Authors: Ava Armstrong
Dark Horse Guardians: Book 3
(Sequel to “A Sense of Duty”
Written by Ava Armstrong
All rights reserved including the right to
reproduce this book or portions there
in any form whatsoever.
This book is a work of fiction.
Names, characters, places and incidents are products
of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual events or locales
or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
A dark horse is a little-known person or thing
that emerges to prominence,
especially in a competition of some sort
or a contestant that seems unlikely to succeed.
~ Ben ~
The first place touched by the sun every morning was the shoreline of Maine and Lieutenant Ben Keegan rarely missed the magnificent display. He was on the satellite phone with Moshe as he watched the golden glow seep over the horizon and he sensed something huge was brewing. The secret war room in Israel was buzzing in the background. Moshe was second in command of ‘The Unit’, the highly classified Sayeret Matkal.
Inhaling the warm salty air of the ocean, Ben spoke softly, “Talk to me.” He reclined his six foot two body in the sand chair at the water’s edge with his feet buried in the shallow water.
“This is the big one, bro. The one we’ve been waiting for. The sixty-five that were released from Bagram. Have you been contacted yet?” Moshe had a tinge of excitement in his voice, rare for him.
“Not officially.” Ben murmured.
“You will be. Hey, listen. Your dear leader is going to fly your guardians and a SEAL team with a shitload of equipment over here on a C-130. That will save me some aggravation.” Moshe continued.
Ben pressed his ear to the phone, “How nice of him. And, what else? There’s got to be more. You’re never
enthusiastic about anything.”
“I’ve got an idea, but we need a woman. An Arabian princess type but with nerves of steel. You wouldn’t happen to know anyone like that, would you?” Moshe exhaled.
Ben smiled, “I might. But, a
, on our mission? You’re losing it, bro.”
“No, I’m serious.” Moshe said with certainty.
Ben knew any day now he’d be getting a call from the Special Activities Director of the CIA to carry out possibly the most complex mission since the killing of Bin Laden. His mole on the Senate Intelligence Committee had given him a heads up.
He’d just returned from seven weeks in hell but he was ready to do whatever was asked of him. However, he wanted more information, even though his involvement was unconfirmed. But from experience he knew Moshe’s contacts were reliable.
“What, how, and when?” Ben exhaled.
“New generation drones, remember the number sixty-five, because that’s how many of these sick bastards we’ll be eliminating. It will be a
Thanksgiving for you, my brother. Oh, and new weapons. We just got a shipment of…hey, I’ve got to hang up. Call you later.” Moshe clicked off.
Ben’s hand ran through his thick black hair as he gazed at the horizon lost in thought. The sound of the gentle waves soothed him but one sentence hung in his mind,
Moshe wanted an Arabian princess for the mission
. What was he thinking? Sometimes he didn’t dare to ask.
Tiny whirlpools swirled around his feet, then ebbed away in a steady rhythm. The salt air was refreshing in the morning and the sun warmed his body. He laid back in the sand chair with the sensation of the receding saltwater pulling him, like the pending mission, Eastward.
Lara woke the morning after the funeral to the sound of Ben whistling in the kitchen. The aroma of Applewood smoked bacon wafted into the master bedroom and she rubbed the sleep from her eyes. The first thought that entered her mind was:
Eliot Stone is gone
. That indisputable fact remained even as the bright September sunlight beamed through the raw silk curtains billowing in the sea breeze. The sun still rose and set. Life bustled around her but she felt as if she was living in slow motion.
Grieving was such an odd process. She had experienced it when her father died. But this time it was different. Logically, she knew the pain would eventually decrease. The human psyche could only cope with a gradual letting go. But the pain was still fresh for her. She was angry that everybody around her carried on as if Eliot’s death didn’t matter.
She slid out of bed and stretched. Pushing the drapes aside she was in awe of the stunning view from Clearwater Farm.
Home sweet home
. Groggy with sleep she stumbled toward the bathroom, still trying to absorb the reality that she was the sole heir of everything Eliot owned, his entire fortune and business. Many thoughts were racing through her sleepy brain, but she had to force herself to focus on the most important matter: the firm.
Lara knew most of the employees at Stone and Associates and could only imagine what was going through
minds this morning. They were most likely worried about who would be heading up the firm; if the firm would be sold; would they remain employed?
. And, she felt the weight of responsibility on her shoulders. The first order of business would be to make sure the firm remained as unaffected as possible by Eliot’s untimely death.
Lara jumped nervously as Ben popped his head into the bedroom.
“Oh good! You’re awake, darlin – I hope I didn’t make too much noise in the kitchen.”
He was at her side and his strong arms encircled her. She inhaled the pleasant scent of his sandalwood soap, then murmured, “I need a shower. I can’t believe I slept this late.”
He nuzzled her neck and whispered, “I love you, my darlin…showered or not.”
She smiled and whispered back, “I love you, too. But I need to brush my teeth!” Wriggling out of his grasp, Lara moved toward the bathroom. “I’ll be right out.” She added with as much cheer as she could muster. She didn’t intend to push him away so abruptly and was upset with herself for doing so. Her quandary had little to do with Ben and everything to do with honoring Eliot’s trust in her to do the right thing with his legacy.
~ Ben ~
Ben was worried about her mood since Eliot’s accidental death. He knew it was a shock to her, especially on top of all she had been through with his last mission and lengthy absence. And, the fact that Dillon Varney slipped into the house with intent to harm her. This weighed heavily on his conscience. Even though he’d killed the bastard, Ben blamed himself for not being with Lara during the move from the condo to Clearwater Farm. And, even though he was more than thankful for Grant Hawkins’ rescue of his wife, he was envious.
wanted to be the one that rescued her.
wanted to be her protector.
And since the untimely passing of Eliot Stone, Lara was spending an inordinate amount of time with Hawk. She had described him as a close friend and bristled once when Ben teased her about it being more than that. She was adamant that Hawk was someone special and she went so far as to say that Ben would never understand.
Apparently, she didn’t remember he’d served six tours of duty and was indebted to a multitude of people for saving his ass.
But he didn’t say those things to her. In fact, he understood her deep feeling of gratitude for Hawk. But that understanding didn’t stop the gnawing of envy whenever she was with her knight in shining armor.
For days he’d been turning the whole thing over in his mind wondering
he couldn’t stop thinking about Hawk saving Lara. It was history. He wanted to put the whole thing behind him. But the fact remained:
Hawk was there when she needed him most and he knew Lara felt a strong bond to the man for his act of heroism.
The real irony was, Ben was a professional guardian but couldn’t protect his own wife from a savage act because he was out saving the world.
For the first time since he’d met Lara, he felt the same sense of failure as a husband as he did as a father. He excelled at his profession, but when it came to matters of the heart, he seemed unable to hold up his end of the bargain. He vowed to make a change. He hated feeling like a failure; but worse than that he despised himself for being
guy – the one that never could measure up as a parent – the one that neglected his wife in her hour of need. He knew men like that and always wondered what made them tick. How could they turn their backs on loved ones who depended upon them? He was wrestling with the same human frailties and he didn’t like it one bit. He had to give more of himself to his son and to Lara.
While Ben prepared bacon and eggs exactly to her preference, he silently promised to keep a close eye on her, especially in light of the latest events. It was important that he cater to Lara, remembering the tiniest details…the things that made her laugh, how she liked him to kiss her, how she wanted to be held on the dance floor at the roadhouse. He momentarily smiled to himself as he realized how intimately he knew her now that they were married. Instantly a wave of gratitude swept over him. He was honored to be her husband.
Lara was a loving, giving person complimenting him on every meal he cooked for her. He lived to see her smile and was thrilled to be home with her again. His heart rate increased with the mere thought of her. He heard his beautiful wife showering and drying her hair. Usually her routine took about thirty minutes. Drying her long hair took up most of that time. Little did she know he preferred it when she left it damp and allowed the natural waves to cascade around her. Hell, she was even beautiful when brushing her teeth. After she rinsed with peppermint mouthwash, he always took the chance to grab a French kiss, which made her giggle.
His cell phone vibrated and he recognized the university number. He answered, “Keegan.”
The Dean’s assistant, Lucy Adams, was rounding everyone up for a morning meeting. “Hello there Lieutenant Keegan, or should I say
?” Lucy was a redhead who thought she was attractive, but wasn’t, and a little too interested in him for his comfort level.
“Professor Keegan is fine.” He was strictly business with her, even though she frequently attempted to engage him in lengthy conversations.
“The meeting is in the dean’s conference room at 8:00 AM, breakfast will be served.” Lucy announced.
Ben thanked her and said he’d be there. He had already started teaching the same two classes of modern history and this meeting was routine to welcome new staff and professors. The semester was already underway and he was adding new content to his contemporary history class this year.
His eyes took in a vision of beauty as Lara traipsed to the breakfast nook and sat on the cushioned banquette against the wall. She pulled the white cotton robe around her body and brushed her loose hair to one side.
Her beautiful green eyes met his, “What?” she asked innocently.
“Sorry, I can’t help staring at my lovely wife.” Ben replied with a dimpled smile. He watched her fingers caress the small tattered book of Shakespearean sonnets he had strategically placed on the table opened to one he imagined could have been written for her. He knew the verse by heart and softly recited Sonnet 116 to her while making toast:
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”
He smiled as he watched her touch the wildflowers in the glass jar. She brought them to her nose. “Devil’s Paint Brush…” the corners of her lips turned up as she glanced his way. Her demeanor was cheerful and he felt as if his romantic magic might have worked to lift her mood, even if for a moment.
Her eyes lit up when she spoke, “That sonnet is so beautiful, Ben. Love is an ‘ever-fixed mark’—it’s beautiful – especially the way
recite it. Thank you for the flowers, the coffee…and the breakfast. I missed you so much when you were gone.”
His eyes were drawn to her hand as she caressed the fragile book of sonnets and he knew he had chosen the right one for her this morning. The words rang true. Few guys would understand his desire to articulate his love for Lara this way. But to hell with them. His love for her was meaningful and he expressed it, every chance he got…because someday he might not be able to do so. He tried to push that thought away, but it always lurked in the furthest recess of his mind.