Excerpt from Chapter 1
Lieutenant Muldoon, junior, came out of the building dressed in shorts and a chest-hugging T-shirt.
“We’re good to go,” he said to Joan as she fumbled to put her sunglasses back on.”Jenk, Cosmo and Gilligan will meet us over at the obstacle course.”The cargo shorts with slouchy socks and ankle high boots was a look that most of the men she knew back in D.C. wouldn’t have been able to pull off. But it seemed to be one of the basic uniforms here in SEAL Central, and they all–Muldoon especially–made it look like the height of men’s fashion. Brooke was really going to love this visit.”Gilligan?” Joan asked. “Without the Skipper?”
He shook his head and sighed. “You don’t want to know how many times I’ve heard that exact same joke. It’s always the Skipper. No one ever asks about the professor or Ginger.”
“Damn,” she said. “Guilty of being trite. Is there anything worse?”
“Actually, I can think of one or two things.” He said it with a grin, but a strange truth struck her for the first time. This man–with all of his well-toned muscles–had surely spent quite a bit of time over the past months putting himself into jeopardy, hunting down members of Al-Qaeda.
He was wearing an intricate brace on his knee–probably the result of being injured, possibly even shot, in the line of duty. It was a sobering thought.
“Yeah, it couldn’t really be worse than going to Afghanistan, could it?” she asked.
He gazed directly into her eyes, and suddenly looked ten years older and capable of just about anything, despite the dreamboat, beefcake, boytoy packaging. “Is this conversation on the record or off the record?”
All that intensity aimed directly at her made her voice come out sounding a little breathless. A little embarrassingly like Marilyn Monroe. “I’m not a reporter.” Happy Birthday, Mr. President.
Thankfully, he didn’t seem to notice.
“You know what I mean. You’re a PR person,” he said. “You help make news for the White House. But me, I’m not news. Not in any way, shape or form. None of us in Team Sixteen is. Where we’ve been, what we’ve been doing–if you want to know that so you can try to generate a news story, forget it. Let’s talk about the weather instead. But if this is Joan asking Mike, if it’s off the record…”
“It is,” Joan said. Was she being completely honest? She wasn’t sure. She hadn’t had a conversation in years that was completely off the record, that she hadn’t listened to with one ear tuned in to the fact that she might learn something she could later use, to her–and to the president’s–advantage.
“Okay.” Muldoon nodded, seemingly satisfied, but the intensity in his eyes didn’t fade. “Even off the record, I can’t tell you much,” he said. “But I’ll tell you one thing. Being there isn’t even half as hard as not being there. I’m an officer–I understand completely that there are reasons we need to come back to the base, reasons to be rotated out. We need to keep up with our training. Shooting skills deteriorate pretty quickly out in the real world. Which makes sense because we’re a covert unit. Do you follow? We’re not going out there to fire our weapons–we only do that when there’s no other option. So we need to come home–or at least to a secure location–and train to retain the skills we need to be invincible when we are out there.
“But every one of us, Joan, every single man, is sitting here waiting for a chance to go back into action and do what we do best. Which is to protect our country from people who take their my-way-or-the-highway views of religion and politics to such an extreme that they’ll intentionally target and kill innocent civilians. We’re dying to get back out there to protect you and all your family and friends and co-workers–even the obnoxious guy who lives in the apartment upstairs and plays the greatest hits from the disco era at high volume all night long. We want to protect you from the people who proclaim that all Americans, including the tiniest newborn infants, are their sworn enemies and deserving of death.
“They want to kill American civilians? Well, all right. But they’re going to have to go through us–” He actually thumped his chest, “–first.”
It was fascinating. Joan was completely enthralled. It was like realizing that Bambi had a full set of fangs and claws–and the burning desire to go one on one with Godzilla.
And the steely determination to win.
He was standing there, looking at her with all that fire in his eyes, and she wasn’t quite sure what to do, what to say.
“Thank you,” she told him. “That was…important for me to hear. Important for everyone to hear, I think.”
He laughed then as they started walking, transforming back into Muldoon, Junior. Although now that she knew it was back there, it was impossible to look at him and not see a glimmer of Muldoon, SuperSEAL, champion of the innocent.
“No, I will not repeat it at a ceremony during the president’s visit, thank you very much.”
Joan laughed, too. “I didn’t ask that.”
“Yeah, but you were going to. Admit it.”
Muldoon was smiling at her, and she smiled back at him, suddenly aware of how pleasant this was, how pleasant a day it had been. Once she’d coaxed the real Lt. Muldoon into emerging from behind his spit and polish facade, she’d begun enjoying herself thoroughly. He truly was a lovely young man both inside and out, particularly with the sunlight making his golden brown hair glisten.
“So tell me the truth, as long as we’re still off the record,” she said, “is this guy’s name really Gilligan?”
“Nope. Gillman. Petty Officer Dan Gillman. Gilligan’s just a nickname,” he explained. “Nearly everyone’s got one. Mark Jenkins is Jenk, for obvious reasons. Lt. Jacquette is Jazz–the reasons aren’t so obvious, but he’s not the warm and fuzzy kind of XO that you can sit and have a beer with and shoot the breeze, so I’m afraid I can’t explain.”
“What’s yours?” she asked.
“I don’t have one,” he obviously lied. But then he immediately backpedaled. “I mean, yeah. I had a nickname during BUD/S, sure, but it didn’t stick. Thank God.”
“So what was it?”
“Nah, it’s best left buried. Believe me.”
“Oh, come on. I can keep a secret.”
“I’m sure you can. But it took me a long time to live it down, so, sorry, I’m not telling,” he said.
It would take her about five minutes alone with a few of his teammates to find out what Muldoon’s nickname had been. But Joan didn’t tell him that. She just pretended to let it drop.
“Let’s see, other nicknames�” he said. “Sam Starrett–you haven’t met him yet, but you will. His name isn’t really Sam, it’s Roger. Sam has something to do with him being from Texas. I don’t even know what Cosmo Richter’s real first name is. I mean, jeez, maybe it’s Cosmo. He doesn’t like to talk about himself very much.”
He wasn’t the only one. “His name is probably Leslie or Jean,” Joan said. “Something a little too androgynous for a big, bad Navy SEAL.”
“Maybe, but I don’t think so. He doesn’t seem the type to worry much about something as inconsequential as his given name. And no one in their right mind would dare tease him about anything. He could be named Elizabeth, and no one would snicker when he walked into the room. He’s one of those really quiet, really intense guys who just kind of stays in the background until you need someone’s neck broken.” He smiled tightly. “And he’ll even do that without making a sound.”
Yikes. “Gee, I can’t wait to meet them. When you describe them like that… You know, maybe I’ll pass on this part of the tour.”
Muldoon laughed. “Hey, it’s me you have to worry about. I’m in command. No one’s neck gets broken unless I say so.”
“Well, that’s comforting. I think. How old did you say you were?”
“Old enough. Hang on a sec…”
As Joan watched, Muldoon bent over and made an adjustment to the brace he was wearing on his right knee.
Men should definitely wear shorts all the time. In fact, when Joan went back to the hotel tonight, she was going to sign on to the Internet with her laptop and start circulating a petition to bring the kilt back into fashion.
Muldoon’s thighs were actually bigger than hers. Only his were solid. As he straightened up, Joan pretended to be looking at his intricate brace instead of his tanned legs with their springy, sun-bleached hair and powerful muscles.
“Bad knee?” she asked as they started walking again.
“Recent injury,” he told her. “No big deal. It’s fine now. But my doctor is a captain who goes for a run past the obstacle course every day about this time.”
“I take it this means you’re participating in the demonstration.”
Muldoon smiled. “I am. And you are, too.”
Joan laughed. “Yeah, right. In this skirt and heels. Can’t you see me crawling on my elbows through the mud? ‘Don’t wait up, boys–I’m right behind you! I just gotta get my ass untangled from this barbed wire.'”
“That’s not how it’s going to work. I’m going to be right behind you.”
Joan laughed again, but then stopped. Holy shit. The SuperSEAL was serious about this. She stopped walking.
“We won’t do the whole course.” He stopped, too.
“Well, gee,” she said, “why ever not?”
“For one thing, you haven’t had any training, and parts of the course are–”
“That was sarcasm dripping from my voice,” Joan interrupted him. “I don’t do obstacles courses, regardless of what I’m wearing. Yoohoo. Hello! I’m the kid who flunked gym. I sometimes do aerobics and yoga, sure, but that’s nothing like real life–it’s always in a carefully unrealistic, hermetically sealed health club environment, complete with air conditioning. The only time I run is when I’m out of chocolate and the store’s closing in fifteen minutes. If I get within ten yards of that course, I’m going to wind up in the hospital, in traction.”
“I won’t let you get hurt,” he told her quietly but very absolutely.
It was an amazing moment, and Joan let it hang there for several long seconds, just letting herself look at him, experience him, breathe him in. Lieutenant junior grade Michael Muldoon was like a living Norman Rockwell painting–sharp and sweet and patriotic and brave and honest and clean.
And he wouldn’t let her get hurt.
Not ever? she wanted to ask him. Wouldn’t that be nice? He could follow her around for the rest of her life–her own personal Navy SEAL guardian angel, keeping her from harm.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” she heard herself ask instead, and was instantly horrified at herself. What did she care beyond basic curiosity? And how could she have possibly thought to ask that now? It was like meeting Jesus and wondering aloud if he suffered from athlete’s foot. Completely irrelevant and disrespectful to the moment.
“No,” he said.
“That’s too bad.” She tried to look sympathetic, but she had to paste the expression on her face. She wasn’t sure what she was feeling, but sympathy sure as hell wasn’t part of it.
“Yeah, I guess.” He just stood there, gazing at her as if he expected her to say something else.
So she said, “Well.” And she forced a smile. She was about to turn away, to start walking toward the obstacle course again, to shake off the absurd notion that this odd connection she was feeling toward this kid–this little boy–was anything more than the friendship that she’d worked hard to achieve this afternoon, when he cleared his throat.
“Do you have, um, plans for dinner tonight?”
Oh, my God, was he actually asking her out?
Or was he just doing his job and checking to see that she wasn’t at loose ends her first night in town?
“Actually, yes. I’m going to get room service and go to bed early. I’m still on DC time.”
“Oh,” he said. “Great.”
“You know that old jet lag saying: East to west, get some rest. West to east, party beast. The party beasting will have to wait until I get back home.”
Muldoon laughed. “I’ve never heard that one before.”
Yeah, Junior, because you’re so freaking young. Britney Spears was practically his peer. Wasn’t that a frightening thought?
“I’ve been thinking about it,” she told him, “and I’m pretty sure I just want to watch this demonstration. I can do without the firsthand experience.”
“How about we just take you over the cargo net?” he asked.
“That really tall thing with the ropes?” Joan laughed. Dream on, Junior. “Why don’t you just take me to the moon?”
He was quiet for a moment, but then cleared his throat again. “Look. Here’s the deal. You can watch us do this stuff. It’s impressive, it requires us to be in top physical condition, but so what.”
“Yeah,” Joan said. “So what. That’s what I’ve been saying this entire tour whenever you tell me about stuff like BUD/S training’s surf torture and carrying telephone polls around 24/7, and going through Hell Week with only a few hours of sleep. So what if you’ve got to be able to do 42 pushups in two minutes and 50 situps in another two minutes and you’ve got to run one and a half miles in what? Eleven and a half minutes? Wearing your uniform and boots, no less–and that’s just to get into the SEAL program. Never mind what you have to be able to do when you’ve finished the training. Yeah. So what. Right.”
“Wow, you remembered all that? That’s impressive.”
She laughed in complete disgust. “Yes, I’m very clever, thanks. But as for what you can do, well, so what.”
He was laughing, too. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Well, what did you mean? Come on, ‘splain it to me, Junior. I’m listening.”
He stopped smiling, stopped walking. In fact, he moved in front of her, blocking her way, all but blocking the sun. “First, the name is Mike,” he said in a voice that allowed absolutely no argument. “The rank is lieutenant, ma’am. You can call me that, too. But there’s nothing about me–whatsoever–that’s junior, so do not call me that again.”
Whoa. He was actually angry. It was a little bit scary.
“I’m sorry,” Joan said. “Really. I didn’t mean to. It slipped out.”
“Stop thinking about me that way and there’ll be nothing to slip.”
“I am sorry. It’s just you… well, it’s not that you remind me of my little brother, because I never had a little brother. I had–have–an older brother and he’s pretty close to certifiable and you really don’t remind me of him at all.” Great, now she was babbling. “But I always wanted a little brother and I think I’ve always imagined that he’d be a lot like you. Kind of… perfect and sweet, you know?”
Muldoon laughed, turned away, turned back, scratching his head. “Well, that’s great.” He started to say something else, stopped, laughed again in what sounded like disgust.
Note to self. Avoid calling a Navy SEAL sweet. Even if he is.
“So what did you mean when you said so what?” she asked, trying to distract him from the fact that she’d managed to get him both angry and disgusted with her all in the space of a few seconds.
He looked at her, and she couldn’t for the life of her read his expression.
But he finally said, “I meant, so what because of course we can run the O course in record time. We’ve been trained for it. And that’s great, but it’s no longer a big deal when we do it. But, see, at times our job involves going into places that are heavily guarded or hard to get to, and rescuing hostages. We bring those people out and get them to safety. Most of the time the hostages that we rescue are people who haven’t trained on the O course for hours. Some of them don’t ever run unless the store’s closing and they’re out of chocolate.”
Joan nodded. “Point and match awarded to Lt. Muldoon.”
“I want to show you the way a team of SEALs can deal with the additional challenge of an inexperienced, untrained individual.”
Ah. “Like me.”
“Exactly like you,” he agreed.
They were at the obstacle course now, and Joan pointed to the thing he’d referred to as the cargo net–a frame upon which a series of ropes were strung, going both vertically and horizontally, indeed like a giant net. It had to be at least fifty feet high. “And you think you can actually get me up and over that thing. Safely.”
“I don’t just think it. I know we can.”
Joan looked at the rigging, looked back at Muldoon, and laughed. If they could get her over that, they could get Brooke Bryant over it, no problem. And wouldn’t that be a photo op? “Okay, SuperSEAL,” she said. “Let’s see you do it.”