Heart of a Hero (The Specialists: Heroes Next Door)

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9780373748679: Heart of a Hero (The Specialists: Heroes Next Door)
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Trail guide Charly Binali is alone in the Rockies with a madman and his armed mercenaries, and he’s demanding she lead him to a powerful, hidden device. And when help comes in the

unexpected form of her very hot neighborhood mailman, Charley discovers the “nice” guy she gave her heart to isn’t who she thought.

Undercover CIA agent Will Chase hated lying to Charly, but getting to that dangerous device first is a matter of national security. It’s seven bad guys against him and Charly, but between his training and her survival skills, they just might beat the odds—if he can get her to ever trust him again.

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About the Author:

Award winning DEBRA WEBB was born in Alabama and wrote her first story at age nine. After spending three years working for the military behind the Iron Curtain and a five-year stint with NASA, she realized her true calling. A collision course between dark suspense and a touch of romance was set. Since then she has penned more than 100 novels including her internationally bestselling Colby Agency and Faces of Evil series. Visit Debra at www.DebraWebb.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Washington, DC

Tuesday, February 3, 2:50p...m.

"I'm in. But I'm not wearing the shorts."

Director Thomas Casey eyed William Chase, one of the newest recruits to his team known as the Specialists. He respected independent thinkers. Went out of his way to select highly skilled individuals who knew how to solve problems quickly and creatively. Still, it was rare when anyone on his handpicked team showed this kind of attitude. Maybe he'd made a mistake with this cocky young guy fresh from an elite Navy SEAL team.

"A uniform is a uniform," Thomas said, keeping his voice even.

"That's true, sir," Will agreed. "And it should convey authority."

Thomas couldn't believe he was having this discussion with so many bigger issues at play. "You'll have time to come to terms with how the US Postal Service conveys authority in Colorado before the weather warms up out there." He wanted someone on his new task force planted in the middle of the country. Someone who could respond effectively to a variety of situations.

"Shorts are for kids and physical training. Are you going to pull me off this operation if I don't wear the shorts?"

Thomas reached out and closed the plain manila file outlining Will's assignment. Potential assignment. It could've been worse, Thomas supposed. He could be having this conversation in a public setting rather than the absolute privacy of his office. He couldn't get a read on whether or not Will was kidding around. The uncertainty and unease set off warning bells in his head. He considered asking why the shorts were such a big deal and decided it didn't matter. Through the years, he'd worked with so many men and women, those who did the impossible tasks in the field and those who worked right here supporting them. Eventually his luck with recruiting was bound to run out. One more sign that it was time to retire and put his personal life, his hopes for a family, ahead of the nation's problems. But his nation needed him, had demanded his expertise one last time. If he assembled the right team, he could walk away with confidence.

"I've changed my mind, Will. You're not the right man for this job after all."

"Because I won't deliver mail in those ridiculous shorts?"

Thomas drummed his fingers on the file, met Will's stony gaze. This recruit might be a bit too independent. "Because you're agitated over a small conformity issue and that makes me question what you'll do when the stakes are higher."

"Agitated is a bit of a stretch." The smile on Will's face didn't reach his serious eyes. "You have to agree every postman who complies with that dress code is nothing more than a sheep."

"Thank you for your time," Thomas said, determined to go with a different Specialist for this post.

Will didn't budge. "Forget the shorts. Forget agitated. You saw this one—" he pointed to the folder "—whatever it is, and chose me because I succeed, always, when the stakes are highest."

"I was wrong," Thomas said with a casual hitch of his shoulders. "It happens. Close the door on your way out."

"No, sir. I want this assignment."

Thomas laughed. Couldn't stop it. No one gave him this much trouble, other than his wife, and that had been long before they married. He shouldn't find it refreshing. "You think you know how far you can push me?"

"No, sir. I know how far I can push myself."

"From my perspective you can't push yourself far enough to comply with the basic standards of your operation."

"The shorts are irrelevant, in any circumstance. You need someone willing to dig in for the long haul. Colorado was built by rugged individuals who don't see conformity as strength. They value independence and wide-open spaces and they respect people with conviction."

"So this conversation was your attempt at an audition?" Thomas wasn't laughing now. "That's not how we do things here."

"It's how they do things there." Will's eyes, intent and serious, underscored his point.

Thomas turned to his computer monitor and adjusted his glasses, going over Will's service record one more time. "Tell me what happened at Christmas."

Will didn't evade or protest, didn't get defensive or make excuses. No sign of agitation or argument now.

Easing back into the chair, he smoothed his relaxed hands over his thighs. "Not much typically happens in the way of celebrating Christmas in Afghanistan unless you're on a military installation."

Thomas still had the formal report up on his computer; he'd reviewed it one last time before Will had walked into the office. Officially, Will had been in the nosebleed section of the mountains tracking down a terrorist cell that had gone inactive due to the harsh winter weather.

"And I wasn't on base over the holiday."

"You didn't have a chance to go home?" Thomas was impressed with the way Will maintained his composure. Maybe this was the real man, the real professional he'd been looking for since the meeting began.

"Didn't take it," Will replied with a dismissive twitch of his shoulders. "The other guys had family missing them. My parents were doing fine."

"I'm sure they missed you."

Will leaned forward. "If you're worried I'll crack or break cover, that's not a problem," he said. "I've been away from home a long time, sir. The scarcity works for my family."

"All right." Thomas rolled his hand. "Go on."

"As you know, recon and surveillance is long, quiet work, and I'm good at it. You get a sense of people when you're watching them day and night."

Thomas agreed, glancing away from the computer and giving Will another long study. Everything but today's meeting told him this was the right man for the Colorado job. Maybe the former SEAL was dealing with a postdeployment conflict with authority or some personality clash. But this new task force was too important. Thomas had to be sure Will could handle the emotional pressure of deep undercover work as well as the physical strain.

"I'd been keeping an eye on the family for days. The middle daughter hauled water every day. I knew her routine. The target had been spotted to the south and then I went days with no sign of him. On December 25, I noticed the water girl's routine changed. She made one extra trip, using a different footpath."

"You followed her."

"Right to the target, yes, sir." Will dipped his chin. Eyes calm and steady. "I made the report. It felt like the perfect gift at the time."

Thomas waited, but Will didn't seem inclined to share the rest of the story. "It took you two days to get your target out of that cave and into custody."

Will dipped his chin. "That's what the report says."

Thomas leaned forward. "Do you want the post in Colorado?"

"Yes, sir. Delivering mail and chatting up locals beats the hell out of crawling through caves on the other side of the world."

"Then tell me what really happened."

"I suppose you have the clearance," Will said on a heavy sigh.

Thomas managed to stifle his laughter this time. "I refused to move in immediately," Will began. "On the twenty-fifth."

"You didn't want to make an arrest on Christmas Day?" Thomas asked, pushing harder than he wanted to. This interview was like pulling teeth.

"Everyone acts like I was sitting around waiting for Santa Claus," Will snapped, lurching up and out of the chair. "I didn't want the water girl to die on Christmas. Is that so damned terrible?" He stalked over to the window, hands braced on his hips. "If I'd gone in right after her they would've known. If somehow I couldn't take them all, if I missed just one man, she would've been killed for sure. I have enough blood on my hands."

He turned away, but Thomas didn't need the eye contact to know Will was thinking of his brother. The Chase family had buried their younger son after a training accident. Somehow, the grief had twisted, and Will carried guilt and blame because his brother had been inspired by Will's military service.

"So, yes," Will continued, turning back. "I waited. I came at them from a different direction. I practically laid a trail for them to find me in the secondary post."

"But they didn't."

"No." His wide shoulders rolled back. "And I took them all, starting with the weakest link in their watch rotation, until it was just a matter of escorting the target to the extraction point."

Thomas knew the target remained in custody, the terrorist cell out of commission, the attack they'd planned for spring thwarted. "You saved her."

"Hard to say." Will pressed his lips together. He walked behind the chair, his fingers digging into the upholstery. "She didn't die on Christmas because of me. That's all I know for sure."

Here were the character and integrity Thomas had sensed when evaluating Will as a potential recruit. Internal fortitude and an undefinable X factor that couldn't always be measured by personnel records and reports were essential for this new task force. He nodded, calmer now that his instincts had finally been confirmed. "Pick up your travel documents and postal service new-hire information from my receptionist.

What you make of the rest of your new life out there is up to you."

Will's face brightened with enthusiasm. "Thank you, sir."

"Despite your cover, you'll find a way to stay in contact with this office and stay in combat shape. There's no way to tell when we'll call you into action."

"You won't be sorry."

Thomas leaned back into his chair after Will walked out, more than a little relieved. If the current rumors could be trusted, they might be calling on Will sooner than anyone expected.

Chapter Two

Durango, Colorado

Tuesday, February 24, 2:15p...m.

Charlotte Binali, Charly to everyone who knew her, muttered encouragement to her computer screen. The spreadsheet was almost complete, and she didn't want to offend the technology gremlins by looking away at a crucial moment.

Her coworkers teased her mercilessly about her tenuous relationship with technology. Give her a mountain and a footprint and she could hike any terrain to find anything or anyone, but computers and the entire mess inside them made her want to cry like a baby.

She really needed to hand more of the tech over to someone else on staff, but Binali Backcountry was hers now, and as the sixth generation, she was determined to bring the business into the twenty-first century.

"Charly?" Tammy, the newest employee, whom Charly had hired to greet customers and maintain the storefront, leaned into the office doorway. "Better break out the lip gloss. Your boyfriend's almost here."

Charly refused to take the bait, determined to finish the spreadsheet. Besides, her requisite lip balm had protective sunscreen, not shine.

"Lip gloss, stat!" Tammy urged before she disappeared from view.

The door chimed, and when Charly heard the smooth rumble of his voice, it was more of a challenge to keep herself on task. Just a few more clicks and she could give in to the distraction of the new mailman.

Tammy reappeared, a dazzled smile on her face. "He wants to know if you have a minute," she said in a whisper loud enough to be heard for miles.

Charly saved the changes to the schedule and pushed back from the desk. "Thanks," she replied, mimicking Tammy's loud whisper as she left the office to greet Will Chase, the hot new mail carrier working Duran-go's business district.

Hot is a significant understatement, she thought when he smiled at her. The strong, square jaw might have been carved from granite, and the wide shoulders, trim hips and strong hands had been starring in her dreams recently. Not that she'd admit that to anyone.

"Hey, Will."

"Hi," he replied, removing his sunglasses. "Am I interrupting?"

"No." She hoped her smile didn't look as starstruck as Tammy's. "Just finished." They'd only been out on two occasions—she couldn't bring herself to call them dates—but she melted a little every time he looked at her with those vivid eyes as deep and blue as a high mountain lake. It still startled her the way he could turn the pale, watered-down blue of the official postal service shirt and dark jeans into raw sex appeal. "Excel didn't implode on me this time."

"Glad to hear it."

Last week, when she'd been ready to smash the computer to bits one afternoon, he'd arrived with the mail, caught her midrant and given her a quick lesson on the program. Later, during what should have been movie night, he'd spent hours showing her where to find more video tutorials, which had saved her computer from going out the window more than once in the days since.

"Are we still on for a movie tonight?"

"Sure." She accepted the stack of mail, thick with outdoor-gear catalogs. "The schedule's set for next week and this time it doesn't even need to be labeled as 'The Spreadsheet that Conquered Charly.'"

He laughed, the sound as clear and fresh to her ears as a brimming creek on a hot day. "That might be the one title I don't have. I've got plenty of beer. You bring the pizza." He put his sunglasses in place and backed toward the door, graceful as a cat. "Say, seven?"

She nodded, her mouth going dry as he turned to make his exit.

Beside her, Tammy sighed. The girl liked nothing better than a clear view of an excellent male backside. Charly still didn't know which view she preferred. Will walking in was just as appealing to her as when he was walking away.

"He didn't kiss you goodbye," Tammy said.

"Why would he?" Charly made herself laugh off the image. She couldn't indulge in that little fantasy at work. "We're just friends. And this is a workplace."

"Not from where I'm standing, and so what?" Tammy flung a hand toward the spot where Will had been moments ago. "That man wants to sleep with you."

"Whatever." Charly refused to get her hopes up. So far they'd gone out for beer and pool at the pub up the street and gone bowling once, but she knew how this story ended before she turned the last page. The way it always ended—with one more tempting man in the friend column.

It had been that way her whole life. Part of it was being built more like a boy than a woman, but her business played a part, too. Binali Backcountry, her life's passion, took up the majority of her energy and time. She enjoyed the mountains, the risk and reward she could find there, and she rose every morning eager to share her passion and knowledge with others as the owner, as well as a guide. Her commitment and drive didn't leave much room for romance and relationships.

For as long as she could remember, she'd been drawn to the wild call of the mountains and canyons surrounding the Four Corners Monument. Born and raised just outside of Durango, she'd spent her life exploring until it all felt as personal as her own backyard. Her grandfather often boasted that you could drop her anywhere on the planet and she'd find her way home no matter the weather or resources. She could track and mimic any animal that called this area home and, more importantly, she could find lost people better than any bloodhound.

Typically, men looking for a good time didn't put those skills at the top of the list when they wanted a date. Or a girlfriend. It was too soon to tell if Will would be different. She returned to the office to print out the work schedule.

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