New York Times Bestselling Author
On one unforgettable afternoon, a simple fluke kept Carly Stewart out of her crazy ex’s reach…landing her best friend in his clutches instead. It’s been months since the events of that day, when her friend was rescued and her ex, Shawn, died, yet the police are no closer to discovering who his accomplice was. And Carly is no closer to reclaiming her life, hiding in her apartment in distress, flinching at every noise and shadow. Her only saving grace is Jag. The Navy SEAL who’s kept her from completely losing herself to the terror.
Jagger Bennett will never give up on Carly. He understands what she’s going through better than most. He also knows she won’t let her ex control her from the grave for much longer, especially when he sees the first spark of anger peeking through her fear. He’ll help her defeat her demons, regain her confidence, get back to the person she was before Shawn Keyes…and in return, she could be the one woman who can help Jag conquer his past. If he’s able to put his own torment to rest, he’ll claim Carly for his own.
Shawn Keyes was my friend. My mentor. Now he’s gone. And I have no one. It’s all her fault. Carly Stewart. She’ll pay for everything she did to Shawn…to me…and she’ll pay soon. Before she can ruin another man’s life.
Carly Stewart sat with her back against the wall in the corner of her bedroom. She’d heard a noise in the hallway earlier and it sent her into another panic attack. She’d hidden under her bed like a five-year-old for a while, then finally scooted out and was currently clutching her knees to her chest, trying to breathe.
A funny thing was happening though. Something new. Something that hadn’t happened since the evening Kenna had been kidnapped by Carly’s ex-boyfriend and almost blown to pieces by the bomb Shawn had strapped to his chest.
In addition to the paralyzing fear she’d experienced almost every day since, Carly felt anger boiling deep within her.
Neither emotion was common for her. She wasn’t the kind of woman who stressed over every little thing. She was generally a happy person…or at least she used to be.
Dating Shawn had been good at first. He was older than she was, by two decades, but that hadn’t bothered them. But it wasn’t long before he’d changed from the kind, romantic man she’d thought she knew into a controlling abuser.
It had taken Carly far too long to finally come to her senses. She was just thankful she’d never moved in with him like he’d begged her to.
But he’d refused to accept their breakup, which was crazy. He began stalking her, making her life a living hell. She’d taken out a protective order against him, and even though she knew he wouldn’t like that, she’d never expected he’d want to kill her.
She’d gone home early from work the evening he’d shown up at the restaurant, bomb strapped to his chest, prepared to kidnap and do who-the-hell-knew-what to her. He’d ultimately kidnapped her friend, Kenna, then blew himself up.
That should’ve been the end of it. But instead, it was just the beginning of her nightmare.
It was one thing knowing who to look out for, to know who hated you. But it was another to realize someone had been working with Shawn that night. Someone willing to aid in her torture…and not know who that person was for sure.
Carly and the cops were fairly certain it was Shawn’s son, Luke. He’d hated her from the second they’d met, and hadn’t been afraid to show it. During the kidnapping, Shawn had inferred someone was out in the ocean in a boat, ready to pick him up from the beach outside of Duke’s restaurant. But the police couldn’t find proof of Luke’s involvement…or that anyone else had been working with Shawn.
Ever since that night, Carly had been paranoid. Scared out of her mind. Terrified that whoever was working with Shawn would finish what he’d started. She’d quit her job, stopped seeing her friends, and become a shell of the woman she used to be.
She would’ve become a complete recluse if it hadn’t been for Jag.
Jagger Bennett was a Navy SEAL. She knew him through Kenna, her friend and fellow waitress at Duke’s, who was dating Jag’s teammate.
Jag literally wouldn’t leave her alone. He texted and called and even came by to check on her. He was annoying, persistent, bossy…and Carly didn’t know how she would’ve made it through the last couple of months without him.
She wanted to hate him. Wanted to resent his interference in her life. Wished he’d just let her hide in peace. But she couldn’t. He’d kept her sane, kept her from completely freaking out.
And there was the fact that Carly had developed the biggest crush on the man, even before Shawn’s kidnapping attempt.
But she’d learned her lesson about dating older men. Granted, Jag was only ten years older, and was nothing like Shawn, but still.
As Carly sat on her floor, her ass numb, thinking about the last couple of months, the anger in her belly continued to grow. Shawn was an asshole. He’d never taken responsibility for his own actions, instead blaming everyone around him. And when they’d started dating, Carly had soon found herself the recipient of most of his anger. She couldn’t do anything right. Was immature and stupid and irresponsible.
She was ashamed to admit that she’d started to believe him.
No one knew exactly what she’d been through with Shawn. She kept it to herself. Smiling and joking at work, yet feeling beaten and broken inside. Then he’d almost killed her friend. It had all been too much.
Carly desperately wanted her life back. She was broke, lonely, and terrified to step outside her apartment, in case Luke was waiting to get revenge for his dad’s death.
A week and a half ago, she’d actually let Jag talk her into going to Kenna’s wedding. It was the first time she’d willingly gone out in public in months…and one of the most painful days of her life. Kenna was beautiful. She’d looked so damn happy. Carly was happy for her, but sad for herself. She no longer knew what was going on in her friend’s life. Or the lives of any of the new friends she’d met through Jag’s team. And she didn’t know Monica at all, who’d recently joined the small circle of women Carly had just started to get to know.
Attending the wedding had hammered home that life was passing her by. She missed her friends. She wanted what they had. And she wouldn’t get any of it by sitting on her ass shaking like a leaf in her apartment.
Feeling as if she were a hundred years old, Carly leaned over and picked up her phone, which was sitting on a small table next to her bed. She gripped it tightly and unlocked the screen, staring down at her contact list.
Elodie. Lexie. Kenna. Jag. The rest of Jag’s SEAL team was programmed in as well, but Carly had never called or messaged them. She clicked on Jag’s name and scrolled up. There were hundreds of texts from the last few months. Most from him, asking how she was, if she’d eaten, if she needed anything, or if she wanted him to come over. Even though she rarely allowed herself the luxury of inviting him over, when he did come, she felt a short-lived relief.
She’d last seen him at the wedding. He’d gotten upset with her for wanting to leave early. She’d been frustrated with him for not understanding how hard it was for her to come to the ceremony in the first place. She’d had only one text from him since. The following day, short and to the point. Carly stared at the words he’d written.
Jag: Headed out on a mission. When I get back, we’re gonna talk.
For the first time in a while, Carly worried about someone other than herself. Was he okay? She had no idea where he was, which she knew wasn’t something she’d ever know, since he was a SEAL, but what if he’d been hurt? Or worse, killed?
That thought sent a pang of dread straight to her heart. And it wasn’t like the dull, constant fear she’d experienced over the last few months. It was all-encompassing.
Without thought, Carly’s thumbs flew over her keyboard as she typed out a message. It was long, much longer than the few words she usually used to communicate with him. She wanted—no, needed him to know she was thankful for his presence in her life. That without him, she didn’t know if she would’ve been able to handle what had happened to her. Not that she was handling it very well, but without Jag, she had a feeling she’d be in even worse shape than she was right now.
Carly: I’m sorry I’ve been a bitch to you. There are some days when your texts are the only thing that keep me from doing something drastic to stop the never-ending fear I’ve been living with. Thank you for forcing me to go to Kenna’s wedding. I would’ve hated myself if I’d missed it. I’m assuming you’re still gone, at least I hope that’s why I haven’t heard from you in a week and a half. I’m so tired, Jag. Tired of being a coward. Tired of being scared all the time. And I’m angry. Pissed. You’re right. Hiding isn’t going to make Luke go away. I want to live again. I want to be me again. When you get back, will you go to the police station with me? I want to talk to the detective. Want to find out what he’s discovered about Luke. How close they are to arresting him. I know it’s cowardly of me to use you as a crutch, but I swear it’ll only be until I’m on my feet again. I realize I’ve been selfish, and I’m going to try to change, to not think only about myself. I’ll get better, I swear. Please don’t give up on me.
Carly hit send before she could chicken out. Then she typed some more.
Carly: I hope you’re okay. I don’t know where you are, if you’re back in Hawaii or what, but now that I’ve realized how long it’s been since I’ve heard from you, I can’t help but think the worst. I hope your friends are okay too. I can’t even imagine something happening to Kenna’s new husband or the other guys. I miss you, Jag. I never realized how much your notes meant to me until they weren’t coming anymore.
She sent that text then clicked off her phone. She kept it in her hand and rested her chin on her updrawn knees. She had no idea what her future held, but she was going to do her best to stop hiding away like a coward.
* * *
Jag was exhausted. The mission to Tajikistan had been frustrating and lasted longer than any of the team had wanted. In the end, it was successful, but they’d had to deal with delays and red tape that dragged out the situation.
Now they were finally home. Aleck was more than ready to see his new bride, and Midas, Mustang, and Pid were just as anxious to get home to their women.
Even Slate seemed impatient. Of course, that was practically his permanent state, but Jag knew this time it was because he wanted to touch base with Ashlyn. The two hadn’t admitted their bickering and teasing was a form of foreplay, but it was obvious to the rest of the team it was only a matter of time before one of them broke and admitted they were interested in the other.
But Jag’s exhaustion took second place to worry for Carly. When he’d left a week and a half ago, he’d decided that he was done going easy with her. Yes, she’d been through something traumatic, and yes, whoever was working with her ex was still out there, possibly watching and waiting to get his hands on her, but she couldn’t live her life in hiding.
The second the plane landed, Jag pulled out his phone. The other guys did the same, eager to let their women know they were back. Jag tapped his foot as he waited for his cell to power up. He knew the battery was low, but hopefully it had enough juice for him to at least send a quick text.
But the second the phone turned on, sending a text flew from Jag’s mind. He read the messages Carly had sent not even three hours ago…and his exhaustion fled. Adrenaline shot through his veins.
“Everything okay?” Mustang asked.
Jag nodded. “Yeah.” He looked into his team leader’s eyes. “Carly asked if I would go to the police station with her.”
“That’s awesome news,” Mustang said. In their downtime over the last week, Jag had opened up to his teammates. About his worry for Carly. About what she’d been going through and how he might help her. Everyone agreed the first step was to find Luke, to figure out if he really was a threat, so she could put what happened with her ex behind her.
“This is the first time I’ve heard her sound so…” His voice trailed off. He wasn’t sure what word he was looking for. Her emotions in the texts seemed to be all over the place, but that was better than the abject fear he’d seen in her eyes since Kenna had been kidnapped by her ex.
Mustang nodded as if he knew exactly what Jag was trying to say…and he probably did. “It’s gonna be a roller coaster as she deals with this. You ready for that?” he asked.
“Fuck yes,” Jag said without hesitation. He’d been attracted to Carly from the moment they met. She’d been their waitress when Aleck had gone to Duke’s to meet Kenna for the first time, and the rest of the team had tagged along. Her petite frame, her blonde hair and blue eyes, her friendliness, her genuine affection for Kenna and her friends at Duke’s…it all appealed to him. He’d hated to see the spark within her dim the last few months.
He was determined to bring it back, no matter what it took.
“You finally going to stake your claim?” Aleck asked, obviously having overheard some of his conversation with Mustang.
“Yes,” Jag said. He knew it was chauvinistic to stake a claim on another person, but he didn’t care. He wanted Carly for his own. The fact that nothing about a relationship with her would be easy wasn’t a turnoff.
“Good,” Aleck said. “Kenna misses her friend. Wants to see her again. I’d be forever in your debt if you could help facilitate that.”
Determination rose within Jag. He wanted to help Carly so she’d hopefully feel comfortable enough to start a relationship, but also because she needed her friends. She thrived on being around others. He could tell just by how depressed she’d gotten after she’d quit working at Duke’s.
“I’m heading over there now and will take her to the police station tomorrow,” Jag said.
“Um, you know it’s three in the morning, right?” Midas asked, as they began to walk off the plane.
“Shit,” Jag mumbled.
His friends laughed.
He’d been so pumped that Carly had asked for his help and was finally willing to hopefully move on with her life, he hadn’t even considered the time. To be fair, his internal clock was all messed up after spending several days on the other side of the world and after traveling, but still.
“I’ll talk to the commander, get you a few days off,” Mustang told him.
“I want to know what the detectives have found,” Aleck added. “I’ve got as big a stake in this as you.”
Jag wasn’t sure about that, but he understood where Aleck was coming from. It had been his wife who’d almost been blown to pieces on the beach when Shawn had kidnapped her. If it hadn’t been for her quick thinking, the outcome could’ve been devastating.
He nodded at his friend.
“Call Baker,” Slate said, piping up for the first time. “You know he’s been looking into the situation, and he’s frustrated he hasn’t found Luke yet. He’ll want to know anything new the detectives tell you too.”
Slate was right. He knew Baker was already looking into the situation with Luke. The retired SEAL was a damn good person to have at his back.
“I will,” he said.
After collecting his duffle bag, he said goodbye to his teammates and headed for his black Volkswagen Jetta in the parking lot. It was a reliable car, but not one that would stick out on the streets or at his apartment complex. Jag liked to fly under the radar, didn’t like to be noticed if he could help it. It was a handy skill to have as a SEAL…though he’d actually learned to dislike attention from a young age.
Jag sat in his car for a moment, trying to decide what to do. He knew it was way too late to be going over to Carly’s apartment right now, but he wanted to. Needed to see her.
He reached for his phone and typed out a text before he thought better of it.
Jag: I just got back. You up?
Of course Carly wasn’t up. It was three-thirty in the fucking morning. She was asleep, as were most of the other residents of the island. It was stupid to think—
Jag blinked in surprise when three dots flashed at the bottom of the text message box. She was up and typing a reply. His heart started beating a bit faster. He was exhausted, as he always was after a mission, but at the moment, he felt as if he could easily stay up another three days without any problem whatsoever.
Carly: I’m up. I’m glad you’re back safe.
Jag wanted to ask why she was awake, but he had a feeling he knew the answer. He was aware that Carly didn’t sleep well. She’d told him once that ever since Kenna had been taken hostage by Shawn Keyes, she could only sleep a few hours a night, too worried that Luke would break into her apartment and finish what his dad started.
Jag: Can I come over?
One word. Jag felt as if it was a sign of his life changing, hopefully for the better.
He’d been to Carly’s apartment many times over the last few months, but this felt different somehow. Maybe it was because he’d already decided to do whatever it took to make Carly feel safe again, to help her get her life back. Maybe it was because he’d just gotten off a gnarly mission. Maybe because he was going on seventy-two hours without sleep. Whatever the reason, he felt just as amped up as he would in the middle of a firefight. He couldn’t start his car fast enough.
He’d never felt this way about a woman before. After—
No. He wasn’t going there.
Women weren’t really a part of his life. Never had been, by his own choice. He’d never gone through the phase that a lot of young SEALs had, where they were happy to fuck anyone who showed the least bit interest. He’d never even had a girlfriend. Never wanted one.
Jag hated thinking about his past, but for once in his life, he mourned not having more experience when it came to women. He wanted to say and do all the right things with Carly, but didn’t know what those things were. He was going to have to wing it—and pray he didn’t make her life more miserable than it already was.
Taking a deep breath, Jag did his best to calm himself down. He’d just follow Carly’s lead. She’d taken the first step by asking for him to go to the police station with her, he’d see where things went after that.
Twenty minutes later, Jag pulled into the parking lot of Carly’s apartment complex. It wasn’t in a bad part of Honolulu, but it wasn’t exactly luxury either. The building was three stories high, and Carly was on the top floor, for which he was glad. There was no security and the resident doors were all outward-facing, which meant anyone could walk up to her door without any problem whatsoever.
It wasn’t ideal in Carly’s situation. Luke could sit right here in the parking lot and watch for her to leave and grab her. It was no wonder she didn’t leave the safety of her apartment. And moving wasn’t exactly a viable solution, as she currently wasn’t working and Jag knew her funds were low.
Everything about Carly’s situation grated on his nerves, and he was extremely thankful she was ready to make a change. He’d made the decision before his latest deployment to shake things up. To try to encourage Carly to start living again. The relief he felt at getting her text was immense.
Turning off the engine and reaching for his phone, Jag sent a quick text as he always did when he arrived to see her.
Jag: I’m here. I’ll be at your door in less than a minute.
He didn’t wait for her to respond. He headed up the stairs in the center of the complex. He took them two at a time before striding down the concrete walkway to her door. Taking a deep breath, he raised his hand to knock. But it opened before he could make contact with the wood.
His first glimpse of Carly made Jag’s heart hurt. She looked like hell. Her hair was limp and greasy around her face, as if it had been several days since she’d showered. She had dark circles under her eyes and wore an oversized T-shirt and a pair of extra-large sweatpants that swam on her petite frame.
But it was the combination of relief and desperation in her eyes that affected him the most.
Jag took a step forward, and she backed up. He shut and locked the door behind him, all three deadbolts that he’d put on for her not too long ago to help her feel safer, then he gathered Carly into his arms without saying a word.
Oct 11, 2022
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