Seal of Honor, Original Beginning

Author’s Note: “This chapter was the first thing I wrote when I started SEAL of Honor in March 2011. However, as it often happens, I later realized it was all back story–my way of orientating myself in the HORNET world. And so I cut it out, instead starting the book with Bryson Van Amee’s kidnapping, which was a lot more exciting. You’ll notice some characters mentioned in this chapter that were also cut from the final draft of the book.”

ONE YEAR AGO

It wasn’t a bullet that took Gabe Bristow out, wasn’t a grenade launcher or an improvised explosive device. Nope. No blaze of glory for him. A fucking broken foot was going to seal his discharge orders from the Navy. Well, a crushed foot and fractured lower leg, but still. Of all the ways to get yanked permanently off active duty….

The docs told him he shouldn’t worry about that now, he should concentrate on healing, like that would do a damn thing to snap his bones back into place. How could he not worry? He didn’t have much else to do but lie around in the hospital bed, stare at the ceiling and think. And think. And think.

Shit, he needed to do… something. Anything.

Like stop his black and blue big toe from itching.

Gabe eyed the plastic spork the cafeteria had sent up with his dinner, and then contemplated the distance to his foot. His ribs were cracked, which made leaning over about as fun as sticking a hot poker in his side, but if he could stop the incessant itching, he’d deal with the pain. No problem. Pain was a SEAL’s best friend. Itching was not.

He pushed himself upright and reached over the metal torture contraption encircling his leg.

Not… even… close.

Panting like a friggin’ marathon runner in the homestretch of a 50K, he collapsed against the tilted head of his bed. Goddammit. Not so long ago, he’d been flexible enough to bend completely over so that his chest lay parallel to his legs. He’d run eight to ten miles a day and swim another two or three. He’d bench press his weight. Spend hours in the dojo, working on his next degree of black belt. Now he couldn’t itch his own toe.

Humiliating.

God, he hated being a patient.

“You awake?”

Travis Quinn knocked once before poking his head around the edge of the door. With his lower lip swollen and split, the side of his face one massive hematoma, and his right arm resting in a sling, Quinn didn’t look any better than Gabe felt. The docs had shaved his short dark blonde hair on one side and a line of little black stitches marched toward the back of his head from behind his right ear. He wore two blue and white hospital gowns, one like a robe to cover his ass—thank God—and padded barefoot into the room with his old, beat-up canvas duffle looped across his back. The IV pole he dragged with him seemed to take most of his weight, but at least he was ambulatory.

“Hey, man.” He reached out with his good hand to grasp Gabe’s, fist to fist, in their usual greeting.

“You look like you got into a fight with a Mack truck and lost,” Gabe said.

“Heh.” With a soft groan, Quinn settled his battered body in the chair next to Gabe’s bed. He must be hurting something fierce to let the sound slip. His pain tolerance was legendary among SEAL Team Ten and Gabe had only ever seen him grimace one other time in the twelve years he’d known the man. There was a reason his nickname was Achilles. He was all but indestructible and nobody had yet to find his heel.

“How’re you holding up?” Quinn asked.

Shit, he wasn’t. He, Gabriel “Stonewall” Bristow, son of a living legend, the guy named for an archangel and nicknamed after a great Civil War general, the leader everyone on his team looked to for support, wasn’t holding up.

Not. At. Fucking. All.

He poked at his dinner and did his best to avoid Quinn’s all-too-knowing gaze. “I’m done.”

Quinn eyed the untouched meatloaf. “All right, sure. I’ll grab a nurse—”

“Not with the food.” He shoved aside the tray. Truthfully, it was better fare than anything he’d eaten over the past month, but he had no interest in the whole chew-swallow-repeat routine when his career, his entire life, was in the shitter. “I meant with the SEALs. Hell, with the entire military. I’m done.”

Quinn adjusted his arm in the sling before giving a long, hard stare with his steel gray eyes.

“Who says?” The two words sounded like a challenge. Probably were, knowing Quinn, but Gabe wasn’t taking the bait.

“C’mon. You know as well as I do they won’t take me back after an injury like this.” He glared at his crushed and mangled right foot. It had happened in a car accident, of all fucking things, on the way to a training op. His training op. His pet project. Operation Hot Salsa.

An asshole in a pick-up truck had decided to play leapfrog with them, speeding up only to get in front of them and slow down. Quinn, never the most patient driver, moved to pass him in the middle lane and a semi came out of nowhere from right, hitting their right front fender and sending their vehicle skidding through a lane of traffic to crash over the median. Quinn, thrown through the windshield after the first flip, missed the rest of the ride that ended in a face-to-face meet and greet with a concrete support. Gabe waited pinned upside-down in the passenger seat by his legs for four hours as rescue workers struggled to free him.

Complete. Hell.

Not only because of the intense pain that made him fade in and out of consciousness even as he fought against it with every ounce of willpower he possessed. No, pain he could handle. Helplessness, though …

Damn, he never wanted to be that incapacitated again.

Yet here he was. Ten days and two reconstructive surgeries later, his foot still wasn’t fixed and he was staring down the barrel of a third surgery. He’d be lucky if the docs didn’t decide to amputate the thing. It already felt like dead weight, but that may be a side effect of the painkillers pumping through his system.

Please, he thought for the hundredth time, let it be the painkillers.

“Maybe it’s not such a bad idea,” Quinn said after a long moment. “Getting out.”

Gabe blinked. “You’re kidding, right?” Quinn didn’t have much of a sense of humor, but he <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>had to be joking. He was a life-long soldier, a warrior to his marrow. He would never…

But he looked pretty freakin’ serious.

He shrugged his good shoulder. “I got my DD-214 today. The doctors won’t let me go back because of my fucked up shoulder and the Navy will just chain me to a desk. So I’m officially a veteran.”

Gabe’s stomach dropped. If the docs wouldn’t let Quinn go back, he’d definitely be getting his own discharge papers shortly.

No. He wouldn’t consider it. If they’d just let him get up and walk, he’d show them he could still do the job. He was fine. He’d shake off this injury like every other one and be back with his team in no time.

Minus Quinn, though.

“Man, I’m sorry. What are you going to do now?”

“Take up golf.” He said it so deadpan that Gabe almost thought he was serious.

“You, give up the fight? I don’t believe that for a second.”

“Yeah, well, not exactly.” He leaned back in his chair, surprisingly relaxed given his situation. “I know this guy, a former Army Ranger who spent a couple years in some sort of top, top secret special ops way above our pay grade, but now he does most of his work behind a desk. He’s looking to fund a private hostage rescue team and a couple months back asked me to join up. I contacted him today and he’s still serious about going merc, already has dossiers put together on some guys who want in.” He shifted his duffle around, opened the flap, and pulled out a handful of brimming personnel files. “He asked me to take command until we find someone better suited for the position.”

Oh, shit. Gabe saw where this was going and didn’t like the direction of his best friend’s thoughts. “Tell me you didn’t give him my name.”

“Nah. I said I might know someone, but I wanted to talk to you about it first.”

Good thing, ’cause he’d never considered going private before. As the eldest son of the great Admiral Jasper Bristow, Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military, with all its rules and regulations and red tape, had been his life since he was in diapers. Stars and Stripes had been the only shapes in his nursery and the National Anthem had been his lullaby. His parents had force-fed him Red, White, and Blue for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day of his life. The thought of throwing that all out the window to work for the highest bidder left a nasty taste in his mouth. Besides, if he didn’t lose his foot and worked at recovery, he’d be back on his team in six months, tops. Yeah, so his docs said that was impossible. He just called it difficult and he thrived on the challenge.

“Quinn, man, I’m not going merc. Find someone else.”

Quinn gave the barest hint of a smile. “Figured you’d say that, but I had to lay the offer on the table. It’s open-ended. Any time you want in, just say the word and I’ll hand over the reins.”

“Shit, you’re really serious about this.”

“Yeah, I am. I joined the military to help people and all I’ve done since is kill ’em. Tucker Quentin’s offering me the funds to set up my own team and run it like I want. How can I say no to that?”

“Easy. You say no, work your ass off in physical therapy, and come back to the SEALs.”

“It’s not gonna happen. The doctors said I’ll never have full range of motion in this arm again no matter how hard I work. I fought them about it until I saw the x-rays. Fuck me, but they’re right. Going private’s my only option if I want to keep doing the job.” He stood and held up the personnel files. “Listen, I know you’re not interested in joining, but I could use your help. These are the guys I picked out from the twenty dossiers Quentin gave me. I’d appreciate your opinion.”

Gabe held out for a stubborn moment, mostly on principal—because, man, he really didn’t like the idea of his best friend lured to the darkside—but then lifted a hand for the files.

“I’ll take a look.”

What else did he have to do besides sit around willing his damn foot to heal?

#

That evening, after the outside hall lights dimmed for the night and the clatter of bustling hospital staff quieted, Gabe studied the dossiers. Whoever put the files together didn’t miss much—each was at least fifty pages long and detailed enough to make him feel like a voyeur. Did this Tucker Quentin have a file on him? Not that he wasn’t as upstanding a citizen as he could be. His closets were as militarily neat as everything else in his life—no skeletons lurking there. He just didn’t care for the idea of someone knowing every intimate detail about him. He doubted these men would feel any different if they knew what his bedtime reading consisted of tonight.

First dossier: Vicente Alejandro Reyes Padilla, better known as Vince Reyes, 33 years old, never married, no children. He was the youngest child born to Mexican immigrants. He grew up in a poor section of Laredo, Texas, populated mostly by other Mexican immigrants, and didn’t learn English until middle school. Obsessed with flying, he joined the Air Force out of high school, learned to pilot any aircraft he could, and became a pararescue jumper before his twenty-fifth birthday. Described as capable, confident, and fearless by his peers, but reckless, unreliable, and impulsive by his superiors, he earned the nickname “Toro” for the way he charged into every mission like a bull. He served his time in the Middle East and got a couple slaps for not following orders as well as a couple commendations for bravery. After retiring from the military last year, he started earning a living as a welder and stunt pilot in San Antonio.

Gabe studied the included photos of Vince Reyes: strong, angular face, deep-set dark eyes, heavy brows, olive complexion. His dark hair was short on the sides and longer, curling a bit on top. He still looked to be in top physical shape despite having been out of the Air Force for a year. Some of the photos were official of a smiling Vince in dress blues staring out from under his cap with sparking eyes. Others were candid—Vince at work on a construction site or airfield; hanging out with his siblings and a gaggle of nieces and nephews; kicking back with friends at a bar; and even a shot of him rock climbing some place that was too mountainous to be Texas.

Gabe bet his unbroken foot that Vince had no clue he’d been captured on film. Also bet he wouldn’t like it one bit if he knew.

Next file: Jesse James Warrick, 29. Born to Anne and James Warrick in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He grew up on a ranch in a town where the population hovered around four-fifty and cattle outnumber people five to one.

Jesus. Gabe didn’t blame him for up and joining the army before the ink on his high school diploma was dry.

In some ways, Jesse Warrick was a lot like Quinn. Loyal, hard worker, strong moral code, but according to the reports, he was far more volatile than Quinn and unapologetically broke rules he didn’t like, which earned him a dishonorable discharge from the army several years ago for punching out a ranking officer. It all smacked of political B.S., if you asked Gabe, because Jesse was otherwise a distinguished Special Forces Medical Sergeant. He now worked as an EMS medic in Jackson Hole while applying to med schools. He’d been married twice. The first time was for three years to his high school sweetheart, with whom he had a four-year-old son, Connor. The second time, to a nurse at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, lasted ten months and ended in an amicable divorce with no children.

Both Reyes and Warrick were mavericks, which made Gabe leery of recommending them to Quinn. Then again, while that attitude offended his military sensibilities, it would probably serve them well as mercs. He started a yes pile on his tray table and added the two folders.

The next two dossiers went into the unequivocally no pile. Those men were more than mavericks. According to their files, they were out-of-control and dangerous and could not be trusted. Not anyone Quinn wanted on his team.

Next: Seth Harlan. The name sounded familiar, but the photo of an unsmiling man with a knife-edged jaw, brown buzz-cut hair, and intense blue eyes, didn’t set off any mental bells of recognition. After reading the report, Gabe started to throw it into the <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>no pile, but hesitated.

Harlan was the all-American good ole boy gone wrong. Raised in an ordinary middle-class home in the middle of apple pie country, Iowa, he never got into trouble and made good marks in high school. He was the local football star who became a local hero for choosing to serve his country over playing in the NFL. As a recon marine, he proved himself an excellent solider with eagle-eyed aim, and later graduated top of his class from scout sniper school. He was on the fast track in his career and personal life, all set to marry a local girl and start his own apple pie family as soon as he came home from deployment.

Then on a mission in Afghanistan, he suffered a near-fatal wound and the Taliban captured him. Only he knew the details of what happened to him and he wasn’t talking, but records show they nursed him back to health just so they could torture him. For months. When SEALs finally found him nearly a year later, he was a broken mess. And according to psych reports, he still was.

Gabe flipped through Harlan’s file, a sinking sensation in his gut. If his suspicions were correct—yup, SEAL Team Ten was Seth Harlan’s rescuers.

That’s why the name was familiar. And why the face wasn’t.

It had been bitterly cold, mid-winter, when two squads from SEAL Team Ten parachuted into the Hindu Kush under the cover of a cloudy, moonless night. Because their intel hadn’t been great and they’d wanted to be quiet about checking it out, only one four-man team went in to the tiny town after the marine while the rest waited nearby in case the situation got fubar’d.

He hadn’t been one of the men to go in, but afterward, Gabe caught a glimpse of Harlan before the helo took him off that godforsaken mountainside and whisked him to the nearest friendly hospital. His gaunt face had been a swollen, unrecognizable jumble of black, blue, and yellow splotches. Those intense blue eyes had taken in his rescue through a tangle of filthy light brown hair like a wild animal that knew he needed help but still didn’t trust his saviors. Although he was conscious and able to give his name, rank, and name the current president—he even asked after his parents and fiancée—a future hadn’t looked promising for the young marine. He was hypothermic and septic, suffering from dehydration, on the verge of starvation, and had several maggot-infested wounds on his back, legs, and groin. In fact, Gabe hadn’t thought he would survive the trip to the hospital, not to mention make a full recovery and try to find work in the private sector. Seth Harlan had spirit. It might be broken like his shrinks claimed, but he had it in spades and that was rare. Plus, broken could usually be fixed.

Gabe made a maybe pile and added Harlan’s dossier to it just as Quinn shuffled back into the room dragging his duffle and IV pole.

“Well?” he asked without preamble.

“Shouldn’t you be in bed like a good patient?”

“Fuck that.”

Gabe smiled at that. A former lover, a doctor, once told him the only people that made worse patients than other doctors were Navy SEALs. He believed it. Between him constantly trying to get up and walk and Quinn’s persistent wandering since he came out of a coma three days ago, the hospital staff was getting the workout of their careers. The nurses had given up trying to restrain Quinn when he threatened to leave AMA. They still thought there was hope for Gabe, the poor souls, but that was because he hadn’t been with it enough to fight them until today. They were quickly finding out that Quinn was the more reasonable of the two of them.

Quinn settled into the chair he’d vacated earlier and motioned a come-on gesture with his good hand. “Give me the rundown.”

“I got seven yeses, three nos, and one maybe.” Gabe slid each folder in the yes pile across the tray table, naming off the men: “Warrick, Reyes, Reinhardt, Angelino, Taggert, Physick, and Cavalier are your best bets, though I have reservations about the first three. They’re risk-takers.”

“That’s why I picked them,” Quinn said and gave the pile of folders a quick flip-through. “They each have expert knowledge—Ian Reinhardt’s EOD and knows ordnance better than anyone I’ve come across, Jesse Warrick’s a damn good medic, and Vince Reyes can pilot anything. In my opinion, that outweighs the risks. They’ll all come in handy on an op.”

“Agreed.”

“Alright.” Quinn shoved those three dossiers into his bag. “Any reservations about the others?”

Gabe felt a trickle of that familiar thrill he always got before an op. Stupid, because he wasn’t going on one any time soon, but he could admit to himself this felt good. He was back in his element. “Eric Physick’s not military trained. I’d be wary of putting him in the field, but there’s no doubting the usefulness of having a former CIA threat analyst on the team. Same thing with the communications guy…”

“Reed Taggert,” Quinn supplied.

“Right. He’s Special Forces so he’s well trained, but the dossier is sketchy on how much battle he’s seen. Keep him on comms and out of the heavy stuff, at least until you see what he’s made of.”

“What about Marcus Angelino?” Quinn held up one of the folders. “He’s former FBI.”

“I wouldn’t drop him in the middle of a jungle and expect him to fight, but if you slide him in under a tango’s nose you’d have yourself an excellent spy. He has considerable undercover experience and negation skills and, if your information is correct, distant family ties to the mob. All of those will be invaluable to your team.”

“And Jean-Luc Cavalier?” Quinn asked.

Gabe had to pause and mentally flip through the dossiers, his mind working more sluggishly than usual, which pissed him right off. Damn painkillers muddled even the simplest mental processes.

Cavalier … Cavalier … Right, the CIA linguist from New Orleans. The man’s skill with language had blown Gabe away as he read that dossier. Cavalier was fluent in twelve languages and picked up new ones like most people picked up a gallon of milk after work.

“It’d be stupid to not want him on the team, but you’re going to need him in the field and that’ll create a problem. He has very little battle experience. Some military training, and he seemed to be a pretty good solider according to his file, but he’s been out for almost ten years now. You’re probably gonna have to retrain him.”

Quinn nodded and looked at the folders remaining on the table. “I’m not even asking about the nos. If you say no, that’s all the evidence I need.” He hesitated. “And I don’t think I have to ask who the maybe is. Seth Harlan. You remember him?”

“Yeah. My gut reaction was to put him in the no pile,” Gabe admitted.

“So was mine.”

“Why didn’t you?”

Quinn gave one of his long stares. “Same reason you didn’t.”

“That night in Afghanistan, you went in after him.”

“You didn’t see what they—” He stopped and shook his head. “That kid should have died. We both know it. Hell, he knows it. He survived on sheer grit and now he wants to go back to work. That has got to count from something.”

“Sounds like you’ve made up your mind already.”

“Aw, shit, I don’t know.”Quinn rubbed his hands over his head, careful not to hit the stitches. “Part of me knows he’s a liability. Our primary mission will be hostage rescue. If he has a psychotic break on an op, he’ll endanger himself and the hostage and the team. But another part of me wants to give him the second chance that the military won’t. If I was in his shoes, I’d want somebody to give me one.”

“It’s your team, your call.” Gabe settled his head against a pillow and closed his eyes, suddenly exhausted. Trips down memory lane weren’t his favorite leisure time escape. Sure, the op that saved Seth Harlan had been quiet, fast, and successful, without an ounce of bloodshed on either side, but that battered kid with his wild eyes had haunted Gabe for months afterward. He apparently still haunted Quinn. “Don’t let your past with him cloud your judgment. Write out the pros and cons of having him on the team and make the decision that way if you have to.”

“See, that right there is exactly why you’d make a better CO. I don’t think that way.”

“Quinn—”

“Tell me this: How is going private any different than what we do now? We’re paid as SEALs. As mercs, we just won’t draw our paychecks from Uncle Sam anymore. It doesn’t mean we have to change how we do things.”

He opened his eyes and looked at his best friend. “Man, I told you—”

“Yeah, I know. And I told you the offer’s open-ended.” Quinn gathered the rest of the files into his duffle and headed toward the door, his IV pole squeaking across the floor beside him. “You can do just as much good in the private sector as you can in the military, even with a bum foot. Maybe more. So think about it, okay?”

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