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Too Far Gone
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Navy SEAL Sean Harlan agrees to help Ellie find her children, but vows to keep their relationship professional. He’s got no room in his life for a woman and her kids–no matter how beautiful she is, or how desperate their situation. But when a sinister organization begins pulling strings behind the scenes, the investigation suddenly targets Sean. Can he and Ellie rescue her children and save themselves? Or are they already…
TOO FAR GONE
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2008 by Marliss Arruda
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Cover design by Dale Fioricco
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Forever is an imprint of Grand Central Publishing. The Forever name and logo is a trademark of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
First eBook Edition: November 2008
Also by Marliss Melton
Forget Me Not
In the Dark
Time to Run
Next to Die
Don't Let Go
For the citizens and natives of Savannah, Georgia, please forgive any insinuation that corruption rules your beautiful city. With the release of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Savannah became the prototype setting for a story involving intrigue and mystery. I have used that circumstance to my benefit and greatly appreciate your forbearance.
As always, writing a story is never an act completed in isolation. Many people contributed to the project, some without ever even realizing it. My thanks go to the hospitable folks at Old Town Trolley Tours in Savannah; to my editor, Michele Bidelspach, for giving me the time I needed for revisions; to retired FBI Special Agent Kevin McPartland for answering all of my annoying questions; and to officer Mark Kearney for answering my questions about getting arrested and going to jail.
My assistant, Janie Hawkins, deserves untold recognition for enduring the agonies of labor pains as we birthed this baby together. Bless you, Janie, for loving Sean and Ellie as much as I do and for sharing your time and talent to help me tell their tale.
With the rain coming down in sheets outside her minuscule rancher and with her two older sons chasing each other wildly through the rooms, Ellie Stuart was on the verge of pulling her hair out. "Boys!" she snapped, glaring up from the biology book in her lap. "I've had enough. Go to your room this instant and find a game to play or a book to read!"
"I don't have nothin' new to read, Mama," protested ten-year-old Christopher.
"I hate readin'!" Caleb, his younger brother, declared.
Ellie set her book aside and rose ominously from the couch. "Then we'll just have to practice math," she threatened, skirting the baby who crawled into her path. Caleb's performance in second-grade math was a matter of great concern to his teacher and, of course, to Ellie, who never found enough time to help him.
Sacrificing her own studies, she snatched up the practice cards she had bought at Wal-Mart and ordered him to sit on the couch. He thumped down on the sofa with a rubber ball in hand, knocking her textbook to the floor.
"Careful!" Ellie scolded, hating the note of frustration in her voice. Being a single mother was the toughest job a woman could have, short of living in a dingy trailer by a swamp in Mississippi with a no-good, lying, cheating, loser of a husband named Carl.
"Chris," she requested of her ten-year-old, "kindly take the baby to your bedroom."
"Yes, Mama," said Chris with a sigh.
Positioning herself in front of Caleb, Ellie readied the cards in her hand and began to drill him. "Twelve," she corrected him when he got the answer wrong. "We just did that one, remember?" It was hard to tell if Caleb had a problem remembering or if he was being intentionally obtuse. Either way, she stood on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
The vision of a white Chevy truck pulling into her driveway startled an exclamation out of her. Well, look who was back from God-knew-where.
Caleb shot to his knees to see what she was looking at. "Yay!" he shouted. "Mr. Sean's back!"
"Stay put!" Ellie ordered when he made to jump off the sofa.
As Sean darted from his truck to her front stoop with a plastic sack in one hand, Ellie went to open the door, aware that her heart had started racing.
Chief Petty Officer Sean Harlan was her landlord. The day she'd met him ten months ago, she'd realized he was dangerous—not because he was a SEAL and a sniper, but because of his charm. He was bald and muscular, with twinkling blue eyes and a killer smile. She had recognized him then for exactly what he was: a ladies' man, with no more staying power than a butterfly on a lilac bush.
When Ellie and her boys were new to Virginia Beach, keeping clear of Sean hadn't been easy. He'd hung around her little rental house, one of several he owned and leased, putting on the finishing touches. He'd built a sandbox in the backyard for her boys and brought them bicycles. But then, for the last six months, he'd been overseas, and life had settled down into a grinding but stable routine.
She'd forgotten how unsettling his presence could be.
"Hi." With that killer grin and rainwater clinging to his eyelashes, his sex appeal rolled over her like hot oil, completely visceral yet utterly undesired. "Are the boys here?" His eyes seemed even bluer, set against a suntanned face.
Lord have mercy. "Of course," she said, her voice huskier than usual. "Come in." She stepped back, and he eased past her, causing the walls of the little house to shrink inward. His shoulders seemed broader than ever, his bare calves below the khaki shorts sleek and powerful. The faint scent of citrus always seemed to cling to him. She swallowed against a suddenly dry throat.
"Mr. Sean!" Caleb launched himself off the couch to tackle him at the waist.
With a mock roar, Sean collapsed onto the couch and pulled him into a bear hug.
"You're back!" exclaimed Christopher, hurrying out of the hallway with the baby to grin down at them.
Sean shot to his feet, rubbed his knuckles over Chris's head, and took the eleven-month-old baby from his arms. "Holy smokes, little guy," he exclaimed, dangling him up at eye level. "Watcha been eatin'?"
Colton grinned, showing off his four front teeth.
"Pretty much everything he can get his hands on," Ellie explained.
"Oh, yeah?" he said. As he glanced over at her, his gaze dropped briefly to her breasts.
Her nipples tingled as if he'd actually caressed them. "Caleb was practicing his math facts," she informed him, holding up the cards as evidence.
"Oh, sorry," he said, not sounding at all contrite. "I brought you guys a present." He lifted the bag looped over his arm.
"What is it?" Caleb's face lit up with excitement.
Santa Claus is back, Ellie thought with a roll of her eyes.
As Sean handed her the baby, the heat of his strong fingers seemed to scorch her. He glanced at her sharply as if surprised by the awareness sparking between them. Delving into the bag, he pulled out a tin cylinder and gave it to the boys. Caleb and Christopher tore into it, falling to their knees. "It's a magnet set. Cool!" Chris exclaimed.
Sean smiled down at their blond heads. "Got it at the airport. This is for the little guy," he said, pulling out a stuffed monkey and handing it to Colton. The baby grasped it, staring with amazement into the monkey's plastic eyes.
"Thank you," murmured Ellie. "You don't need to bring them gifts, you know. They're just happy to have you back."
He gave her a long, searching look. "What about you?" he demanded unexpectedly.
The soft challenge drove the breath from her lungs. "I wouldn't have a home without you," she retorted, aware that her legs were trembling. What was wrong with her? He was gone just six months, yet her body seemed to come alive in his presence. He probably had that effect on all women, young and old alike.
Ellie tucked a strand of golden brown hair behind her ear. The soft, curly texture heightened her awareness of her femininity. What was she thinking, allowing hormones to rule her thoughts? Men were trouble, and her friends had warned her about Sean—first Solomon in his terse, no-nonsense way and then his wife, Jordan, who just came right out and told her to ignore Sean if he flirted. Even her neighbor Belinda had made some comments about Sean being a love-'em-and-leave-'em type if ever there was one. Having been bitten by one man, you'd think she had the sense to be twice shy.
"So, listen," said Sean, sounding a little uncertain of himself, "do you think I could take the bigger boys right now to Fun Zone?"
Caleb jerked his gaze up from the magnet set. "Fun Zone!" he cried.
Chris's gray eyes swiveled up at her. "Can we go, Mama? Please?"
Ellie heaved an exasperated sigh. "Caleb has to practice his math facts," she reminded Sean.
"No problem," he said, glancing at the cards in her hand. "Addition is our mission. By the time I bring 'em home, Caleb will know how to add anything up to . . . ?"
"Twenty," Caleb supplied, surprisingly astute.
Ellie raised a dubious eyebrow. "How are you going to teach him that at Fun Zone?" she demanded, picturing the boys and Sean clambering through tubes and coasting down slides. She almost wished she could go, too.
"Now, Miz Ellie." Sean sent her a long-suffering look, but the way he drawled her name in his resonant baritone made her insides quiver. "Not all boys learn math like you girly girls with books and cards and all. We learn by doing, ain't that right?" He glanced at Caleb for corroboration.
"I can learn by reading," Christopher piped up with a worried look.
"That's 'cause you're smart," Sean countered, "like your mama."
Ellie's insides quivered again.
"Chris is a girly boy," Caleb taunted.
Sean cut him a frown, and Caleb's mouth snapped shut.
He sure has a way with them, Ellie thought. She wondered if he was going to let them down the way their daddy had. Sean's absence these past months had been hard enough, only it hadn't been his decision to leave. He'd had a job to do.
"So, can we go?" he asked. He seemed more antsy than usual, but then his muscles had always thrummed with an energy level she could only envy.
"I don't have any money," she stalled, angling her chin higher.
"No problem. I've got free tickets." He patted his back pocket. "MWR was giving them away."
MWR had to be some kind of perk for the military. Ellie threw her hands up. "Go ahead. It's not like I can tell them no now." Besides, she could use the reprieve to study for her upcoming finals.
Sean grinned at the boys. "Come on, fellas. Put your shoes on."
"Yay!" As they dashed off in search of their shoes, Ellie played with Colton and his monkey. She could sense Sean's gaze focusing intently on them both.
"I should have gotten you something, too," he said with an apologetic grimace.
She looked up at him, surprised. "No, you shouldn't," she retorted definitively.
"You deserve something," he argued. "When's the last time someone gave you something?"
"'Bout nine months ago," she answered honestly, "when you gave me this house to rent and kept me and my boys from living in my car on the streets."
"Ellie." He inhaled, expanding his already immense chest, and shook his head. "You have no idea—"
"Mama, where are my new shoes?" Caleb's cry from the back of the house cut him off. Ellie hurried to help him, both frightened and excited by whatever Sean was going to say.
"They're right here, honey," she said, kicking them out from under his bed.
Jamming his feet into his sneakers, Caleb ran for the door. "Okay, I'm ready," he declared. Chris followed right behind him.
"I'll have them home by suppertime," Sean promised. He sent both boys ahead of him with, "Run! The truck's unlocked."
He and Ellie remained in the cramped hallway. Ellie clutched Colton to her chest like a shield, her heart beating irregularly. "I hope you get some studying done," Sean said gruffly, proving he hadn't overlooked her textbook on the floor. "You should be proud of yourself," he added, "going back to school and all."
She'd received so few scraps of encouragement in her life that his words seemed to lift her right off the floor. Was that what he'd been about to tell her earlier? "Just doing what I have to do," she murmured with a pinch of disappointment.
"Well. See you," he said, and with a wink and a smile, he was gone.
She watched him jog through the rain to his truck, where the boys tussled inside, fogging up the windows.
His beat-up Chevy shot out of her driveway backward, reversed direction, and disappeared. The house seemed suddenly too quiet. She wished she'd been invited to go along with them. Sean's presence was like a sunbeam on a cloudy day.
You fool, scolded a voice in her head. Not every itch needs scratching. Her attraction to Sean would only distract her from the goals she'd set for herself: to get a degree in nursing with the aim of becoming a certified midwife. Mooning over a man would get her nowhere. Hadn't she learned that lesson from marrying Carl?
Putting her weight against the door, Ellie tried to ignore the throb of desire that left her feeling needy and unfulfilled. She was a woman, after all, in the prime of her life. She wasn't a naïve sixteen-year-old anymore, stupid enough to think the all-star, high school quarterback was her salvation from years of foster care. Oh, no. She was her own woman now. And an affair with Sean Harlan spelled nothing but disaster for her and her boys.
"Daddy, you wanted to see me?" Skyler Dulay slipped through her father's office door and shut it quietly behind her.
She caught him putting the key that opened his file cabinet back in the box he kept hidden in the back of his drawer. Over the years, she'd realized that was where he hid it. He did so now with precise and methodical movements, sending her a smile that failed to reach his dark, enigmatic eyes. The grandfather clock in the corner ticked off the seconds, and Skyler's anxiety escalated.
Her father slowly stood. At well over six feet and always impeccably dressed, he cut an intimidating figure. She scarcely breathed as he rounded his desk. "Yes, I have a matter to discuss before you leave for the shelter today," he imparted in his deceptively gentle, Southern drawl.
She glanced at the clock, her heart thudding heavily. News that was shared in her father's study was never welcoming. "I'm already late," she pointed out.
"This won't wait," he said, coming to stand before her, his smile now gone. He put out his hands, palms up, indicating she should lay her hands over his. She did so and was, as usual, overcome by a sudden sense of helplessness. At twenty-three, she still felt like a child.
"As the daughter of a Centurion, I'm sure you understand your obligations," he began with an omnipotent glint in his murky eyes.
Skyler's insides cramped. "Of course," she murmured, terrified of what might come next.
"You've known for years that you would marry Ashton Jameson. He and I have decided to move up the wedding date."
Skyler's heart seemed to stop, then start up at an erratic pace. "Up to when?" she asked as the blood rushed from her cheeks.
"The end of this month," he replied. His dark watchful eyes dared her to defy him.
"But, why?" she protested. "I have Mama to look after."
His grip tightened. "You are not a son," he said, reminding her of the Centurion laws forbidding daughters to inherit. "Without my wealth, you have nothing."
Wrenching her hands from his, she walked to the window to hide her dismay. Below her, Carl, their gardener, snipped back the shriveled stalks of dead lilies, his lanky hair falling over his eyes. "I don't want your wealth," she dared to admit, clutching the heavy silk drape in one hand.
With a harsh grip, her father dragged her around. "Rubbish," he declared. "You've no idea what it means to go without."
"I work at a homeless shelter," she reminded him, her cheeks flaming with indignation.
"And you come home to a mansion with servants," he articulated with a nasty smile.
"Jameson is fifty years old!" Skyler cried, coming to the heart of her protest.
"Exactly," hissed her father. "And one day, not too long from now, he'll die, leaving you a wealthy widow, still young enough to pursue your silly little dreams."
Chilled by his prediction and offended that he had belittled her aspirations, Skyler dug her nails into her palms for courage. "I am a grown woman," she insisted, though her voice quavered. "I should get to choose who I'm going to marry."
The look that crossed her father's face struck fear in her heart. "Tonight, Jameson is giving you a ring," he warned, scarcely above a whisper. Dismay smothered Skyler's brief rebellion. "If you even think of refusing him, I'll put you where you should have been all these years."
A shudder wracked Skyler's slender frame. He held her fate, her terrible secret, like a trump card in the palm of his hand. "Now, have a good day," he added, releasing her with a genteel nod and a steely smile.
Feeling as though the breath had been knocked from her lungs, Skyler fled to the door and pushed through it, careful not to let it slam. Her father abhorred unseemly displays.
At just past midnight, Sean swung into Ellie's driveway, wary of the message that had summoned him here. Sure enough, every light in the house was out, just like her voice mail, left on his cell an hour ago, had advised him.
Nothing's working—not the switches or the outlets. There must be a problem with the main breaker in the electric box, she'd surmised in her husky drawl.
He loved the way she talked, liquefying short little words into long, molasses-smooth ones. He'd wondered, though, if she was telling the truth. Or was her call just a ploy to get him to drop by, late at night when the boys were sleeping? It wouldn't be the first time a woman tenant with ulterior motives had summoned him.
The possibility that Ellie had something like that in mind heated his blood.
Candlelight flickered faintly behind her drawn blinds. With a tingle of excitement and an equally strong dose of wariness, Sean knocked lightly on her door.
The snap of a twig out back and the barest whisper of a footfall made him step back and listen. What was that?
But then the door eased open, and suddenly all of his attention was caught up in the vision of Ellie in a soft, worn nightgown with ragged lace at the neckline. His suspicions spiraled straight to his groin. Why else would she greet him in her nightie if not to lure him to her bed? But she was clutching a candle before her, holding it up like a weapon. Maybe sex wasn't the first thing on her mind—too bad.
He swallowed hard. "Sorry it took me so long to come over. I had duty tonight."
"Honestly, it's fine. I'd given up on you coming at all." She seemed nervous about his timing. "This can wait till morning. It's awful late."
"But you're up," he pointed out.
"I've got finals this week," she admitted. She did look tired, her eyes red with strain and rimmed with dark circles.
She must have been waiting tables earlier, he surmised, since her hair was still braided. Soft-looking curls straggled out of the single French braid and framed her face like a halo. Her skin looked creamy and flawless. Wide gray eyes skittered over his battle dress uniform and webbed belt to the gun holstered at his waist. He saw her swallow, noted the faint, fast flutter of her pulse in the hollow at the base of her throat.
The mid-May air seemed suddenly thick and damp, making it harder to breathe. "Why don't I check it out while I'm here?" Sean suggested, praying, hoping she wouldn't make the first move. If she did, he was toast. After six months in a godforsaken desert, he'd come home ready to get laid, and Ellie looked mighty fine at the moment.
Her eyebrows drew together, betraying her misgivings. "All right," she relented, and slowly opened the door.
The minute he stepped inside, he realized he could smell her. She'd showered off the scent of food and perspiration that clung to her after waiting tables. Now she smelled of clean woman and fresh cotton, an alluring blend that had him digging deep to keep from reaching for her.
"Why do you lock it?" she demanded, making him realize that while his mind was on sex, hers was on more practical things.
"What, the electric panel? I don't."
"Well, it's locked now, or I'd have thrown the switch myself."
"Hmm." With a frown, Sean stalked down the short hall to the kitchen. The electric panel was mounted on the wall over her washer and dryer—two ancient appliances bought at a garage sale. He tugged at the metal door and found it stuck. Giving it a hard jerk, it popped open. A paperclip clattered onto the dryer.
Sean picked it up. "The door was jammed," he said, peering at the control panel. Sure enough, the main switch had been thrown. He popped it on again, and light flooded down on them from the recessed fixture overhead. Shutting the little metal door, he picked up the paper clip and showed it to Ellie like a piece of damning evidence.
"Well, I didn't do it," she protested, holding a hand out as she extinguished her candle.
"One of the boys maybe?" Their fingers brushed, sparking that same reaction he'd felt the other day. His breath caught, and his gaze jumped to where her nipples, firmly erect, jutted through the fabric of her gown. Holy hell. "I'd better go," he rasped, brushing past her to escape to the door.
At the doorway, he glanced back, catching a look of unguarded desire that she quickly concealed by lowering her lashes. "Ellie." He gripped the doorknob hard. "If things were different, you'd have trouble getting rid of me right now."
Her spine stiffened even as her eyes flared with surprise. "Different how?" she demanded.
He realized she'd misunderstood him. He changed direction, walking up to within six inches of her, close enough to inhale her scent. "You have no idea how amazing you are, do you?" he demanded, wishing to God he could press her back against the wall and show her what she did to him. The image of her against the wall, him against her, inside her, almost undid him.
She looked up at him, suspiciously puzzled.
"Look, it isn't you. I just don't date women with kids," he explained to her gently, regretfully. "That's all. It's just . . . not a good idea, trust me."
Ellie reeled with mortification. Was she that transparent that he simply assumed she wanted to sleep with him? Shame and self-directed anger made her ears burn. "No, it's not a good idea," she agreed. "And just so you know, that's just fine with me. What makes you so cocksure I even want a man in my life? You may be good with my boys, Mr. Harlan," she choked out fiercely, "but I can get along just fine without you."
"Is that right?" he murmured, his eyes glinting at the challenge. He gave her mouth a scorching look.
"Damn right it is," she blurted, appalled by the quaver in her voice, dying for that kiss she just knew he was imagining, and thinking, Just shut up! Only she couldn't. "What's a man good for when all he does is take up room in the bed, thinking he's all that and a bag of chips? Carl couldn't even watch his own kids without calling it babysittin'. And forget about changing diapers! You think I want a man when all he does when the going gets rough is run off with another woman . . . or off to war?" she choked out hoarsely.
The sudden wail of the baby told her she had awakened Colton. With a stamp of her foot, she whirled toward his bedroom, muttering, "Kindly let yourself out." God, what had she been thinking going off on him like that?
To her consternation, he followed right on her heels. She plucked up the baby, realized his diaper was soiled, and turned toward the changing table. The atmosphere in the cramped little room seemed to crackle. As she popped the snaps on Colton's sleeper, fingers trembling, the silence seemed to swell.
Suddenly, Sean edged her aside, startling her back. With a challenging look, he wrested the wet wipes from her hands and reached for a fresh diaper.
With movements that were brisk and certain, he pulled back the tape to release the smelly diaper and eased it aside. Then he wiped the baby's bottom, sealing the wipes and diaper into a tidy ball. In another three seconds, he had girded Colton in a fresh diaper.
By the time he'd snapped Colton's sleeper, the baby was grinning up at him in full approval and Ellie was trembling with humiliation and dread. "You got him?" Sean asked, striding into the bathroom across the hall to wash his hands.
With her heart racing, she swung the baby back into his crib and waited to face the music.
Now she'd done it. All her life, from her earliest memories of following her mother from one man's home to another to the day her beloved Granny Annie had died and she'd been handed over to social services, Ellie's life had been a series of uprootings. Not even Carl had thought twice about selling that shabby old trailer out from under her and her boys. How could she be so stupid as to offend her landlord, just when things were settling down for them?
He loomed suddenly at the door. Ellie swallowed hard, gripping the crib rail as she scrounged for the apology she owed him, but Sean was the first to speak.
With a mocking smile and a glint in his eyes, he said quietly, "Never challenge a SEAL, darlin'. There isn't anything we can't fuckin' do." With a wink that took the edge off his boast, he disappeared from the door.
A second later, she heard the front door open and close quietly. His truck engine roared and he pulled away.
Ignoring Colton's wail of protest, she crossed to his door and turned the lights out. "Night, night, sweetpea," she choked out. She went straight to her darkened bedroom and sprawled onto her stomach across the bed, feeling heartsick.
Well, at least it's over, reasoned a voice that sounded like Granny Annie's. You can bet Sean won't be sniffing 'round your skirts no more.
For some reason, that realization only left her feeling worse. She'd be lucky if he didn't throw her out of his house on her ear. She'd never find a rental half as nice or affordable.
Drake Donovan regarded the mysterious lump of meat on his tray with revulsion and asked himself, Why did I volunteer for this again? Being an undercover special agent for the FBI was anything but glamorous. From the moment he'd skulked into this homeless shelter in Savannah, Georgia, his dignity had been shredded too many times to count, and his stomach had rumbled with digestive problems.
He was four months into his assignment, and what he'd learned about the Centurions and their leader, Owen Dulay, could be written on one side of a Post-it note. But it wasn't too late to change tactics. The time had come to befriend Dulay's daughter, Skyler. Tray in hand, he made his way over to her now.
RAVE REVIEWS FOR MARLISS MELTON AND DON'T LET GO:
"Four different plot threads are delicately woven together, each resonating with emotional overtones of loss and rebirth. This is another winner in a top-notch series!" --Romantic Times BOOKreviews Magazine
NEXT TO DIE:
"Continuing on her hot streak, Melton adds another chapter to her ongoing SEAL Team saga...Melton is rapidly proving herself a major player in the genre." --Romantic Times BOOKreviews Magazine
"Romance that sizzles." --Publishers Weekly
"Hard to put down. Not only is it gut-wrenching, it's fast paced, it's sexy, and it's action packed...Ms. Melton has written a book that I feel certain will be found on many keeper shelves and often pulled down for a reread." ---Romance Readers Connection
- On Sale
- Nov 1, 2008
- Page Count
- 384 pages