Authors Note: “This scene appeared about 3/4 of the way through the first draft of SEAL of Honor and was sniper Seth Harlan’s original introduction to the team. While both my editor and I loved this scene, we felt it was too late in the story to introduce a new character and it slowed down the action in the final 1/4 of the book. So, as much as it killed me, it ended up on the chopping block. (However, you will notice some parts of this scene have been re-purposed and used in HONOR RECLAIMED.”
At ten minutes to one a.m., the call Seth Harlan had been waiting for finally came. He sat at his computer, in the middle of his nightly routine of taking all other insomniacs to the cleaners in online poker. Sure, the website was slightly illegal—all right, a lot illegal—but he had to make money somehow and countless sleepless nights had morphed the man who’d never gambled in his life into a poker shark.
Not for the first time, he considered taking his game on the road. Hit up Atlantic City, Vegas, buy his way into a couple tournaments. If he could handle the lights, sounds, and crush of people, there was good money in it.
Big if there. Last time he went into Mahoney’s, his former favorite hangout, the sharp crack of a cue ball hit too hard had him scurrying underneath the nearest booth like a fucking rabbit into its burrow. When his friends hurried to help him up, he’d broken a bottle and threatened them with the razor-sharp edge. He woke up two days later in a psych ward with no memory of any of it.
But that was a while ago. He’d come a long way from that. Made progress. Maybe he could take a casino now, then he’d rake in a pot big enough to buy himself a new life. Maybe a good, reliable car. Some clothing besides the ragged sweats that had become his uniform since leaving the psych ward. And maybe if he had enough money, he could finally return home and win back the ultimate pot: Emma’s love.
Jesus Christ. Like that was going to happen. His ex-fiancée was getting married in three weeks, two days, and—he checked his watch—yup, twelve hours. Not that he was counting down or anything. She was happy with her middle school teacher groom-to-be. Really, he couldn’t even blame her for giving him his ring back and running into the un-traumatized, baggage-free, perfect Matt Mathis’s waiting arms. Maybe if he’d been stronger, kept his wits about him when he’d gotten home, he’d have been the one standing at the altar in less than a month watching her walk toward him.
Or probably not. He wasn’t the same man that had proposed to Emma before leaving for deployment to the Country-That-Would-Not-Be-Named. The SEALs may have dragged his ass out of there, but part of him was still in those mountains, the part capable of being loved and loving in return. He didn’t figure it was something he’d ever get back.
Seth sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. Wallowing in coulda, woulda, shouldas again. And starting to see double on the computer screen. Time for another hit of caffeine before he did something stupid, like miss the turn when he had a good shot at a full house. Or call Emma like a lunatic stalker ex-boyfriend. Or, even worse, fall asleep.
He was just pushing back from his desk and reaching for his oversized mug when the phone rang, startling him into knocking the mug over. The dregs of his last coffee spilled onto the desk and he swore as he mopped it up with a discarded sweatshirt, the closest thing handy. But, hey, he had to give himself credit for not clinging to the ceiling at the unexpected sound.
Another ring. He tossed the now wet sweatshirt aside and eyed the cell phone warily. Not many people called him during the day—his mom and dad, sister, and sometimes Emma—and never this late at night. His grandmother used to say nothing good ever came from a phone call after midnight, which was why his curfew growing up had been 11:55 p.m. and not a second later. His father never wanted to get an after-midnight call.
Dad had gotten one, though. An after-midnight call that happened to come in the middle of the day, in the form of uniformed Marines on his doorstep, telling him his only son was a casualty of war.
Nope. Seth shut down that thought almost before it completely formed. Not going there. Not thinking of the fear and pain he’d caused. Not thinking of the fear and pain he’d endured. Nope. Nope. Nope. He was past all that now. Progress, remember?
Because of the whole after-midnight thing, he considered ignoring the phone. But he wasn’t his father with children to worry about and he wasn’t a coward who hid from bad news. A neurotic, traumatized failure? Yes, he’d cop to that. Coward? No fucking way.
He thumbed the answer button.
“Hello?” Shit, he really needed to start talking more often, even if it was just to himself. His voice sounded like he’d swallowed a box of nails and washed it down with a glass of sand.
“Seth Harlan,” the man on the other end said—no, more like demanded. The tone reminded Seth of a drill sergeant, took him back to the good old days in basic training. Jesus, he’d been such an idealistic, cocky sucker back then, with no inkling of how fucked up his life was about to become. How he wished he could go back.
He cleared the roughness from his throat. “Speaking.”
“My name is Gabe Bristow. I’m CO of a hostage rescue team for HumInt, Inc. You still looking for a job?”
Thrill and panic warred in his blood. More than anything, he wanted to go back to work, back to what he’d spent years training to do, back to the only thing he was good at. Well, the only thing besides poker. He wanted to go back and prove to everyone, himself included, that he was still the best. That he wasn’t broken. That he could still do the job.
“Yes, sir, I am. If you need me to come in for an interview, I’m available any time.” After he braved the mall for some clothes that didn’t look like they’d come from Goodwill’s trash can.
“Not necessary,” Bristow said. “You’re hired.”
It took a moment to pick his jaw off the ground. “Uh, yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“Don’t thank me. I know your history and you’re not my first choice, but you’re my only option at the moment so consider yourself on probation. I’ll call with mobilization orders within the next 24 hours. Be ready to drop everything and get to your local airport. You up for this?”
Airplane. Shit. How the hell was he supposed to manage that when he hadn’t been able to look at one of the damn things in years?
“Well?” Bristow prompted.
Seth swallowed the rising bubble of panic in his throat. Not. A. Coward. “Yeah. Yeah. I’ll be ready.”