Next to Die


By Marliss Melton

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Penny Price dreads the sound of her ringing phone. She’s convinced that the person barraging her with threatening calls is a man who got away with murder–her father’s. Armed with evidence but branded a target, Penny’s only salvation is the playboy nextdoor–Navy SEAL Lieutenant Commander Joe Montgomery. The sole survivor of the worst disaster in Special Forces history, Joe has been drowning his guilt in a potent mix of alcohol and isolation. Penny refuses to indulge his behavior and a tentative friendship begins, charged with desire. But as her father’s killer sets his sights on Penny, all bets are off. The killer will do anything to protect his identity and Joe fears Penny is…NEXT TO DIE.


Also by Marliss Melton

Forget Me Not

In the Dark

Time to Run


There are so many souls who deserve credit for helping me write this story. The most outstanding contributor would be a reader-turned-collaborator, Janie Hawkins. Janie, you have painted my world in Technicolor! Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your contributions to my characters, their stories, and every last line of this book. Here's to the next project; I can't wait!

Thank you, Kevin McPartland, Special Agent FBI, retired. You were with me at the conception of this story and answered all of my silly questions along the way, with patient faithfulness. I'm thinking you deserve a story of your own . . .

Commander Mark Divine, thank you, sir, for checking the accuracy of my facts and for your unintentional influence when you wrote in your Tribute, "What if it were me?" In some ways, this story answers that question.

Thank you, Sam the SEAL, for taking the time to hash out details that changed the whole gist of my story and made it more real.

For Sharon, who helped tremendously in determining the personality types of my characters and for the articles you've sent my way.

For Cathy, Kerri, and Lisa P., who helped me get started, and everyone else who has contributed a portion of this shared project.

Thanks to physical therapist, Carrie Hewitt, for contributing your expertise and making Joe's therapy more credible.

Above all, thank you, loyal readers, for urging me to carry on with the SEAL series. Without you, I'd be writing to myself. Bless you all!

Chapter One

The chiming of Lieutenant Penelope Price's doorbell elicited a groan. She had just sunk onto her overstuffed couch to watch the six o'clock news while indulging in a slice of cheesecake. Penny's hands and feet ached. She deserved a little downtime, having worked extra hours at the naval hospital, seeing to her own patients plus those of the physical therapist on maternity leave.

"It better not be a salesman," she muttered, leaving the cheesecake on the coffee table. As she crossed her two-story foyer toward the front door, she tightened the sash on her velour bathrobe. Perhaps it was her neighbor, the Navy SEAL, back from his assignment and looking for his cat.

But the face peering through the door's glass oval wasn't that of the too-hot-to-handle Commander Joe Montgomery. It was Penny's twenty-four-year-old drama queen of a little sister, Ophelia.

"Hi," said Penny, braced for trouble. "What's up?" Crisp October air surged inside, bearing the scent of dried leaves.

"Um, I need to stay here a while," Ophelia answered, casting a nervous glance over her shoulder. "Can I park my car in your garage?"

Penny tucked a strand of copper hair behind one ear, deliberating. "You can't keep running to me every time you break up with a boyfriend, Lia," she chided.

"I'm not," Ophelia reassured her. "But I need to put my car in your garage, now. Please," she added.

It was the lack of theatrics that persuaded Penny to cooperate. "Okay," she agreed, flicking a glance at Lia's rustbucket of a ride. "Hold on a sec. I'll need to move some stuff first."

Moments later, the '91 Oldsmobile was parked snugly in the single-car garage and Ophelia stepped out of it, dragging a suitcase with her.

Penny eyed the suitcase with dismay, a sure sign that Lia had failed to pay her rent—again. "How long are you planning to stay?" she asked as the garage door rumbled shut behind them, leaving the sisters in darkness.

"I don't know," Ophelia admitted. "Let me tell you what happened, and you can decide for yourself."

Oh, dear, that didn't sound too promising. With concern pooling in her belly, Penny led the way through the laundry room into her hard-earned three-bedroom single-family home. It was supposed to be the house she would live in with her husband and babies, but, at twenty-nine, she still wasn't married, and if her sister kept landing on her doorstep, she might never lead a normal life again.

Ophelia dropped her suitcase in the foyer and headed toward the kitchen, wringing her hands as she went.

"I have leftovers if you're hungry," Penny offered, taking note of Lia's longer locks. Her hair was like Penny's, only layered, with a hint of whimsical bangs. While the elder sister dressed comfortably and sensibly, Ophelia liked to test the limits of fashion using sequins, tie-dye, lace, and beads.

"That's okay, I'm not hungry." But spying the opened box of cheesecake, she pounced on it, serving herself a giant slice.

"So what happened?" Penny prompted.

Ophelia ignored the question. "Hey, I didn't know you had a cat," she said, pointing her fork toward the family room.

Commander Montgomery's tomcat was crouched over Penny's dessert. "Felix!" she scolded, rushing over to scoop him up. "He's not mine. He belongs to my next-door neighbor."

"The Navy SEAL?" Lia's slender eyebrows shot up as she stuffed her mouth with another huge bite. "Are you sleeping with him?"

"Of course not," Penny answered, seeing through her sister's delay tactics. "He's on assignment somewhere. One of his girlfriends is supposed to be pet-sitting, but she's unpredictable and Felix likes to eat—don't you, big boy?" She scratched the cat's broad head. "Now can we get to the point of your visit?" she demanded.

Ophelia's shoulders drooped. She put her plate abruptly on the counter, pushing it away. "Well, first of all, the tourists have gone home, and I'm not making much money waitressing."

"Right," said Penny, who had advised Lia to get a real job when this same thing happened last year.

"But that's not the only thing," her little sister added with a miserable sigh.

Penny thought of the worst possible scenario. "I hope this has nothing to do with Daddy's journal," she pleaded.

"I'm afraid it does," Ophelia admitted in a small voice.

"Oh, no. What did you do?"

"I called Eric," Lia admitted, begging Penny with her pretty turquoise eyes to understand. "I was pissed. I wanted answers."

"What did you say to him?" Penny asked, clasping the cat more firmly, furious that her sister might have blown their chance to seek justice.

"I asked him how he slept at night, okay? I didn't accuse him of stealing the ricin or murdering Dad."

"And what did he say?"

"Nothing. He couldn't say anything. You know how he talks. He started stuttering and stammering, and—believe me—his stutter is even worse when he's nervous, and he wouldn't be that nervous unless he was scared."

Penny regarded her sister over Felix's twitching ears. "Did he threaten you?" She didn't know whether to slap her sister or comfort her. "Is that why you hid your car in my garage?"

"I told you. He can't even talk. He just breathes into the phone."

"Breathes? You make it sound like you've talked more than once."

Lia swallowed visibly. "He's called a few times since then. But like I said, he doesn't say anything."

Penny shivered as she caught a whiff of Ophelia's apprehension. "Oh, boy," she murmured. Lia had taken their discovery to a whole new level, and now she was paying for it.

"I'm sorry," her little sister added, with uncharacteristic humility. "I don't know what made me call him. I was just so upset."

Penny's worry subsided into pity. "I understand, honey. I was upset, too." She considered their options. "Well, I guess it's not going to change anything for Eric to know that we're onto him. Unless he disappears between now and then, the FBI will still be able to arrest him."

"Have you shown them Daddy's journal yet?"

"No, I have an appointment on Thursday."

"Oh, good," said Lia, rubbing her arms as if chilled.

"I'm glad you're moving in with me for a while," Penny decided suddenly. "We're better off sticking together on this." She didn't like the thought of Ophelia being scared.

Lia sent her a grateful smile.

Over Felix's purrs, Penny overheard the newscaster mention something in the news about Navy SEALs. She turned her attention to the television, hushing whatever Lia was about to say.

". . . northeastern Afghanistan, the worst disaster inSpecial Forces history," the female anchor was saying. "Known casualties include the sixteen men aboard the Chinook helicopter and three SEALs found dead nearby. Taliban leaders claim to have beheaded the fourth SEAL. An unprecedented search continues, despite those claims. The identity of the missing SEAL has not been released."

As the anchor moved to a bombing in neighboring Iraq, Penny directed her gaze out her window to her neighbor's dark, empty home, and her heart constricted with empathy. She wondered if Commander Montgomery knew any of the casualties personally. The Special Forces community was especially tight-knit.

"Do you think your neighbor was involved?" Ophelia asked, following her gaze.

"No," Penny answered definitively. "He's a high-ranking officer. He'd never be out in the field. But he probably knew a lot of those men," she added, aware that the tragedy would have touched him deeply. When a neighbor had returned from Iraq half-paralyzed last year, the SEAL built a handicap ramp and organized hospital transportation for the man. He was considerate like that.

He was also six feet three inches of sculpted muscles, with sun-streaked hair and khaki green eyes. Penny'd had a crush on him for years, but with gorgeous women jumping in and out of his hot tub with him, she knew she never stood a chance. Besides, he'd scarcely even spoken to her, except in polite greeting.

He had no idea that she cared for his cat and kept his front yard tidy while he was out playing commando.

With a hidden sigh, she retrieved her half-eaten cheesecake and carried it to the kitchen. "I'd better go to bed," she announced, rinsing the plate and sticking it in the dishwasher. "I have to get up early for work," she added. "I think you'll find everything you need upstairs."

"Thanks," said Lia, who'd flopped into the recliner and was flipping through channels.

As Penny slipped into bed minutes later, she remembered the nineteen men who'd lost their lives. As a lieutenant in the United States Navy and a proud patriot herself, her heart ached for them and their loved ones. She considered the commando still missing. Let him be alive, she prayed.

Then, as her mind had a habit of doing, she conjured an image of her awe-inspiring neighbor. His first name was Joseph; she'd overheard his friends call him Monty. But to her, he was more of a Mighty Joe. Given the concern he'd shown the injured vet last year, she just knew that Mighty Joe was taking this tragedy very personally, and she wished with all her heart that she could comfort him.

I'm going to die here, Joe thought, collapsing in the meager shade afforded by a rock overhang.

He panted, hungry for oxygen to feed his fast-beating heart. Near the height of this mountain chain, fourteen thousand feet above sea level, the air was terribly thin. It was warm by day, but at night the temperatures plummeted, leaving him shivering in his dust-covered uniform.

The relentless wind chapped his lips and stung the burn on his cheek. His mouth was so parched that his tongue had swelled. If he didn't find water soon, he'd have to steal it from the soldiers hounding him. And wouldn't that be fun?

The escape-and-evasion plan was weak, another oversight of this botched mission. Joe would have been better off slipping through enemy lines to reach coalition forces than he was penetrating the Hindu Kush to seek the E & E extraction point. For four endless days, he'd been chased by guerillas familiar with the terrain. And all he'd had to eat in that time was a lizard, caught basking on a rock.

He'd come so close, so many times, to being caught. But the fear of death—especially death by beheading, which the Taliban were notorious for—kept him moving, to no avail. The extraction point remained elusive.

He was stuck in a death trap where nothing made sense. How could everything have gone so wrong so quickly? Why couldn't he find his way out of this labyrinth of terror?

The sound of distant bombing was his only connection to reality. The Americans were retaliating.

Then a remote-controlled drone darted past him, diving down into a valley. It was searching for him, he realized, shedding tears of frustration.

There was no way to signal his location. Along with his floppy hat, he'd lost the glint tape he kept Velcroed to the underside of the brim. He'd ditched his infrared strobe when he'd ordered his squad to shuck their rucksacks. His E & E kit, with signal mirror, was lost when he fell four days ago. There was no other way on this barren mountainside to signal an SOS.

His only choice was to stay on the move or risk capture, but he'd driven himself to exhaustion. He lay in the scant shade afforded by the rock beside him, panting what might be his final breaths.

Was he turning delirious? He thought he heard voices, where before there was only the howl of the wind.

He tried to rouse himself, but he could scarcely crack an eye. As he pulled his knife free, it clattered from his clumsy fingers and rolled away.

Shit, he'd just given himself away.

The voices stopped talking. Cautious footsteps came closer.

Be merciful, God.

He struggled to his elbows.

Through bleary eyes, he blinked at the vision of two men, swathed in cream-colored robes and wearing turbans. Angels? he wondered, blinking to bring them into focus. But then he heard the bleating of sheep; no, they were herdsmen.

They approached him cautiously, conferring between themselves, casting glances all around. The only word Joe recognized was "Amerki," American.

One of them produced a knife and he flinched, expecting the worst. But it was his own knife, which they'd retrieved. The older of the two laid it on Joe's abdomen. The man reached under his robe for a goatskin canteen and offered it, his eyes watchful and concerned.

"Thank you," Joe managed to rasp. He lifted a hand to bear the canteen to his lips, but he was shaking too badly.

The stranger helped him. As Joe sipped the rejuvenating liquid, fighting the impulse to guzzle it, the older man said something to the younger. "Come," he added to Joe, urging him to sit up.

Joe hesitated. Who was to say these men wouldn't turn him over to the Taliban? As if sensing his distrust, the man said again, "Amerki."

Hope made Joe's extremities tingle. Maybe, just maybe, they were going to help.

Eric Tomlinson's persistence paid off. On his third visit to Ophelia Price's apartment, a German woman, with her hair in rollers, stuck her head out of the opposite apartment and demanded, "Vy do you knock every day on Lia's door ven you can see she isn't home?"

With a bead of cold sweat sliding from his temple to his jaw, Eric summoned a ghastly smile for her. "Do you know . . . w-w-w-where she is?" he asked.

"Vy shoult I tell you?" the woman asked, running a wary eye over his gaunt frame.

"I have to . . . t-t-talk to her." His body twitched with the effort needed to get the sentence out.

"No, I don't know vere she is," insisted the frau. She stepped back, intending to shut her door.

"Wait!" Eric threw himself across the breezeway, putting a shoulder against the door before she could fully close it. "You do know," he accused. He could see it in her fleshy face as she battled to push the door shut.

"Go away. She vent to stay vith her sister, okay? She vill haf friends stayink here. Dat's all I know!"

He stepped back suddenly, and the door slammed shut. Her sister? Ah, yes, Danny's Price's older daughter. Eric had preferred her over the impious Ophelia. But Sonja, his wife, had liked the younger daughter. Isn't she beautiful, she would say about her red-gold hair and turquoise eyes.

Yes, he would agree, but the older one is smart, like Danny.

Danny's insight had brought Eric to the brink of ruin five years ago. Danny'd died because of it, taking Eric's secret to the grave.

Or so Eric had hoped.

Ophelia Price seemed to know the truth. How do you sleep at night? she'd demanded of him.

He hadn't slept a wink since her call.

How could she have guessed, he agonized, unless Danny left a note, a clue, a message from the grave? It wouldn't take long for the elder sister to get the feds involved.

He would have to silence both of them, or they'd all be sorry.

Chapter Two


The hospital facility at Bagram Air Base was made of prefabricated materials and powered by generators. There was no hot water.

Having requested a real shower in lieu of a wipe-down, Joe found himself in a communal bathing area, shivering under the trickle that came out of the showerhead. Soap in hand, he set about scrubbing a week's worth of filth from his body, mindful of the treated burn on his right cheek, which he'd been told to keep dry.

Soap stung the cuts and blisters on his hands. His sunken abdomen, jutting hip bones, and torn skin gave testament to just how desperate his plight had been.

The men who'd rescued him were a tribal elder and his son. They sent word of their discovery to coalition forces, and six men from the Joint Special Operations Task Force had flown up to the remote mountain village to escort their ops officer back to Bagram. He was fussed over and cared for and denied even a moment's isolation in which to mull over his role in the disaster.

Joe's commander, Captain Lucas, had blamed the Taliban. God, it's good to get one of you back, son, he'd said with tears in his eyes. Who would have thought they'd score a hit like that with a thirty-year-old SAR, an SA-16 Gimlet? It sure as hell did the job for them, though, damn them to hell!

He was sending Joe home to recuperate. You'll need time to deal with this, Monty, he said, his hands heavy on Joe's shoulders.

How could it have happened? Joe wondered, watching the water swirl down the drain. He'd done everything he'd been trained to do. Those men should not have died.

He put a hand against the shower wall, fighting to inhale. The crushing weight on his chest made him want to double over.

He'd never known defeat could hurt so much. Until this impasse, all he'd ever tasted was glory.

Sure, he'd known a sliver of doubt at BUD/S, when for the first time ever he'd found himself in the company of men as fit and focused as he was. But even then it hadn't taken long to prove himself, to rise above.

The sound of a door closing snatched Joe from his misery. He turned off the water and reached for the towel. Girding his hips, he pulled aside the shower curtain, only to freeze at the sight of Chief Harlan—"Harley"—planted in the center of the locker room.

He'd come to talk to him.

Sean Harlan wasn't a tall man. Not only did Joe tower over him, he significantly outranked him. But rank didn't mean much in Special Ops. Wearing crisp desert cammies over his athletic frame, his head shaved as smooth as a baby's bottom, with blue eyes and a mobile mouth that worked in tandem, Harley cut an intimidating figure. Those eyes and that mouth could go from warmly amused to coldly unimpressed in under a tenth of a second.

Right now, both were flat, concealing his thoughts.

From the moment Harley'd joined the JSOTF, he had garnered Joe's respect. With sixteen years of experience in the field, he knew more about SEAL tactics, techniques and procedures, weapons, demo, and mission planning than any SEAL Joe knew, including himself.

Joe acknowledged him with a nod. "Chief." Harley was supposed to have been the OIC on the mission gone wrong, but when he'd spiked a fever, Joe had opted to take his place at the last minute, rather than postpone the time-critical reconnaissance.

Harley's stare centered on Joe's bandage. "Sir." His blue gaze then raked Joe's frame, as if seeking evidence of his travail.

Joe had lost fifteen pounds. His cheeks were shrunken and sunburned, his lips blistered, his feet and hands swollen.

When Harley finally looked him in the eye, the grim set of his mouth was not without compassion. "I'm glad you made it, sir," he said gruffly.

An invisible noose looped around Joe's throat. "Thank you," he managed.

"I want to know what happened," Harley demanded, in a voice that grew gravelly with emotion and, to Joe's horror, accusation. Moisture glittered in his bright blue eyes. The hands at his side curled into fists. "Those were my boys," he added. "I was responsible for them."

At the possibility that Harlan was blaming him, a cold sweat bathed Joe's pores. "Everything went wrong at once," he sought to defend himself. "We were compromised and had a running gunfight with about a hundred of them; the gunship was nowhere within range. Nikko got hit and went under; we had to get him out fast. The tangos had mortars and our ammo ran dry." He couldn't begin to summarize the odds they'd faced.

But Harley was shaking his head. Obviously, he'd heard the underlying causes and they weren't enough. "I should've been with them," he insisted.

"You were sick," Joe reminded him. At the same time he wondered if he'd made a mistake in taking Harlan's place. If he'd waited a day or two, or if he'd sent Harlan in with a fever, would things have turned out any different?

"I told you not to take my place," Harley reminded him, tripling Joe's sudden uncertainties. "I could have gone in, sir, fever or no fever."

Feeling light-headed, Joe widened his stance. He would have sworn it was the right thing to do. There were forces in the field awaiting the results of their mission. But what if he'd unconsciously longed for one last stint in the field? "The same thing would've happened if you were there," he insisted.

"Maybe so," Harley conceded, "but those were my men."

Joe's knees trembled. Maybe Harley wasn't blaming him. Maybe he was just coping, like Joe was, with the overwhelming knowledge that the soldiers they'd trained with, eaten with, swapped stories and tender moments with were gone.

"They were my men, too," Joe countered, holding the man's burning gaze with difficulty. "And I'm sorry, Sean," he added, bringing a tremble to the chief's chin. "I'm so fucking sorry that it ended this way."

Harley's hard expression softened with resignation. Silence fell between them, as deep and hopeless as a mortal wound. "I hope that burn heals for you, sir," he said, nodding at Joe's wound.

"Thank you."

Drawing himself upright, he snapped off a tight salute.

With a leaden arm, Joe managed to return it.

Swiveling on his boots, the chief performed an about-face and marched quietly out of the bathing area.

Joe waited three seconds before wilting on one of the benches that lined a wall of lockers.

Jesus, what if it was his fault?

He dropped his face into his hands and shuddered.

It took three days of debriefing, paperwork, packing, and travel to finally arrive home. Joe nosed his soft-top black Jeep into the driveway of his suburban four-bedroom family home in Virginia Beach, cut the engine, and stared.

In the past, he viewed leave time as a necessary but annoying lull between missions. This time, there was no future mission to anticipate. He would not be returning to his team.

You're too senior to remain the operations officer, Captain Lucas had explained. It's time to assume your own command. Go home and wait for a detailer to give you a call.

Yet home seemed strangely unfamiliar. When he'd left Virginia back in May, the dogwoods were still blooming. It was late October now, and the ten-year-old maple in his front yard had turned orange. Its brilliance set his white house apart from the others, as did the landscaped flowerbeds. He'd paid some kid to cut his grass over the summer. Someone must have raked his leaves, because the yard looked pristine.

Too apathetic to be grateful, Joe pushed out of his vehicle, grimacing at the pain it caused him. It'd become apparent that he'd injured his back in the fall he'd taken on the heels of the explosion. Yet he'd refused the medication prescribed to him. Pain kept his thoughts off the tragedy.

He had just shut his door when a flurry of grass-muffled footsteps had him turning his head. His next-door neighbor—what was her name again?—was hurrying across her lawn to see him, cradling his black and white tomcat in her arms.

"Sir!" she called out in a friendly voice. Her shy smile wavered as she beheld the nasty burn on his face, but she pinned it right back in place. "You're home," she observed, drawing to a halt by his front tire.

"Yes," he agreed, his tone abrupt. He was happy to see his cat again but not in the mood for cheery small talk.

Her aqua blue eyes broke over him like a warm Caribbean wave. "I was worried," she admitted, causing him to drown in her next words. "I heard about the tragedy on the news, and I'm so sorry. You must have lost some very good friends."

Her sincerity was just too much. "Thank you." Joe had to look down at his cat. "Felix, you big mooch. What are you doing taking up this lady's time?" He stepped forward to pet the cat's head.

"Oh, it's not a problem," the neighbor assured him. "Felix just realized he could get a steadier diet by coming to my door. Your—ah—cat-sitter isn't terribly punctual."

Her cool reference to Barbara, his girlfriend, had Joe glancing up. He caught the neighbor taking in the scabs and scratches on his hand, and he snatched it back, turning away to reach into the Jeep's back seat for his duffel bag. As he dragged it out, the weight of the bag made him groan. He turned back, freeing one hand to take the cat. "Thanks for watching him," he muttered.

With concern creasing her brow, his neighbor relinquished the feline. "If there's anything I can do to help . . ." she offered.

"Thanks," he said again, more remotely. His true feelings were anything but remote. He felt raw and vulnerable and utterly off balance.

"I'm glad you're home," she said, backing away. With another shy smile and a flutter of fingers, she retreated, walking crisply across her lawn. She didn't sway her hips—not intentionally, at least.

Bemused by her friendliness, Joe dismissed her from his thoughts and hefted his cat to eye him with admonishment. "You've been playing the field, haven't you?"

Felix offered him a self-satisfied smirk. "Nnnro," he replied, butting Joe's chin with the top of his head.

"Liar," Joe muttered, heading toward his front door. Every step sent pain shooting up the right side of his back.

Penny slowly closed her door and put her back against it. Gracious! Her neighbor hadn't looked like that when he left. He was gaunt and sunburned, with more cuts and scrapes on him than on an active three-year-old. And that wound beneath his eye! What, besides an intentional branding or an awful accident, could have caused such a severe burn?

Poor man! Recalling his groan when he'd pulled his bag from the Jeep, she realized he was in pain. What was hurting him, his back?

As a physical therapist at the Portsmouth Naval Medical Center, Penny tended all kinds of injured patients. One look at the lines of pain on Joe Montgomery's face and it was apparent: He'd been through hell.


On Sale
Aug 1, 2007
Page Count
352 pages

Marliss Melton

About the Author

Marliss Melton enjoyed an exotic childhood growing up overseas where entertainment meant riding on elephants in Laos, visiting museums in Paris, and tracking tigers in northern Thailand. Her experiences traveling the world led to her love of language, music, and storytelling. She has taught English and Spanish at the high school level and linguistics at the College of William and Mary, her alma mater.

A Golden Heart and RITA finalist, she has written ten books since first becoming published in 2002. The wife of a retired Navy veteran, Marliss finds writing military romantic suspense to be a perfect fit. She lives with her husband and many children near Virginia Beach, where she is inspired by real-life stories of Navy SEAL’s sacrifices and their struggles to combat terrorism. You can check out her website at

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