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DOWN RANGE
by Lindsay McKenna

Genre: General Romantic Suspense, Romantic Suspense

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What the hell? He had to be seeing things. SEAL Lieutenant Jake Ramsey froze as he climbed out of his rented red Jeep Wrangler. He'd just parked at the Pentagon, ordered here for an appointment with U.S. Army General Stevenson. He had no idea what this meeting entailed. It was top secret.

His heart thudded in his chest as he stared one row of cars up. A Marine Captain emerged from her black SUV. Jake removed his wraparound sunglasses, remaining motionless, watching her pull her black leather purse over the left shoulder. The gesture was all too familiar to him.

She wore her khaki summer uniform short-sleeved blouse along with dark green gabardine trousers that emphasized her long legs. In short-heeled, polished black pumps, she was all spit and polish. Morgan Boland had an hourglass figure, and though her clothes fitted her comfortably, Jake knew how beautiful she was without any clothes at all.

His mouth tightened. What the hell was Morgan Boland doing here?

Stunned, Jake wrestled with a lot of old feelings leaping to life within him. Oh, he remembered tunneling his fingers through that mass of silky red hair now softly framing her oval face and stubborn chin. The strands curled slightly across her proud shoulders. She hadn't seen him — yet.

Two years ago they'd met in the Hindu Kush mountains near the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. They'd collided like two comets, renewing their relationship that had started at the Naval Academy, Annapolis. His lower body tightened in memory of those three incredible days with her in his arms in that Afghan village. Three of the most incredible nights of his life since… He ruthlessly tried to crush the grief-stricken memories from when he was twenty-four years old. Jake had lost his wife, Amanda, and two-week-old baby, Joshua, in a car accident. They'd only been married a year.

At twenty-seven, Jake had unexpectedly met Morgan once again. And whether she ever realized it or not, she'd salvaged his bleeding, wounded soul. Those few days had transformed him, pulled him out of a three-year depression. She'd breathed new life into him.

His mouth pursed, the corners pulling in as he watched her shut the door on the SUV. The May morning's breeze was inconstant, lifting a few gold-and-copper strands of hair across her face. He stared with a mixture of grief and longing as she lifted her long, expressive fingers and pulled the strands away from her cheek.

Morgan was still hauntingly beautiful to him. His mind spun with a hundred questions as to why she was here at the same time he was. Jake worked to suppress those unrequited feelings about their shared history. He'd had that impulse, of never allowing her to escape his arms again. But she had. And it had been his damned fault. For the second time in his life, he'd driven Morgan away from him.

There was a file beneath her left arm. She pointed the clicker at the SUV to lock it. Jake swallowed hard, trying to ignore his desire. It had been a lethal attraction from the first moment, in Annapolis, while going through the Naval Academy. They were a powerful match in bed, but dammit, she was bullheaded and wildly independent. She refused to be what he wanted her to be. When they came together in bed, it was like the Fourth of July every time. Yet, afterward, it always descended into a heated argument, hurtful words flying between them like bullets being fired from an M-4 rifle.

His breath jammed in his throat as he saw her lift her head, her green-eyed gaze meeting his. For a moment, Jake felt like a proverbial deer paralyzed in a set of car headlights. Her eyes narrowed. Of course, she recognized him. Her oval face with high cheekbones and a sprinkle of pale freckles tightened. Her mouth…oh, God, her mouth…Jake remembered hotly covering those full lips, feeling her hungry response, her sleek, athletic body pressed demandingly against his, wanting him as much as he wanted her. Now that soft, full mouth thinned with displeasure. He forced himself to hold her gaze. Even from this distance, he could see the spark of surprise and then anger flare in her green eyes.

What the hell were the chances of meeting Morgan two years later, here in a damned Pentagon parking lot? Jake decided he had to be a gentleman and walk over and say hello. He shut the door on his Jeep, locked it and shoved the key into a pocket of his tan Navy summer trousers. Pulling the garrison cap from beneath his left arm, he settled it on his head.

Jake felt as if he was going downrange into a direct action combat mission. Born of a Navy SEAL, he walked with an easy, natural confidence toward the only other woman in his life who had held his heart — and he'd screwed it up both times. Now, as he closed the distance between them, tension was evident in her, but she was a warrior like him. Jake tried to prepare himself. Morgan was definitely not happy to see him. And he knew why.

"You're the last person I expected to see here in this parking lot," he said, trying to soften his normally hard expression. He came to a halt a few feet away from her, but he could still see her emerald eyes flash with what he interpreted as disgust. Or maybe, distrust. Probably both.

"Makes two of us, Ramsey."

"What business do you have here, Morgan?"

She quirked her lips. "It's top secret. How about you?"

He managed a sliver of a smile, appreciating the way the uniform hid her breasts. He knew those breasts well, and even now, his body hotly remembered their firm curves, too. "Same. Where you headed?"

"The E-ring. You?"

His brows rose. "Same ring." What the hell kind of cosmic joke was being played upon him? Jake saw confusion for a moment in her eyes, too.

The breeze blew enough to lift strands of her red hair across her flushed cheeks. He had the urge to lift his hand, catch those errant strands with his fingers and gently tuck them behind her delicate ear as he'd done on so many other occasions. Why the hell couldn't he erase Morgan from his body and memory forever?

He'd been in the military since he was eighteen. He'd gone to Annapolis and went into the Marine Corps. Later, he moved to the U.S. Navy to become a SEAL. At twenty-nine, Jake felt snared by a joke being pulled on him by Marine Corps god Odin himself. The last person he ever wanted to meet again was Morgan. And here she was: all six feet of woman warrior who proved him wrong about her being the weaker sex.

She glanced down at the watch on her right wrist. "I've gotta go, Ramsey." Morgan drilled him with a hard look. "And I can't say it's been nice seeing you again."

Jake watched her turn on her heel and walk toward the main doors of the Pentagon. It almost felt as if she'd physically slapped him. He stood for a moment, letting her quiet rage pass through him. It wasn't her fault, he sourly admitted. He'd been the one to hurl the indictment that women were weak. That they shouldn't be allowed into combat. He and Morgan had gotten into that very argument after making love on Christmas morning as a blizzard hit the Afghan village.

He and his SEAL team had holed up at the American-friendly Shinwari village to wait out the coming storm. To his everlasting surprise, Morgan had been there, too, with another SEAL team. The SEALs operated in small four- and eight-person fire teams throughout the Hindu Kush, rooting out the bad guys and taking them down. He hadn't been able to swallow his surprise or disguise his pleasure at discovering she was there. Morgan had been assigned as a linguist with another team on a separate black-ops mission.

Rubbing his recently shaved jaw, Jake saw her disappear inside the building. He had just enough time to make his appointment with General Stevenson of the U.S. Army. His emotions, no matter how he tried, burned bright and intense over meeting Morgan once again. She had stood out at Annapolis from the moment he'd seen her in their plebe year. They were in the same class, and for two years, Jake had fought to ignore the tall, assertive redhead. Morgan was as physically strong as most of the men going through the four-year military program. Jake had watched her begin to shine and bloom in her third year. She'd been at the top of the academic list, a champion fencer on the fencing team, and her keen intelligence had been recognized.

He quickly walked across the asphalt parking lot, in deep thought over her. When had he fallen under her charismatic spell at the Academy? How had it happened? Jake had accidentally met Morgan as a third-year student at a local civilian pizza parlor everyone frequented on Saturday evenings. There were plenty of guys who wanted her. She'd always been surrounded by them, but she didn't seem to care or notice any of them. Yet, when they'd met up at the bar to order pitchers of beer, something had happened.

"Damn," he rasped, scowling. They'd accidentally grazed one another's elbows. Jake remembered Morgan's gaze meeting his. Those deep green eyes that made his heart melt, made his body go hot and hard with longing. Her nickname at the Academy had been Amazon because she was tall, physically strong and she had a bruising, in-your-face independence.

Jake remembered taking Morgan's hand and leading her into the hall of the bar to be alone with her. He'd done something he'd wanted to do for years: kiss the hell out of her. Morgan, he'd discovered, had been watching him for a long time, too. He'd asked if she was protected, and she'd said yes, she was on the pill. They'd never made it back to the Academy until very early on Sunday morning. And their hearts and fates had been sealed, for better or worse.

He needed to stop remembering. Morgan wasn't in his life anymore. Jake scowled and climbed the stone steps of the Pentagon. Up ahead were soldiers with M-16 rifles. Since the bombing of the Pentagon on 9/11, security had markedly changed. He would go through an X-ray machine before ever being allowed into the military bastion.

Jake aimed himself toward the outer ring, the E-ring. It was the only level that had windows looking out into the civilian world. Only senior military officers got those posh office assignments. This was where many top secret and black-ops missions originated. Curious as to why he was called off PRODEV, sixty days of leave granted to him after coming back from Afghanistan with his SEAL platoon, he arrived at the E-ring. Looking at the file he held, he saw the number of the office and turned to the right.

Captain Morgan Boland was sitting in a chair opposite the secretary's desk when the door opened. Her eyes widened. Jake Ramsey, again? Her lips parted for a moment. What was he doing here? He stopped when he realized she was sitting there staring up at him. He had a stunned look across his normally unreadable expression. Shock bolted through her.

Morgan lowered her gaze, and her heart sped up. Why couldn't she just ignore Ramsey's darkly tanned face? His rugged good looks and those stormy-looking gray eyes of his? Her fingers tightened imperceptibly around the file in her lap. The only other empty chair in the small, cramped office was two feet away from where she sat. She listened as Jake went to the fortysomething-year-old blonde administrative assistant and gave his name to her.

"Thank you, Lieutenant Ramsey. General Stevenson will see you in just a bit. Would you like some coffee or tea while you wait?"

Jake took off his cap. "No, thank you, ma'am." He hated having to sit next to Morgan, who was staring at him as if he were going to bite her. His traitorous body and heart clamored over being so close to this fiery woman. Jake wanted to be close. Wanted, somehow, to undo the wrong he'd done to her two years earlier.

Sitting down, he glanced over at her. Morgan was staring straight ahead, her hands tense over the file in her lap. He relished viewing her profile and then realized her once-perfect nose now had a bump on it. Had she broken it? He almost asked but thought better of it. There was an assistant sitting six feet away from them, and Jake didn't want her to know how much Morgan hated him.

What to say to Jake Ramsey? Morgan felt heat radiating off his hard male body. The uniform showed how athletic and fit he really was. SEALs took exercise to a whole new level, plus six months climbing mountains in Afghanistan had honed his body into a dangerous weapon.

She saw the SEAL gold trident on his well-sprung chest, rows of colorful ribbons beneath it. Jake was part of the best of the best black-ops teams the military had. She remembered those pale eyes of his going dove-gray as he'd made love with her. God, they were good in bed together. Too good. And above all, Morgan knew she had to keep a secret she would always carry from that last meeting they had. Jake would never know. Pursing her lips, she refused to say anything to him. Her mind churned with questions on why both of them were here, in the same office of the Pentagon. It made no sense to her.

A buzzer sounded on the assistant's desk. She looked over at Morgan. "Go right through this door, Captain Boland. General Houston will see you. Room two, please."

Rising, Morgan nodded, ignored Ramsey and opened the door. Inside, she saw two offices, one on either side of the hall. Turning to the left, she saw a frosted glass window with "2" painted in gold upon it and knocked firmly.

"Enter," a male voice ordered.

Morgan's heart picked up a beat as she opened it. Inside was a man in his late-fifties, fit, in a dark green U.S. Army uniform. The salad, or ribbons, across his powerful chest attested to his time and experience in the Army. There was silver on the sidewalls of his closely cropped hair. His eyes were sharp and intelligent-looking. Morgan came to attention in front of his desk.

"Captain Morgan Boland reporting as ordered, sir."

"At ease, Captain. Have a seat. We need to chat." Indeed, Morgan thought as she took the only chair in front of the General's desk. The man smiled a little as he clasped his hands and rested them on the dark cherrywood desk.

"What I'm about to tell you is top secret, Captain. But I already think you know what this mission is all about."

"I'm hoping it's an op to go after Sangar Khogani, sir. I've been pushing for it to find and kill him for the last couple of years."

A grin leaked through the hardened line of his mouth. He handed her a file folder. "We've been listening, Captain. Read along with me?"