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By:Joan Swan

This had been an epically stupid idea.

Josh Marx propped his elbows on the picnic table, flanking his laptop, and stared out at the ocean beyond Dana Point Harbor, in California. With a storm brewing, the general public had deserted the beach, and only a small group of his friends from the Renegades Stunt Company wandered down by the water’s edge.

On the beach, Jax Chamberlin, the owner of Renegades, rocketed a football through the air toward Wes Lawson, Renegades’ top stunt driver. The wind hooked the ball five yards inland, and Wes launched off his feet, stretching until he was horizontal to the sand, arms extending, stretching, reaching…

The ball brushed his fingertips and changed trajectory, spinning away as Wes dove—face-first—into the sand.

The others broke into hysterics. Wes pushed to hands and knees, shook sand out of his hair, and spit it out of his mouth. Josh chuckled but the heaviness in his chest clung.

Rubi, Wes’s girlfriend, jogged up the beach, grabbed a towel, and tossed it to Wes, then wandered toward the picnic table. She darted a look at the notepad at Josh’s elbow, where he’d jotted calculations. “Done yet?”

“Not even close.” Josh returned his gaze to the sea, a bittersweet knot forming beneath his ribs. “I figured if I stall long enough, you’ll have that risk assessment app all finished, and I wouldn’t have to do anything but plug in numbers.”

“Can’t create it without your help.” The computer savant eyed him across the table. “When’s that going to happen, anyway?”

Josh heaved a breath and rubbed the backs of his fingers against the stubble on his jaw. He’d been so busy with different consulting gigs, he hadn’t had time to sit down with Rubi and give her the information she needed to program the application. “How about right after Christmas? I’ll have a few days free between seeing my parents and starting another job.”

“You’re on.”

Wes and Jax were tossing the ball again.

“No!” Rachel’s scream drew Josh’s gaze to the waterline just as Ryker hoisted her over his shoulder and waded into the surf. “Nathan, don’t you dare. That water’s freezing.”

A half smile curled Josh’s mouth. He’d spent twelve-hour days training in that sixty-degree water during BUDS. His thoughts circled back to the loss of his career and the life he loved. Over the past twelve months, emptiness continued to haunt him, contrary to the navy therapist’s promise that it would dissipate with time.

He loved a broody ocean, and now, the southern California sky hung heavy with storm clouds, making the water an intense shade of steel blue. The two-hundred-foot tall eucalyptus overhead rattled in the growing wind. White caps developed a mile offshore.

God, it was all so perfect. So beautiful. And made him so damned lonely.

“Want to talk about it?” Rubi asked.

Josh dragged his gaze away from the group and the ocean beyond, refocusing on the screen where risk assessment forms stared back at him. “Nah. It won’t take me long to get this written up when I’m not distracted.”

“I meant”—Rubi’s words pulled his gaze from the water—“whatever’s bugging you?”

To avoid her piercing eyes, Josh glanced back at the screen just as a handful of raindrops slanted across the glass. He shut his laptop and stuffed his things back into his briefcase. “Is there something bugging me?”

“You’ve definitely been out of sorts the last couple of days. Withdrawn, quiet… Dare I say…moody?”

“Have I?”

“It’s Rachel and Ryker, isn’t it?”

More of Rachel’s screaming laughter floated on the wind, and he smiled. He’d missed her since she’d moved to Virginia and shacked up with army boy. But he didn’t miss her like he’d expected to miss someone he’d been in love with. He just missed her like he missed other friends who’d come and gone from his shifting life. Which confirmed that he hadn’t been in love with Rachel at all. Just wishing he could have been, because falling for someone else could have erased the one woman he’d wanted for years from his heart and mind.

“No, it’s not them. I just still have a lot to do before I head home.”

What Rubi sensed was that nagging emptiness cresting on this significant date, making him remember all he’d lost. Making him realize how deeply he craved someone permanent beside him. Someone intimately in tune with who he was, what he believed in, and how he thought. Outside his team, there was only one woman in the world who understood him that way—and it wasn’t Rachel.

To keep his mind from straying to Grace, he let it drift to his team. To where they might be now—Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria. To what journalist they’d been dispatched to rescue. What diplomat they might be protecting. What guerrilla military group they’d been ordered to dismantle…