Excerpt: Renegade

Excerpt: Renegade

Book 3: Special Tactical Units Division


It was a perfect California evening.

The sun had set a couple of hours ago and now a big ivory moon hung over the Pacific ocean.

Declan Sanchez’s cottage was right on the beach. The cottage was pleasant and efficient during the day. At night, it could become the ideal bachelor pad, a perfect setting for a guy who could have beautiful women in his bed 24/7 if that was what he wanted.

Turn the lights down low. Open the French doors to the salt-scented breeze and the whisper of the surf. Have a bottle of rich-tasting merlot or a crisp pinot grigio ready to pour. Play something sexy and soft on the audio system.

Tonight, the wine was merlot. The music was by Coldplay. The scene was just right. So was the blonde in the living room. She had long legs, great curves, a spectacular face, and she’d made it crystal clear that she was eager to climb into Dec’s bed.

In other words, everything was a go.

Everything but Dec, who stood in front of his bathroom sink, staring at himself in the mirror.

What the fuck was he doing? Not what he was supposed to be doing, that was for sure.

And that was crazy.

He was into hot sex with hot women. Had been, ever since he’d turned sixteen. He was thirty-one now and his feelings about sex and women had not changed.

Plus, women liked him. A lot.

There was nothing immodest in admitting it.

Dec was tall. Lean. Tightly muscled. His hair was brown, though women insisted on describing it as chestnut shot through with gold. His eyes were so dark they were almost black. It was an unusual combination, courtesy of a born-in-the-USA mother and a born-in-Colombia father. He had a square jaw and a nose that was—what had one woman called it? Assertive. That was the word. What it meant was that he’d broken it once, taking down a Taliban fighter in Iraq, and it had healed with a little bump below the bridge. It was a nice accompaniment to the scar that laced through one eyebrow, a souvenir of an equally stimulating encounter in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Being a STUD was an interesting job.

Dec knew he looked big and tough and, in the proper setting, intimidating. Hell, he was big and tough. And intimidating. He was supposed to be all those things. Walk into a bar, get dropped behind or even into an enemy encampment—he could handle anything that was waiting for him.

Dec groaned.

Anything but the blonde in the next room.


Maybe he could rearrange the expression on his face. How about a smile? An arched eyebrow? Head tilted at an inquisitive angle?


He still looked as if he was waiting for a root canal instead of waiting to climb into bed with a hot, built-like-a-brick-shithouse babe who’d spent an hour on the dance floor doing everything but reaching into his pants.

Now it was time for more than that.

And he wasn’t interested in delivering.

Jesus H. Christ, Sanchez, are you crazy?

He had to be.

Okay. Forget re-arranging his face. How about thinking positive thoughts? Meaningful thoughts.

Like, the blonde, naked.

Not just naked.

Naked and in his bed.

Naked, with her hair spread over the pillow, her arms reaching for him, her thighs wide apart…


Dec jumped. She was right outside the door.

“Dec?” A light tap at the door. “You okay?”

“Yes. Fine.” Dec cleared his throat. “I’ll be out in a minute.” Crap. Wasn’t that a woman’s line? “I mean, I just need another couple of seconds…” Man, this was going from bad to worse.

“How about if I wait in your bedroom?”

“No!” Shit. He’d damn near barked the word. A STUD instructor trying to terrify a class of newbies couldn’t have done better. “Uh, I was thinking…It’s a beautiful night. How about waiting for me out on the patio?”

“Well, sure. If that’s what you want.”

What he wanted was to open this door and find himself alone. Turn back time, erase having been at the Landing Zone. Or at least erase responding to her when she’d come over and asked him to dance, erase having been stupid enough to follow her onto the packed dance floor…


The blonde was getting impatient. He couldn’t blame her. A guy takes a woman home with him, then vanishes into the john…

“Coming,” he said—and winced.

Bad choice of words. Coming was the last thing that would happen tonight. Yes, he needed sex. No, not with this woman. Not with any woman except for the one woman he’d never had sex with and would never see again and, goddammit, was that fucked up or was it fucked up?


Okay. This was not the time for gazing into his navel, it was the time for a diversion, something to save his ass, fast. Think, Sanchez. Think…

And just that quickly, he had the solution to the problem.

Dec flushed the toilet that didn’t need flushing. Anything for a way to cover the sound of a phone call. He got his iPhone out of the pocket of his jeans, hit a button and muttered “Come on, come on, come on,” while the number he’d called rang and rang and…


Finally. The voice he needed was in his ear. Dec expelled a huge breath. “Romano.”

“What’s doin’, dude? You only left here half an hour ago.” Nick Romano chuckled. “You inviting me over to share?”

Crap. The toilet had stopped flushing. No sound cover. Dec turned on the water in the sink.

“Call me,” he hissed.


“I said…”

“Dude, between you whispering and AC-DC going full blast here, I can’t hear a thing you’re sayin’.”

Dec stepped into the stall shower and slid the door closed.

“I said, call me.”

“Call you what?”

“Jesus, Romano, this is no time for games. Call me. Wait a couple of minutes and then call.”

“You want me to phone you.”


Nick gave a low, wicked laugh. “The blonde needs to hear the phone ring to get off?”

“Dammit, this isn’t funny. Give it two minutes. Then call. You got that?”

“Got it. And you owe me a full explanation. Details, from start to finish. Deal?”

“Deal,” Dec said through his teeth, and disconnected.

Carefully, wincing at the slight sound the glass door made as he slid it open, he stepped from the shower stall, turned off the water in the sink and looked in the mirror. His short-cropped was curling at the ends, thanks to the humidity the running water had created. Dec grabbed a hand towel from the rack and rubbed it over his face and head, then checked his reflection again. He looked okay. Not sweaty, even though sweaty was how he felt.

What he did look was grim.

His mouth was a thin, tight line. The scar that slashed through his eyebrow stood out in stark relief.

“Did you get that killing somebody?” Blondie had asked breathlessly, once they were alone.

Dec ground his teeth together.

He should have turned her around right then and marched her outside. He hated women who asked crap like that. Plus, by then he’d already been asking himself what the hell he was doing, picking up a woman, bringing her home, when he had every reason to know it would not go well because he’d already been there, done that before in the last few weeks. Twice. Okay. Three times, if you were keeping count, and…

And, when was Romano going to…

The opening chords of Born in the USA. blasted out of his iPhone. Dec pumped his fist in the air, put what he hoped was a neutral look on his face, stepped out of the bathroom and walked briskly to the open French doors. Once he was on the patio, he accepted the call and said a brisk “Sanchez here.”

“Okay,” Romano replied. “It’s me. What now?”

The blonde was sitting on one of the chaise longues. Her skirt was hiked to the tops of her thighs, her short cropped top had somehow grown even shorter. Her legs were crossed and a spike-heel sandal dangled from the scarlet-painted toes of one foot.

Dec looked at her and raised his eyebrows. One second, he mouthed, and then he said a brisk “Yessir” into the phone. “Yessir, my ass,” Romano growled. “What’s the deal?”

“Yessir. I understand.”

“Aha,” Romano said. “The blonde isn’t to your liking after all. Is that it?”

“That is correct. Sir.”

“In that case, why not tell her you just won an all-expenses-paid trip to the Land of A Thousand Scorpions.”

“Tonight, sir?”

“Deluxe accommodations at the SandSquat Hilton.”

“Yessir. I hear you.”

“Your trip includes all the activities the SandSquat Hilton offers. Rat races. Camel spider derbies. Various hunting options with your choice of weapons, everything from the handy-dandy Colt M4A1 assault rifle to, if you prefer, the ever popular HK MP7.”

Dec felt his lips twitch.

Blondie’s eyebrows rose.

He swung away from her. “That’s very interesting sir.”

“So let me know when you’ve heard enough, my man, because a bunch of us have a bet goin’ here at the LZ about what the fuck is going on.”

“Right now, sir? Because if it can wait just an hour or so…”

“Some of us figure Blondie’s decided not to come across.”

“That would be impossible, sir,” Dec said.

Nick snorted. “You have an attitude problem, Sanchez.”

“No sir. I am simply being truthful.”

“Truthful, huh? Well, the majority says you’re using me to lose Blondie. So be truthful, dude. Is that what’s going down?”

What the hell. Romano would figure out the truth soon enough. “That would be an affirmative, sir.”

Romano sighed. “Man, you are whacko.”

“You’re probably right, sir. But that’s how it is.”

“Mooning like a schoolboy over some babe…”

“Ten minutes, Captain,” Dec said, his voice going flat and cold. “I’ll see you then.”

He ended the call and looked at the blonde.

She was sitting straight up. Her tiny skirt had inched even higher. An open bottle of ale was on the small table beside her. Apparently, she’d helped herself to it while he was hiding in the bathroom. Eyes on his, she tilted her head back, tilted the bottle up, and encircled the head of it with her lips.

Dec’s cock rose in instant salute. It was reassuring to know his body parts were still working. For a couple of seconds he even reconsidered his plans.

The blonde was good looking. Better than good. Big blue eyes. Long platinum hair. Tits any man in his right mind would want to taste and touch…

A face swam into his mind.

Hazel eyes. A straight fall of lush brown hair shot through with gold. A delicate mouth, breasts he had only once tasted and barely touched except in endless dreams…

“What’s happening, baby?” the blonde said.

Dec cleared his throat. “That was my commanding officer.”


“And, I’m afraid it’s bad news.”

Blondie’s eyes narrowed. “Meaning?”

“Meaning, we’re gonna have to cancel the rest of the evening. I’m really sorry, but—”

“The hell you are!”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

The blonde slammed the bottle of ale on the table and shot to her feet. “My girlfriends warned me about you.”

Dec stared at her. “They what?”

“Hot-looking, they said. Nice line of BS, they said.” She strode towards him. “Dances good, they said. Rub up against him on the dance floor, he’ll get hard as a rock.”

Jesus. Dec could feel his face start to burn.

“Listen, Susy—”

“It’s Lucy,” she snapped. “And what I should have done was listen to my friends. He’ll take you someplace, they said, your motel room or maybe his place on the beach—and just before things start to happen, he’ll come up with an excuse. A sick pal. An appointment he forgot.” She paused. “A call from his CO.”

Shit. Had he done the call thing before? Yeah. He had. That time, he’d sneaked out on the patio and phoned Chay Olivieri.

“Susy. I mean, Lucy. I’m sorry. I just—”

She swept past him. He went after her.

“I’ll drive you home.”

“I followed you here in my car, remember?”

Of course she had. What now? What more could he say or do? He’d treated her badly. Hell, he’d treated a lot of women badly lately. It hadn’t been deliberate. It was just that he couldn’t fuck any of them when Annie was in his head.

And she was there, all the time.

The blonde yanked open the front door and strode across the porch to the steps.


She spun towards him. “What?”

“I need you to know…” Dec swallowed hard. “The thing is, it isn’t you. It’s me.”

She laughed. Laughed! He knew his face must have gone even redder.

“That line’s so old it has whiskers, Lieutenant. Why not try for the truth? You just can’t get it up when it’s time for action.”

“No! It isn’t that. I mean—”

Too late. She was inside her car, foot to the pedal, burning rubber as she made a U-turn and headed for the road.


She hadn’t waited to hear him out…But what would he have said? I can get a hard-on okay. I just can’t imagine following through with you.

Oh yeah. That would have been perfect. Just what a woman wanted to hear. Something to cap off the evening.

Man, he was a mess.

Dec sank down on the top porch step, leaned back on his elbows and stretched out his long legs.

The quiet of the night enveloped him.

He loved it here. Not so much the cottage, though it was handsome. What he loved was the endless beach. The infinite sea. Damn if he didn’t sound like some half-baked poet, but it was the truth. He’d grown up in New Mexico. On a patch of land in the middle of nowhere. Desert. Scrub. And, in the distance, jagged mountain peaks against a pure blue sky.

It had been a long journey from that part of his life to where he was today.

He got to his feet and began walking, kicking the gravel as he made his way slowly across the parking lot.

He’d made an ass of himself with the blonde.

But he’d been a bigger fool with Annie Stanton.

Annie, studying for her Master’s in Computer Engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Or so she’d claimed.

Annie, of the soft voice and topaz eyes. Annie, whose taste he would never forget. Annie, who he had never, not even once, made love to.

Forget making love.

What he’d never done was fuck her. A man didn’t make love to a scheming, lying, cock-teaser. He fucked her—except, gullible idiot that he was, he’d never fucked her.

They’d come close.

His hands under her T-shirt. Her breasts, small and perfect against his palms. Her nipples, sweet as honey, against his tongue…


He was hard as a rock and, goddammit, not in the mood to jerk himself off like some pathetic teenager. He’d done far too much of that lately and he wasn’t a kid, he was a man.

Dec strode through the lot towards the darkness where the meadow began. Stopped. Turned. Strode back to his cottage. Went up the steps, across the porch, through the living room, out the French doors and onto the beach.

The beach was where he’d met Annie Stanton.

He’d been lying in a canvas hammock, chilling after getting back from the kind of mission that made you want to kiss the ground when you stepped off the transport that bought you home, listening to the whoosh of the surf and the cries of the gulls and hoping those sounds would crowd out the other sounds in your head, when something swooped past. Not a gull. Maybe an osprey.

He’d turned his head to check…And saw her instead. Annie, except he didn’t know her name then. Not that he’d ever really known it, he thought, his mouth flattening into a thin line. She’d been standing ankle-deep in the frothing surf, a delicately-built brunette wearing a simple one-piece swimsuit.

Unusual, he’d thought.

In Santa Barbara, especially within five or six miles of the STUD base at Camp Condor, bikinis were what all the women wore. And they travelled in packs. Kitten packs, some of the guys called them. Lots of giggling, lots of T-and-A, all for the benefit of Condor and its retinue of hard-bodied, maybe-just-a-little-dangerous Special Ops warriors.

Dec had wondered what this modestly dressed woman was doing on what he thought of as his beach.

A middle-aged tourist, he’d decided, who’d wandered away from the usual tourist haunts. It was a little surprising because even though the law said that beaches weren’t private property, this one pretty much was. The string of cottages was about it in both directions. There were no bars nearby. No shops. Plus, the tides were too strong for most swimmers.

The woman’s back was to him. She was looking out to sea. And, yeah, she was delicate-looking. Petite was maybe the better word—five three, five four, with lustrous brown hair streaming down her back.

His gaze had dropped lower.

Maybe she wasn’t middle-aged. She was slender, but she had a sweetly rounded ass. Nicely curved hips. Long legs. He wondered if she looked as good from the front as from the back.

Only one way to find out.

He’d swung his legs out of the hammock and sauntered across the sand towards her. When he was five, six feet away, he cleared his throat and said, “Hi.”

She’d spun towards him, mouth open, eyes wide with fear, one hand clapped over her heart.

Shit. He’d startled her.

When he was twelve or thirteen he’d found a small songbird—a wren, he’d later found out. The wren hadn’t been visibly hurt, but something had surely damaged it. It had stared up at him, wide-eyed, heart visibly beating in its breast. Dec had bent down, carefully picked it up and and held it until it was recovered enough to fly away.

Would this woman fly away too?

Crazy, but he hoped she wouldn’t.

“Sorry,” he’d said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“No. You didn’t. I mean—you did. Perhaps a little.”

Her English was perfect, but he could detect the faintest accent. French? Not French. Something a little more exotic.

“See any dolphins yet?”


“I figure you’re looking for them They come to this stretch of water very often. It’s the wrong season for Grey whales and too late for Blues or Humpbacks, but the dolphins are almost always a sure bet.”

“I haven’t actually been looking for anything in particular. I just—I found this place last week. I love how quiet it is.”

So she’d come here while he was in Iraq.

He’d nodded. “Yeah. It is.”

“And the ocean… It looks so peaceful.”

Dec had thought of what swam beneath the blue surface of the Pacific: sharks, Morays, things that stalked and hunted and killed.

“Looks can be deceptive,” he’d said.

Crap. His back-from-the-desert bitterness had hit the wrong note. She went from looking startled to looking wary.

“I meant,” he’d added quickly, “there are some strong currents off this beach. You shouldn’t swim here alone.”

“Oh. Oh, I didn’t come to swim. I’m just walking, that’s all.”

Her gaze had softened. Man, her eyes were unusual. Not brown. Not green. Hazel? No. Topaz was more accurate. Yeah. That’s what they were. A rich, deep topaz set in an exquisite oval face. The rest of her was exquisite, too. Gently rounded breasts, a slender waist…

Suddenly, he’d realized he was staring. And she was blushing. And, like the wren, getting ready to fly.

Dammit, he was an idiot.

“Well,” she’d said, “it’s been nice meeting you, but I have to—”

“We haven’t met,” he’d said quickly, holding out his hand. “I’m Dec. Declan Sanchez.”

She’d hesitated. Then she’d put her hand in his. He could still recall the electric shock that had hummed through him at her touch.

“Oh,” she’d said, laughing a little.

Could something so simple tell you that your world was about to change?

Because it had. She had changed it. Forever. It was still changed, even now, months later, months since he’d met her, weeks since he’d discovered the depth of her lies, her deception…

A bright beam of light swept over the night-black beach. Dec swung around, threw up his hand against the blinding glare.

“Who’s there?”

“Me. Nick. For crissake, dude, it’s as dark as the inside of a heifer out here. Didn’t you ever hear of electricity?”

“What the fuck would you know about heifers?” Declan said, laughing as Romano came towards him.

Romano, who had grown up in Brooklyn, laughed along with him.

“It’s what a guy I went through BUD/S with used to say. And he would have known for sure. I mean, he was from flyover country.” Nick reached Dec and jerked his thumb over his shoulder, back towards the cottage. “Checked out the territory. Saw it was clear of blondes.”

“Yeah.” Dec cleared his throat. “Dude. Thanks for bailing me out.”

“Hey,” Nick said, “what’re friends for if not to do a little bailing every now and then?”

“Yeah,” Dec said again. “See, the thing is—”

“The thing is,” Nick said, “by the time we get, Olivieri will have eaten all the pizza, Sullivan will have polished off the beer, Maguire will be checkin’ for hidden stashes of chocolate, and Spanos will be emptying your refrigerator.”

“The whole unit’s here?”

“You got it.”

“And you brought pizza?”

“Comfort food. Of course.”

Dec felt his throat constrict. “Dude. I don’t know what to—“”

Nick clapped Dec on the shoulder. “We don’t wanna starve to death or die of thirst, we’d better get our asses moving.”

“Yeah. Right.” Dec hesitated. “Nick?”

“You try thanking anybody, dude, we’ll take you for every dime you’ve got when we sit down to play poker.”

Dec nodded. Smiled. Thanking these guys, these brothers-in-arms who stood up for each other, just wasn’t done. They were family. They were always there for each other. They could count on each other the way he’d once stupidly imagined he could count on a woman…

Hell. Why go back to that? It was old shit, gone and best forgotten.

“Finally,” Danny Sullivan said when Nick and Dec reached the patio. “Just when we were afraid the broccoli and tofu were gettin’ cold.”

Everybody laughed. And life was okay again…

Until an hour later, when all their smartphones went off at once. The laughter, the sounds of cards hitting Dec’s kitchen table, died. The men of STUD Unit One exchanged quick, tight glances as each reached for his phone.

“You guys together?”

It was the voice of their CO, Captain James Black.

Six “yessirs” echoed through the room.


Dec automatically shot to his feet. “Sir.”

“Put me on speakerphone. The rest of you, shut off your phones and listen.”

Five phones were turned off.

“Everybody hear me, loud and clear?”

Six more “yessirs” filled the room.

“I want you all at base in thirty minutes.”

Thirty minutes? When they’d just returned to the State forty-eight hours ago? The men looked at each other even as they pushed back from the table.

“Thirty minutes,” James Black warned. “You’re shipping out at zero three hundred.”

“Sir,” six voices snapped.

“Details when you get to Condor.”