Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Read an EXCERPT of SEALed at Midnight (Hot SEALs) by Cat Johnson

SEALed at Midnight (Hot SEALs) by Cat Johnson
As a combat hardened Navy SEAL, Thom Grande has fought terrorism around the globe, but he can’t fight is his ex-wife. Or her lawyer. Or the alimony payments. Just when he thinks his life can’t get any worse, bad luck smacks him up side the head—literally. Now he’s got a traumatic brain injury and can’t remember his own name. The good news? He can’t remember his ex-wife or the woes she’s causing him either.
Virginia Starr has the worst luck ever with romance. But maybe her luck is changing because one hell of a hot man just showed up at her door in the middle of the night. One problem—he can’t remember anything, including who he is. The more Ginny sees, the more she realizes, that might not matter all that much.
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Enjoy this EXCERPT from SEALed at Midnight (Hot SEALs) by Cat Johnson

“Virginia! This is your mother. Where are you? Call me back.”
Ginny listened to the voicemail, not breathing as she heard the familiar and far from melodic voice.
An irrational fear had her worried her mother would somehow sense she hadn’t picked up because she’d seen who was calling, even though that was exactly what had happened. A not so irrational fear had her more afraid she’d accidentally hit the button to return the call while retrieving the voicemail.
She heard the click as her mother hung up the receiver of the old wired house phone her parents still owned. Then the message ended. Only then did Ginny dare to breathe.
Caller ID saved her multiple times daily. She’d like to give whoever invented the means for her to screen her calls a great big kiss.
She loved both of her parents, of course, but a girl could only be berated about the same things so many times before instinct kicked in.
Given the choice of fight or flight, when dealing with one’s mother choosing flight seemed safer for everyone.
Her lack of a steady boyfriend. Her lack of what her mother considered a real job. She didn’t visit enough. She was too far away. A young woman shouldn’t be living alone . . .
There were more topics but those were her mother’s current favorites.
She’d call her mom back—eventually. But right now, she just wanted to enjoy her cup of hot tea undisturbed.
Ginny had just lifted the steaming mug to her mouth when the ringing of the cell began again. She sighed. She might be farther away from them until March first, but she wasn’t so far that calls couldn’t reach her. Maybe she should look for a house sitting gig someplace like the South Pole next year.
She reached down and lifted the phone. Seeing Molly’s name on the screen, she hit the button to answer. “Hey.”
“About time you picked up. I was starting to wonder what the heck you could be doing on Christmas Eve up there in no-man's-land where there’s nothing but woods and wildlife.”
“Sorry. I was waiting to see who it was.”
Molly laughed. “Are you screening calls again? I guess I should be grateful that I made the cut.”
“You should be. My mother didn’t.”
“Ginny, it’s Christmas Eve. The least you can do is talk to your mother on the phone.”
“This coming from the girl with the sweetest mother on earth.”
“That’s no excuse. Virginia Starr, call your mother!”
“Oh my God, you sounded just like her. Stop that. You’re giving me heart palpitations.” Ginny pressed her hand to her chest.
“That’s not palpitations you feel. That’s guilt and you deserve it.”
“Is she paying you to torture me? Come on. Tell me. What did she promise you? My grandmother’s secret plum cake recipe? What? Spill.”
“We had a lovely conversation this morning but no, she promised me nothing. I bug you without compensation. Just for the sheer joy of it.”
A lovely conversation this morning?
Zeroing in on Molly’s words had Ginny frowning “Wait one minute. You talked to my mother? Today?”
“Yup. She’s so sweet. She called to thank me for the Christmas card I sent her.”
Ginny groaned. “Let me guess what she said next. How horrible it was that I didn’t bother to send cards this year.”
“Nope. You’re wrong. We talked about what she’s cooking for dinner tomorrow night.”
Ginny blew out a frustrated breath and glanced out the window at the snow that had started falling about an hour ago. “She’s really going to freak when she hears I probably won't be able to make it home. Not with the way this snow is falling.”
“It's snowing by you? Aw.” Molly sounded annoyed. “There's not even a hint of a flake here. You're gonna have a white Christmas and I'm jealous.”
Easy for Molly to say. She lived in a condo where some nice hired maintenance man shoveled, plowed and sanded the walkways before Molly even woke.
Ginny glanced out the window again, taking particular note of the length of the driveway she’d have to shovel before she’d be able to get her car out.
There was a snow blower in the barn, but she’d be damned if she knew how to start it. Besides, the giant exposed blade in front scared the bejeesus out of her.
People should know their limitations, and she knew she wasn’t cut out for operating equipment with big sharp spinning parts.
A white Christmas as an adult was definitely not as much fun as it had been when she’d been a child. If she was still eight years old, Ginny would be jumping for joy. Getting out the sled and the makings for a snowman. Running inside wet and cold for hot cocoa with tiny marshmallows.
Being twenty-eight meant she’d be breaking out the shovel and the bag of ice melt instead of marshmallows.
The snow changed from tiny flakes that drifted down slow and serenely before disappearing, to fat juicy lumps that pelted the ground with a big splat of white.
“It's snowing like crazy.” She glanced at the rapidly disappearing driveway. “It’s sticking too, even on the blacktop.”
Molly hissed in a breath. “That doesn’t bode well for driving. But maybe it will stop soon and the crews will have all night to clean up the roads. Then by tomorrow you’ll have a beautiful clear drive.”
“Maybe.” And maybe Molly was the biggest optimist she knew.
Given Ginny’s own propensity for pessimism, it was a wonder they’d been friends since grade school.
Pessimist or not, this time she couldn’t help but hope Molly was right, because her mother would never let her hear the end of it if she couldn’t get home for Christmas dinner.
Sometimes being an only child was a lot of work.
On a brighter note, Ginny had to admit, though begrudgingly, that it really was getting pretty outside. Snow totally covered the ground and the thick wet flakes stuck to every tree limb and surface.
If she had nowhere else to be, it would be perfect. Quite the makings for a picturesque scene . . . then the lights flickered.
“Uh, oh.” Ginny eyed the table lamp, waiting for the worst to happen, but the bulb stayed illuminated. For the time being anyway.
“What’s wrong?” Molly asked.
“I’m worried I’m going to lose electricity.” And along with it, the heat and hot water.
Then what would she do?
She was all for women’s equality and independence but at times like this she regretted not having a man around. If not a boyfriend, then at least a hired handyman to build a fire and bring over a generator.
Ginny needed to face it. She was, and always should be, an apartment dweller. Then she could make a single phone call and pass problems such as no electric to somebody else—like a nice twenty-four hour on-call building superintendent.
But when she’d taken this job as a house sitter, she supposed she'd become the twenty-four hour handyman.
She probably should have thought this over better before taking on the responsibility of a whole house, five acres and a barn in Massachusetts in winter.
Hindsight always had been Ginny’s strength. She sighed and turned her mind to brighter thoughts. As long as the lights stayed on, everything would be okay.
“So what are you doing for Christmas Day?”
“Marco is taking me to the city to see the tree at Rockefeller Center and look at the window decorations, then back to his place for a romantic dinner.”
It was Ginny's turn to be jealous.
Her friend not only had a great job, a fabulous condo, and parents who supported everything she did, but also a hot new boyfriend with an Italian accent to go along with his expensive Italian sports car.
“That sounds perfect. You better text and tell me what he bought you for Christmas the minute you open it.” Ginny might as well be completely green with envy and get it all over with at once.
“I will. Promise. Are you going to be all right up there by yourself if you get snowed in and can't drive home tomorrow?”
“Sure. There's food in the fridge.”
“But what if the power does go out?”
“There’s firewood on the porch and plenty of candles in the house. I’ll be fine even if the power goes out.” Ginny dismissed Molly’s concern, sounding more confident than she felt.
“Okay, but I'll make sure I keep my cell phone on in case you need anything.”
“Thanks.” Ginny didn't know what Molly and Marco were going to be able to do for her. If the roads proved so bad she couldn't drive south to Stamford, they wouldn't be able to drive north to Springfield either, but she did appreciate the offer.
The lights flickered again and she stifled a groan. She didn’t need Molly, in an attempt to help, reporting back to her mother that she was sitting alone in the dark. Her mom’s I-told-you-so would be more than Ginny could stand.
“I’m going to go. I think I’ll bring in some wood and make a fire.”
Even if the power didn’t go out, a cozy snowy Christmas Eve spent in front of a roaring fireplace seemed slightly less sad.
“That sounds nice. You should open a bottle of wine and enjoy your night alone.”
Spoken like a woman who had a boyfriend and didn’t have to spend any night alone if she didn’t want to. “Will do. Good night, Mol.”
“Good night and happy Christmas Eve.”
“Happy Christmas Eve to you too.” She disconnected before Molly could dispense any more holiday cheer Ginny wasn’t in the mood for.
After putting the cell down, Ginny stared at the lamp for a few seconds. The light bulb glowed steadily, with no more visible flickers.
That was a good sign. Maybe it had been a false alarm, though she should probably locate some provisions in case the electricity did go out.
Even at only four in the afternoon, on a cloudy late December day in New England, it was nearly dark already.
Best to be prepared, that's what Ginny always said. Well, she never actually said that, but it sounded good. For this situation she settled on locating the flashlight.
That was preparations enough for the time being because her trip to the kitchen had made her realize she was hungry.
She opened the fridge and perused the choices. She had lettuce to make a salad, but that idea left her feeling cold.
There was chicken breast in the freezer. She could defrost that in the microwave and throw something together for dinner. Maybe with some homemade mashed potatoes, but that would all take a lot of time and more incentive than she had.
Ginny opened a cabinet and eyed the rows of cans. Laziness won out and she opted on a hearty bean soup. One quick turn of the electric can opener and it would be ready to cook, with only one dirty pot to wash after she was done.
As the soup heated on the stovetop, Ginny wandered into the master bedroom.
Choosing to ignore the time of day, she grabbed her pajamas from where she’d left them hanging behind the bathroom door. A cozy night in front of the fire would be even better in her soft flannel PJs.
Okay, it wasn’t technically night yet. It was still more late afternoon, creeping up to be evening, but what good was the freedom of working from home if she couldn't put on her pajamas when she wanted to?
Besides, for better or worse there was no one there to see or judge her for it, so Ginny tossed her jeans and sweater on the chair in the bedroom and pulled on her softest, and also oldest, red and white snowflake patterned pajamas.
The soup was hot enough to eat by the time she got back to the kitchen, so she flipped off the burner.
After poured the steaming liquid into a bowl, she grabbed a spoon and a napkin and carried the lot into the living room.
The dark gaping opening of the fireplace reminded her she’d meant to bring in wood and make a fire. She’d have to do that later. If she did it now, her dinner would get cold.
She should probably try to put in at least an hour on her book since she hadn’t touched it in days. She could do that while she ate.
Ginny put the bowl down on the desk and sat. Her laptop was still open, just the way she’d left it. She tapped a key to wake the computer from hibernation mode and watched the screen spring to life.
She clicked to open the file for her novel. The document appeared on screen, looking exactly how she'd left it—unfinished, stalled halfway through the first chapter.
Okay, maybe not halfway. More like a few paragraphs in.
She blew out a breath. Ginny had heard of writer's block, but her experience seemed more like writer's amnesia. Nothing spilled out of her brain and onto the screen and she started to suspect that what she'd already written might be crap.
A Colonial-era cozy mystery had seemed like such a great idea when she'd originally come up with it and done the research.
So why wasn't it working? She had no idea, but sitting and staring at the screen didn't help either her mood or her novel.
In her defense, she had an eight-page outline for the story and ten pages of research notes, so she was closer to being finished than it appeared at first glance in spite of the pitifully low word count.
All she had to do was write it.
Easy. No problem at all . . . She laid her fingers on the keyboard, but she’d be damned if she knew what to type.
Maybe if she opened the outline and went over that again it would help.
Ginny was just about to do that when an alert popped onto her screen, which reminded her she hadn’t checked her email since this morning.
She opened her inbox in a new browser and found it full. She’d definitely be able to concentrate better after she went through it. And it would be far easier to eat her soup while reading email than while trying to write her novel.
Decision made, Ginny clicked open the first email, grabbed her bowl and settled in.
The falling white flakes out the window in front of her caught her attention. She had to admit, there was nothing that put a person in the holiday spirit more than snow.
It was peaceful.
Too peaceful. The house, so far removed from the neighbors and the road, was too quiet.
Maybe that was why she couldn’t work. She was used to her apartment and all the noises that came with it.
She got up, grabbed the remote control, and turned on the television. Ginny flipped through the channels until she found an old black and white movie. She lowered the volume until it was a soft drone and went back to the desk.
A little background noise would make her feel more at home. She’d make quick work of the inbox and the soup, then get right back to her book.
An hour later, Ginny’s soup bowl and inbox were both empty.
The movie had ended and another began. She heard George Bailey’s familiar voice behind her and smiled. It's a Wonderful Life had come on the movie channel.
It was a classic. One she made sure to watch every Christmas, but she hadn’t seen it yet this year. Who knew if the station would air it again tonight, and if she was traveling tomorrow she could miss it.
Flipping the lid of the laptop closed, she stood. The book would still be there when the movie was done.
Maybe a couple of hours spent away from staring at the screen would rejuvenate her. Moving to the sofa, she flopped onto the cushion and grabbed the throw to pull over her legs just as the station came back from a commercial break.
One glance at the screen told Ginny it was the colorized version of the classic. She hated that. Black and white movies were meant to remain black and white, in her opinion.
In silent protest, Ginny reached for the remote and changed the channel. She’d rather miss the movie than watch the bastardized version.
The people who owned the home had every channel known to man, so she was pretty sure she’d be able to find something good to watch.
“Today’s topic is how to find a man.” The words of the male host of a show she didn’t normally watch halted Ginny’s channel surfing. “We’re here with relationship expert Ronald Pearl, also known as the Love Doctor.”
Just what she needed—some expert giving her advice, as if her mother didn’t do that enough.
She was about to flip again when the guest said, “Single women are alone because subconsciously theychoose to be alone.”
She paused long enough to scowl at the idiot on the television who’d just delivered the ridiculous statement.
The homeowner’s cat chose that moment to dart into the room. It sent a look of fear in Ginny’s direction and then skidded into the kitchen where the food and water bowls were.
If Ginny couldn’t even get the damn cat to spend time with her, how was she supposed to do it with a man? She’d love to ask this expert that.
Remote control still in her hand, she couldn’t bring herself to change the channel quite yet. Not until she’d heard what other bullshit this man had to say.
The Love Doctor, who she doubted was really a doctor at all, continued, “Think of where you choose to work, to live, to shop, to recreate. Are these places where you are likely to meet the man of your dreams?”
The doctor of course had spoken to a female audience member, but it seemed as if he addressed Ginny directly.
She thought over her choices, mostly to try and disprove his theory, but the more she thought, the more she realized he was right.
Rather than getting an office job, Ginny chose to work from home.
For the holidays, the busiest time of the year for shopping, parties and just generally being around other people, she traded her city apartment for a house in the country, hours away from her friends and family.
The only guy she’d be likely to meet while buried away here was the man who delivered the heating oil. She’d barely even caught a glimpse of the mailman since she’d been here because the mailbox was along the road at the end of the very long driveway.
And recreation? Even when she was home in Stamford, watching television and reading were her main past times, especially now that Molly had a boyfriend to keep her busy.
It was her own fault she remained alone. The epiphany sat heavy in her chest.
Her mother might be right. Just that realization alone shifted Ginny's entire perception of reality.
“So what do I do?” She whispered the question aloud as the woman standing in the television audience asked the Love Doctor almost the same thing.
“I want you to make a list of everything you want in your life. By writing down and acknowledging your goals, you’ll unconsciously take the steps necessary to achieve them.”
Tossing the blanket to the side, Ginny jumped up and lunged for the desk. She grabbed a pad of paper and a pen.
The audience member began to tear up. Ginny frowned at the reaction. Crying would do no good.
Then again, writing down what she wanted probably wouldn't do much good either, but at least it seemed more productive than sobbing on national television.
She began her list by writing at the top of the page What I Want in Life.
Ginny paused. What did she want? She tapped the pen against the pad of paper while considering the answer to that very important question.
Her lack of ideas wasn’t a very promising start. Did her writer's block extend to list making too?
Ah, ha! That was what she wanted.
“I want to get over my writer's block. I want to write a novel.” She wrote as she spoke and felt better the minute something went down on the paper.
On a roll, she went back and added the words and publish after the words to write.
Ginny thought some more and added the words bestselling before novel.
She reread the sentence with the additions.
To write and publish a bestselling novel.
As long as this was a wish list, she might as well make the wishes good.
Feeling as if she was finally off to a good start, Ginny continued to consider what she wanted in life.
She glanced outside at the snow and thought of another point for her list. She was tired of feeling helpless. She’d had enough of being unable to fix things that broke or start a snow blower.
I want to be able to take care of myself.
Independence was important, however, she didn't want to be alone all the time either. Ginny added one more thing to the list.
I want a man.
Hmm. Better be more specific than that. She started a bulleted list of criteria below that.
After a moment of further consideration, she added two more.
Good in bed
Lets me be my own person
Glancing up, Ginny saw the woman on screen had finally wiped her eyes and started making her own list.
The doctor kept speaking, “Once you have your list, the points you’ve written become your destination. But you need a map to get to your destination. What steps can you consciously take to move you in the right direction to help achieve your end goals?”
Ginny supposed she could get out of the house more.
No wonder she was alone and had writer's block. How could she obtain any material to write if her entire existence consisted of this house, the television and her computer? She needed to get a life in order to write a book and land a man.
Molly and Marco met at the snack bar at their gym. Ginny had never belonged to a gym. She preferred exercise videos she could workout to in the privacy of her own home.
That was just one more way she unconsciously made the choice to be alone. Maybe she needed to join a gym. She added that as step number one.
She glanced at her list of male criteria. To find a man like that, she definitely needed to get out more, but not going just any old place would do. She supposed she could take day trips into New York City.
There she could visit museums and art galleries. Smart men would hang around there. Right?
Maybe she could sign up for some adult education classes at the local college. That would kill two birds with one stone. She could learn how to fix things and she might meet some cute guys at the school.
She wrote all those new ideas down as well, and then reviewed the lengthening list. She had a lot of changes to make in her usual routine.
The half hour show was wrapping up with the Love Doctor hawking his book. Ginny flipped the channel. She’d gotten what she needed from the show—a list of goals and a game plan on how to achieve them.
Since she couldn’t do anything about her plan on Christmas Eve, she put the list aside and decided not to think about any of it tonight. Tomorrow would be out of the question too, since it was a holiday.
In fact, with New Year's Eve just around the corner, after the first of the year might be a better time to start implementing the changes for her new life.
That seemed like the perfect time. After the holidays were over. When businesses were getting back to business as usual. And when the whole world was making resolutions for the new year.
Happy with that plan, Ginny scrolled until she found a Christmas movie she could live with, pulled the blanket over her legs again and snuggled in for the evening.
She’d call her mom and dad as soon as this movie was over. Maybe by then she’d have a better handle on how bad the storm was going to be.
~ * ~
Thom leaned toward the restroom mirror and evaluated his reflection. Aside from the darkened circles beneath his eyes, which were caused by lack of sleep not bruising, he looked back to normal.
His face had gone through a whole rainbow of colors since the November mission that had landed him in the hospital. During the worst of it, he’d even resorted to putting on makeup so the bruises wouldn’t scare his kids.
Now, finally, that night was just a memory. And a hazy memory, at that.
He balled up the paper towel he’d dried his hands on and tossed it across the room. It landed dead center in the trashcan.
His depth perception was back. So was his peripheral vision, and he hadn’t experienced memory loss in weeks. Proof that even an RPG-powered hatch to the face couldn’t keep a good SEAL down for long.
Thom tugged the men’s room door open and headed into the dimly lit bar toward the table where his friends sat.
Rather than take his seat, he dug into his pocket for his wallet and tossed a five-dollar bill onto the table for the soda he’d drank. “I guess I’m gonna get going.”
From his seat at the table, Brody frowned up at him. “You sure you wanna take that drive tonight?”
“I’ll be fine.” Thom dismissed his friend’s concern with the wave of one hand.
The team was used to working vampire hours, with most of their missions happening at night. Compared to infiltrating an ISIS stronghold, driving from Virginia to Massachusetts would be a piece of cake.
Brody’s brother Chris paused with his beer in his hand. “I don’t see why you don’t just hit the road in the morning instead. That way you can stay, have some beers with us, then start fresh in daylight.”
“There’ll be less traffic driving at night. Besides, they’re expecting me in the afternoon, but I kinda wanna surprise my parents and be there when they wake up in the morning.” Thom couldn’t be with his kids on Christmas morning, thanks to his bitch ex-wife’s rules, so he wanted to be with his parents.
He would have left earlier today, but he’d only been allowed to have his son and daughter for Christmas Eve dinner. He couldn’t miss that, so it delayed his departure.
Thom had three-days leave and he was going to make the most of it. If that meant driving at night to maximize the time he had with his family in Massachusetts, then that’s what he’d do.
Brody pushed back his chair and stood. He extended his hand to Thom then reeled him in to deliver a slap on his back with the other. “Safe trip and Merry Christmas.”
“Thanks.” Thom turned and got the same treatment from the other Cassidy brother.
Chris pulled back and said, “Be careful driving up there. I saw talk of a snowstorm on the news.”
Thom laughed. “Don’t worry. We Yankees know how to drive in the snow. It’s only you southern boys who think a few flurries warrants a winter weather emergency.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Chris rolled his eyes. “Just be careful and Merry Christmas.”
“Same to you.” Thom tipped his head. “See you in a few days.”
“You got it.” Brody’s voice followed Thom as he turned for the door. “And don’t forget, New Years is at Rick’s place again this year.”
Thom raised an arm in acknowledgement as he pushed through the back door of the bar that led to the parking lot.
The cool air hit him like a bracing slap across the face. He was grateful for that after the overly warm air of the bar and his full belly from dinner with the kids. He had become a little too relaxed and kind of sleepy.
Luckily, when he’d stopped at the gas station to fill up before getting the kids this afternoon, Thom had picked up an energy drink. If he started to feel tired during the eight-hour drive to Springfield, he’d down that and be good.
Sliding behind the wheel of his SUV, he thought about what Brody had called to him as he’d been leaving. New Years Eve was next week. Yet another holiday to remind him of his divorce.
He’d negotiated to get the kids on New Years Day this year so he couldn’t get shitfaced at the party the night before. Even so, it would be good to be at Rick’s place with his buddies.
Of course, it wouldn’t just be the guys. There’d be a few females. Rick’s sister Darci would be there and Ali too since she and Jon were a couple now.
Even Zane had settled down with one girl, amazingly enough. And of course, Grant and his wife would probably come.
One day—maybe—Thom would be interested in going down the dating road again. Since thoughts of his ex-wife still had his blood pressure rising into the danger zone, that day had obviously not come yet.
Hell, she’d turn him so completely off women he hadn’t had sex in—what? A quick calculation told him it had been over eighteen months since the divorce had been finalized and he’d gone out on a drunken rebound-sex spree.
That had been more about revenge and anger at his ex than pleasure for himself.
Christ, that woman had messed him up good if even sex hadn’t held any appeal for him for a year and a half.
Steering onto the entrance ramp for the highway that would lead him north and home, Thom decided this holiday was a good time to forget about everything bad in his life. A time to enjoy his family, the beauty of his hometown in winter and some much needed time off.
He might even run into one of his old girlfriends from high school. A one-night reunion with a woman from his past might be just what he needed to break out of this funk he was in and end his dry spell.
Some quick, easy sex might get him back on the horse, so to speak.
Still, somehow that idea left him cold.
Even with as bruised as he was from the divorce, damned if he wasn’t still a romantic at heart. He should probably work on that.
Thom realized it was going to be a long night if he kept second-guessing his life and loves the whole way.
He spun the dial on the radio louder, hoping the music would fill his head rather than his own thoughts.
With a dry, open highway ahead of him, he set the cruise control for ten miles above the posted speed limit and reached for his energy drink, settling in for the drive.
Next stop, Massachusetts.
SEALed at Midnight is in eBook, Print, Audio at AMAZON  ~ iBOOKS ~ GOOGLE ~ NOOK ~  MORE LINKS
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