Seventy-one, seventy-two, seventy-three…
Coen Monroe pushed up, trying like hell to keep pace with the maniac beside him, ignoring the burn in his biceps. Now that the holidays were closing in, someone at the training center had decided to swap out their workout jams with cheery Christmas music.
Cheery didn’t feed his adrenaline. Bass. He needed a lot of bass.
“Grandma got run over by a reindeer…”
He closed his eyes and tried like hell to block out the violent reindeer. The darkness only seemed to amplify the volume.
“How long is your leave?” Reid Steele asked around a hard breath.
Sweat dripped from Coen’s nose onto the mat beneath him. “I head back to base the day after Christmas.”
“Riley coming home?”
His eyes lost focus, burned. “No.”
“You going there?”
There. Virunga Massif. A natural wonder in the heart of Africa, containing three national parks and eight volcanoes. All just a grenade throw away from some of the most vicious fighting and crimes against humanity in the world. Some referred to the civil unrest as the Third World War.
Most knew nothing of the region’s conflict and those who did had no clue how to put an end to it.
But Riley knew all about it, and she’d spent most of the last eighteen months in the thick of it all.
“No.” Behind him, Way Kingston set a pounding pace on his treadmill. Coen increased his rhythm to match Riley’s brother’s running steps.
He drove himself harder, faster. Reached for the next push-up and the next and the next.
One thing was for sure, he’d keel over before allowing a sissy-ass Green Beret to out-push him.
“Something. Going. On?” Reid’s clipped question revealed he was suffering as much as Coen.
“Schedule conflict.” He was grateful their workout prohibited in-depth explanations, because he had none.
He’d known a lengthy separation from Riley would be tough, but he’d underestimated how difficult it would be. It was nothing like leaving a friend or parent or sibling. The love he had for her was bone-deep, aching, almost debilitating in its demand for constant connection. He needed the warmth of her hand in his, the fresh Carolina air weaving through her hair, the soft unbreakable bond of her lips against his.
During the first few months of their separation, he’d been busy reacclimating to military life at Fort Bragg and getting briefed on current, international hot spots. He’d managed to separate his personal life from his professional one—until Riley’s plane set down in the Democratic Republic of Congo four weeks later.
From that point forward, she’d consumed his thoughts. Every day, every hour. Every damned minute.
Was she safe? Happy? Still terrified of failing? How was her research going? Had she made friends?
Were any of them guys?
Was her love for him fading?
Their weekly video chats answered some of his questions. But the others, the ones that could shatter him, remained unasked and unanswered.
“Had enough, Sarge?” Reid panted.
His arms shook and his gut cramped, but he refused to break pace with the man next to him. Refused to consider that Riley could live without him—
He shook his head. Focus, Monroe. Push-ups. “I got ten more in me,” he gritted out. “You?”
Reid lasted for another three before falling into a heap of sweat and exhaustion.
He dug in for seven more before his knees hit the mat. He sat back on his haunches, wondering if his victory would be interrupted by a bout of puking.
A long, low whistle pierced through their harsh breaths.
“Way to kick ass, boys.” Gage Barber shut the door to the small refrigerator in the back of the weight room. “One hundred and forty-five in two minutes is a record for the center.” He tossed a water bottle to Coen. “Delta Force really are badasses.” At Reid’s look of where’s-my-water, Gage shrugged. “Last one.”
“Did you doubt it?” Coen broke the cap seal and handed the bottle to Reid.
“Humble.” Reid dragged himself up onto one elbow and downed half the water before handing it back to Coen. “Thanks.”
“Not me, but your partner there,” Gage nodded toward Reid, “seemed to believe a ten-year-old could beat you.”
Unrepentant, Reid jiggled his eyebrows.
Coen swiped a dribble of water from his chin. “He shouldn’t hold everyone to the same bar as himself.”
“High-school regression again?” A slender hand snaked around Gage’s middle seconds before a dark-haired beauty, sporting black thick-soled boots and leather jacket and a white scarf dotted with tiny, red skulls and crossbones appeared on the former Green Beret’s opposite side.
A slow smile raked across Gage’s all-American face as he angled around to draw Mikala Steele into his arms. He kissed her temple.
“So says the skulls-wearing Goth,” Reid said before lobbing Coen’s empty water bottle at his sister’s head.
Gage caught it in midair, earning him a grateful lick-kiss to the neck.
Reid made a hacking noise in the back of his throat. “Spare me from the public display of neck-licking, would you?”
Micki smirked at her brother.
Coen got to his feet and held out a hand to his friend. “Nice workout, old man.”
Clasping Coen’s hand, Reid rose in one smooth motion. “Next time, I’ll forgo the breakfast burrito.”
Way slowed his full-out run to a jog.
“What brings you here?” Gage asked Micki.
“Mom sent me.”
Reid groaned. Gage leveled a you’re-screwed look on Coen. Micki smiled.
“What?” Coen asked.
“Run while you can,” Reid said.
Unease slithered through his chest. “Spew it.”
“The city is organizing a Christmas potluck,” Micki said. “Mom—and Aunt Sandy—would like all of us to be there.” She patted Gage’s chest in what some women would call a comforting gesture. But with Micki, it had more of a suck-it-up vibe.
“I’ve never known the two of you to turn down a free meal,” Coen said. “What’s the catch?”
“The potluck is bait,” Reid said.
“To get reluctant servicemembers to show,” Micki said.
“Why would they be reluctant?”
“The city wants to honor us.” Gage scrubbed the back of his neck. “All of us. Active and veterans.”
All the muscles in Coen’s back contracted. “Is Grif pushing this?”
Way slowed the treadmill to a walk.
“No,” Reid said. “Though he’s not opposed to it. But he knows how we feel about pomp and shit.”
“I might need to go visit my family in Bryson City a few days early,” Coen said.
“There’s no pomp and shit.” Micki sent her brother a shut-it glare. “We’ll eat. They’ll read your names. Everyone claps. Nighty-night.”
Riley would know how to get him out of this.
If she were here.
But she wasn’t.
Not now and not for the holidays.
No one would ever consider him the sentimental type. Christmas was nice. Who didn’t like presents? But the thought of spending the day without Riley left a heavy weight on his heart.
“Dammit,” he whispered, slicing his fingers through his short-cropped hair.
“Dude,” Gage said in a cautious tone, “if it’s going to make you miserable, we’ll cover for you.”
“Mom and Aunt Sandy will understand,” Micki added in a softer voice.
He scrubbed his face. “I could never disappoint them. They’ve been too good to me, especially Riley’s mom.”
Way climbed off the treadmill and smacked Coen’s shoulder on the way to get a towel. “That’s good, because I wasn’t going to cover your ass.”
Reid rubbed his hands together. “You ladies up for a little obstacle course competition?”
“I’m in,” Way said.
Coen fought an overwhelming desire to be alone. To sink deep into his thoughts and hope, maybe even pray, that Riley would come home. To him.
None of which would make her magically appear, and he was sick of his own company. “Me too.”
“My cue to vacate the premises.” Micki brushed her lips against Gage’s and then directed her next comments to the room at large. “Be gentle with my guy.” She rubbed a palm over her small baby bump. “He might need to spawn more babies.”
Gage ran a possessive hand over her stomach. “Let’s make sure we don’t break this one first.” He kissed her temple before stepping away. “I’ll get the clipboard.”
Reid and Way strode toward the rear exit.
As he bent to lift his hand towel from a nearby bench, Coen’s sixth sense twitched. He glanced up to find Micki standing a few feet away, one hip cocked, arms crossed, assessing him like a sniper observing her target through a high-powered scope.
“Have you heard from Riley?” she asked.
He nodded, rubbing the towel over his sweaty face.
“How’s she doing?”
“Good.” Too good.
“Got the long-distance jitters?”
Like her brother, Jonah, Micki was a tech genius and had an annoying habit of speaking her mind. She’d spent years hacking and fighting her way through life. On her own. Away from her family. She knew what it was like to be homesick, to miss those she loved.
She’d done it for ten years.
Ten. Damn. Years.
“Look,” he said, “I know eighteen months doesn’t seem like much to you—”
“You know, do you?”
“I can imagine.”
“The first year was the worst. After the initial adrenaline rush wears off, your quiet moments are filled with thoughts of home.”
“And after the first year?”
“You start getting used to being alone.”
“I don’t want her to get used to it.”
“You, of all people, should have known how this would play out.”
“What do you mean?” he hedged.
“You don’t need me to spell it out.” She met his hard stare with a steady, unflinching one of her own.
It was no secret that military life was hard on relationships. Doubly so for Delta Force operators whose assignments could keep them away from loved ones for days, weeks, even months at a time. Many of his teammates’ girlfriends or wives couldn’t live the life, for many reasons—loneliness, lack of trust, or making constant mindset adjustments from being the sole decision-maker to sharing the load, or in some cases, deferring them altogether.
“Observing and participating are two different things.”
“Riley’s your first serious relationship since you enlisted?”
He pushed out a painful breath. “Yes.”
He said nothing.
“She’ll stay faithful to you.”
“That’s not what this is about.” Not entirely.
“Then what, besides missing her, has you so moody?”
“I’m not moody.”
“Um, yeah, you are.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Would you prefer crabby? Irritable? Depressed?”
“She’s not coming home for Christmas,” he snapped out. “She was. Now she’s not.”
“Ah. What happened?”
“She needs someone to stay at the research center to catalog their recent finds and doesn’t have the heart to force a member of her team to give up time with their family.”
“My little cousin’s staying behind.”
“It’s what a leader does.”
“Can you not go to her?”
“I don’t have enough leave time.”
“Surely your commander, or whoever, would make an exception.”
“That’s not how the military works.”
“I’m sorry, Coen,” she said with a tender note he’d never heard in her voice before.
“Yeah.” He rolled his neck, cracking out the tightness. “Me too.” He stared down the hall to where the guys had disappeared, unable to take a step in their direction.
“Want me to make your excuses?”
“Would you mind?”
“No, but guy-time might be what you need to take your mind off things.”
“You’re probably right, but…” His thoughts trailed off, not able to come up with a reasonable explanation.
“Go,” she ordered in a quiet but firm voice.
“Thanks.” He headed for the exit, then halted and turned back to the hacker. “Gage is a lucky man.”
“Something I remind him of every day—and night.”
A chuckle escaped his chest. But by the time he stepped outside, his fleeting bit of good humor had fled.
How would he get through Christmas without Riley?