock asked, throwing his hands up. “You knew what I was like when you married me. What was I supposed to say to John Brannigan when he came saying he needed my help? I owe the man damned near everything.” He pointed an accusing finger. “And you didn’t complain much when I went out with him then.”
“Because it was just one time, Roger!” Tammy snapped. She had clearly worked herself up while waiting for him, and he could sense the blowup coming. He wanted to take his phone and get out. Combat he could handle. He didn’t like fighting with his wife, though it seemed to be getting more and more common, over the last few months. “Now you’re gone half the time or more!”
“I can’t just walk away,” he said, trying to keep his tone level and reasonable. What did she want him to do? “I’ve got a commitment to these guys, now. They’re counting on me.”
“You’ve got a commitment to me, Roger!” Tammy all but screamed. “And you made it long before John Brannigan came back into your life!”
Hancock kept his face carefully still. “That’s different,” he said.
“You’re damned right it’s different!” she snapped. “You’re not married to Brannigan, or to any of the rest of them! You didn’t sign a contract, you didn’t swear an oath, you just volunteered when he asked! And you can un-volunteer, Roger! You don’t have to go!”
Yes, I do. But how was he going to explain that to her? She’d never been there, never felt bullets snap past her head with other men who were closer than brothers. She didn’t get it, and now it was threatening his marriage.
But he couldn’t explain it. Not now. Not when she had already confirmed that Brannigan had called again. There was action ahead, and he was already slipping into that mode of thought, even before he knew the details. It was how he was wired. There were preparations to make, training to do, logistics to arrange. Carlo Santelli was probably going to handle most of the logistics, but as the XO, it was going to be Hancock’s responsibility to double-check.
“Look, we can talk this through when I get back, okay?” he said. “You’re right, I’m not married to John or to any of the rest of the boys. You’re still important to me. But you’ve always known that I’ve got to live two lives. Maybe I have been concentrating a little too much on one of them. When this one’s over, we’ll go for a good little vacation, get reacquainted, catch up, and fix this. Okay?” He stepped closer and took the phone. She resisted a little at first, but finally let it slip from her fingers.
“It might be too late for that, Roger,” she said quietly. “If this keeps up, eventually you might come back, and I won’t be here.” She turned her back and left the kitchen.
Hancock stared after her for a moment, but it was too late to try to fix things right then. He looked down at the phone. Brannigan had called, and he was already in that world, already mentally preparing for the next step. He found the listing and hit “Call Back.”
“Breathe in, breathe out, slow steady squeeze,” John Wade told his daughter.
Karen Alquist—his bitch of an ex had refused to allow his daughter to keep his name—lay in the prone on the shooting mat, her eye to the peep sights that he’d installed on the Ruger 10/22 that he’d gotten her for her birthday the year before. It was a good rifle to learn to shoot on, though he had to keep it for the weekends that he got with his daughter. Her mother had thrown a fit the first time he’d taken her shooting, but he didn’t care. He hoped she had an aneurism and died.
The shot broke cleanly, and he squinted through the spotting scope he had set up on a short tripod next to her. He would do some of his own shooting later; right now he was focused on training Karen.
“Just a little low,” he said. “You’re still anticipating.” He looked down at the small blond girl. “Is the recoil really that bad?” He wasn’t asking because he expected her to say it was, and his tone made that abundantly clear.
“No, Daddy,” she said, biting her lip a little.
“See, you know that already,” he said. “You’ve got to make yourself remember it when you squeeze the trigger. The recoil won’t hurt you.” He put his eye back to the spotting scope. “Try it again.”
As much as he hated his ex, John Wade doted on his daughter. Of course, being a retired Ranger, and considered one of the more intense and hardcore of them both before and after he was in, his form of doting was a little different from most people’s. For Wade, doting on his daughter meant making her the meanest, best prepared little hellion he could. He’d had her enrolled in martial arts classes since she had been four. Of course, the ex had screwed that up, too. She never missed an opportunity to disrupt his plans, the more infuriating the better.
Karen got back down behind the rifle’s sights, took a deep breath, and squeezed off another round. The .22 only made a muted pop in comparison to some of the stuff that Wade had in his gun safe, not to mention some of the firepower that the Blackhearts had utilized over the last year or two.
His phone buzzed, but he ignored it for a moment, checking his daughter’s shot impact. “Good hit,” he said. “Still just below center, but you’re in the black. Good shooting, kiddo.”
Only then did he roll to his side and pull his phone out. It was still buzzing, with “John Brannigan” displayed on the screen.
“Wade,” he said by way of reply, bringing the phone to his ear.
“Wade, it’s Brannigan,” the Colonel said. “Got a job. Be at the usual place in twenty-four hours if you’re coming.”
“I’ll be there with bells on, Colonel,” he said. There was no hesitation. It meant cutting his week with his daughter short, but that was the way it had to be. He lived for the fight, and Brannigan had gotten him back into it. “I’ve just got to drop my daughter off with her aunt.” He knew his ex wouldn’t be available. That was the other way she screwed with him.
“I figured you would be,” Brannigan said. “See you tomorrow.”
“Do you have to go to work again, Daddy?” Karen asked, looking up from her rifle.
“Afraid so, kiddo,” he said. Karen pouted a little. “It’s what I do,” he said. “And it’s what pays for ammo for you to shoot. Look at it this way; at least you’re going to be staying with your Aunt Sarah for the rest of the week.”
She didn’t say anything, and she didn’t look at him. She never did, when the friction between him and her mother came up. He didn’t say anything further.
Them’s the breaks, kid. Maybe if your mother hadn’t turned out to be such a psycho bitch, we wouldn’t be in this situation. He knew that Karen heard a lot worse from his ex about him. He generally just let it drop when his daughter got that crestfallen look. He didn’t know why; it wasn’t like he was big on manners in general, or taking the “high road.” He just didn’t do it.
He sighed. “Come on, let’s finish the mag. Then we’ll go.”
She shot well. But it was clear that her heart wasn’t really in it anymore. He almost berated her for it; these were skills that had to be practiced regardless of feelings. But once again, he let it go. She’d learn.
They policed up the brass and headed for the car, Wade’s mind already thousands of miles away.