Page 35 of Stinger

"Nah, your mind was just preoccupied with other things," he said and I could hear the smile in his voice.

I looked up at him. "Very preoccupied," I agreed with a smile.

He kissed me gently and I moved away from him as he stood up. I watched his muscular ass move in his jeans as he walked to the kitchen. The memory of how that ass felt under my hands, the muscles clenching with movement as he thrust in and out of me made me shiver. Yeah, maybe that staying in bed for the rest of the week idea wasn't such a bad one.

Carson came back into the room ten minutes later with a cup of coffee and a plate of scrambled eggs and toast.

"I remembered how you like your coffee," he said, "but I don't know how you like your eggs. I hope that's okay."

"This is how I like my eggs," I said with a smile. "Thank you."

He nodded, and I dug into my food. I hadn't eaten since the morning before when I'd grabbed a banana on my way out the door to the airport. God, that felt like a lifetime ago. Another life entirely.

I looked up at Carson, sitting on the opposite end of the couch, sipping his cup of coffee.

I put my plate down and held my hand out to him. He sat his cup down and scooted toward me, pulling me into his body so that I was snuggled up against his side.

I nuzzled into his neck and curled into him.

I felt a deep contentment settle through me, the knowledge that I had made the right decision vibrating in my very soul.

"What are you thinking about?" he whispered, nuzzling into my hair.

"Umm, you, me, us." I smiled.

"I like that topic," he said. "What about us?"

"I was just thinking how right this feels. I was thinking how sorry I am that it took me so long to realize it."

Carson chuckled. "It took you a week, Grace."

I smiled, kissing the crook of his neck. "Too long."

He sighed. "You had a few things going on. It was normal that you got spooked by me. I came on sort of strong."

"I like when you come on strong," I whispered.

"I know you do, Buttercup," he said with a smile.

I lifted my head and looked up at him, warmth filling me now that I knew the meaning of my nickname. "Just don't get carried away," I warned teasingly.

He laughed. "Please. You're the real boss here. You think I don't know that?" He looked down at me tenderly. "I'd do anything for you, Grace. I'd slay a dragon for you," he said softly.

I blinked up at him, taking in the sincerity in his eyes, the beauty of his face, the tenderness of his expression. I leaned up and kissed his soft lips, sucking his bottom one into my mouth and nipping it with my teeth.

I grinned up at him and he pulled me in to his side again.

After a second, I leaned back and looked into his face, biting my lip. I needed to ask him about something. He had said a woman's name in his sleep this morning. I had woken up briefly, but then gone back to sleep when he was silent again. I wasn't upset, after all, he'd told me he hadn't been with anyone since me. But I was curious.

"What?" he asked softly.

"Carson," I paused, "who is Ara?"

**********

Carson

I froze and my heart picked up speed. "Where did you hear that name?" I whispered.

She leaned back a little more and looked at me, her brow furrowed, her large, blue eyes studying my face.

"From you. You said it in your sleep this morning," she said.

I closed my eyes for a couple beats. "I'm sorry. It's… it's not what you might think," I said, worried that she thought I was dreaming about a woman I had been involved with in some romantic way.

"It's okay. We've been apart a long time and–"

"No. I was telling you the truth when I said I haven't been with anyone else. Not in any way."

She studied me and nodded again, sitting up straight, but staying right next to me, our bodies touching. She brought the blanket over my lap too as she bent her legs so that they were under her on the couch.

I leaned back and ran my hand over my short hair.

I was silent for a minute, getting my thoughts straight as she waited me out. I was ready to tell her about this. If we were together now, then she needed to know. This was part of my life.

"Ara was a fourteen year old girl who was raped and beaten by a high value target we had been sent in to kill in Afghanistan. We found her, half-dead from her injuries, and we stayed with her as she died."

Grace brought her hand up to her mouth, her eyes filled with shock and sadness. She removed her hand and whispered, "We?"

I nodded, "Yeah, me and my unit. We had gone in on the mission and we were successful pretty immediately. But when we went in to the warehouse the target had been hiding in, we found some things we weren't expecting, including a whole room of women and girls in the most deplorable conditions you could imagine." I was silent for another minute, picturing opening that door, the smell hitting us immediately as we all recoiled and then shined our flashlights in–eyes wide and scared staring back at us. They hadn't given them access to toilets or water. They were being held like cattle, worse than cattle. When I pictured hell, I pictured that room.

"They were being trafficked. Girls as young as six were in that room, fated to become some sick fuck's sexual plaything."

Her eyes were huge in her face, tears welling over now as she stared at me silently.

"One of the girls, Ara, had seen a chance for escape when they threw some dinner in for them. The guards caught her and they raped her–raped her in any and every way they could. They hurt and degraded her unmercifully." My voice faded at the end as I swallowed down the lump that always formed when I thought of Ara. "They all took turns with her and then they beat her so severely that she was barely conscious. Of course, we didn't get this information until later, when our translator talked to some of the other women being held."

Tears were coursing down Grace's cheeks, and she grabbed my hand and held it to her heart as I continued to talk.

"After we killed them and found Ara, we carried her outside and we cleaned her wounds as best as we could with what we had. But the internal damage was too much… she needed a hospital and we had no way to get her to one. We gave her morphine and we stayed with her through the night, taking turns holding her hand and telling her stories–any story we could think of. As the sun started to rise, it was my turn to hold her hand and I told her about you, how I thought of you every morning when the sun came up in the sky. And I swear, she smiled at me, Grace. She looked right in my eyes, and she smiled. And then she was gone."

Grace choked out a small sob. "Oh, God," she breathed out.

I closed my eyes for a minute, recalling that morning, my heart breaking as I looked into Ara's eyes, the girl I didn't even know, as she slipped from this world.

"How do you handle that memory, Carson? How do you get over that?" Grace finally asked on another small sob.

I thought about that. I thought about how you ship off to fight for your country, and no one ever tells you that the things you see might seep into your very soul and irrevocably change who you are. They never tell you that a million miles from one moment, it will all suddenly come back to you - where you were, what you felt, what you saw, that one frame–on repeat, over and over and over.

"I'll never get it out of my head. I'll never get over it. And I'm okay with that. She lived it. The very least I can do is remember."

She studied me for a moment, and then she smiled a sad smile at me, something deep and intense flashing in her eyes as she took my face in her hands and brought her lips to mine softly. We sat together for a minute, as she kissed my cheeks and my forehead, my nose, and my lips again, very softly. Then she picked my hands up in hers and examined the scars on my palms, putting her lips to those and closing her eyes tightly.

I watched her, my heart beating triple time in my chest as her emotion swept over me, filling me, humbling me, and giving me peace.

When she leaned back she asked, "What happened to the other girls?"

I sighed. "They were all from small, poor villages in the surrounding areas. The townspeople helped locate their families and get them back where they belonged. They had mostly been told that there was a housekeeping job or something like that in another village. That's the usual M.O. when it comes to trafficking. In some cases, families even sell their daughters into what they believe will be a better situation than they can provide."

Grace nodded, biting her lip. "And Ara's family?" she asked quietly.

"We had to leave before Ara's family was located, but the townspeople thought they knew where they were and promised to bring her body to them."

Grace put her head on my chest and her arms around my waist and squeezed me gently. God, it felt good to talk about this with her and let her comfort seep into my heart. The guys and I had talked about it afterwards, but it wasn't the same. It wasn't the same as being wrapped in Grace's arms as she took part of my pain and made it her own. I didn't want her to hurt, but to share my scars with another human was a relief that I hadn't even known I needed until I got it.

We were quiet for a few minutes, just holding each other. Finally, I said quietly, "Grace, there's more, and this part concerns you."

She brought her head up and frowned. "Okay," she said.

I paused. "Listen, when I tell you what I'm about to tell you, I understand if you need to take some time to think about it. I pray to God that you don't get back in Dylan's SUV and drive back to Vegas, but if you want to do that, I'll understand."

"Carson, you're scaring me," she whispered.

I took a deep breath. "The initial plan was to kill the target and get in and out of there, but because of the unexpected situation we found, we were later making our way to our rendezvous point. It gave men who worked for the high value target time to ambush us. You already knew I was injured, but not the circumstances. Leland was injured in that same ambush."

She nodded, her eyes big pools of worry. I grabbed her hand and squeezed it.

"Anyway, after that, we were shipped back while we healed. Leland got discharged and I was given a choice to stay or go. When Leland offered me a job, I decided to go."

"Yes, you told me all this."

"I know. But I didn't tell you what my real job is."

Her brows snapped down. "You're not the head of security at Trilogy?"

"Well, yes and no. That's my full-time job. The rest of the time, I plan and execute operations with my friends to rescue women being sexually trafficked. We use the forty-fifth floor of Trilogy to house them while we locate their families and get the necessary paperwork to fly them home."

"What?" she breathed, her face losing color.

I turned more fully toward her. "After what happened with Ara, with what we saw in that warehouse, we were all pretty messed up over it. We talked about it and decided we needed to do something that mattered, something that made a difference, using the skills we had. Leland had the means and the location to offer us all jobs as cover for the operation we'd agreed to put into effect. As SEAL's we were able to gather intel and break into locations where women were being held. In Vegas, most of the women come from Latin American countries. We all agreed and we had gone in and gotten six groups of women in the two months we were in Vegas. The last rescue was the night before Josh got arrested."

Grace shook her head slightly. "Oh my God, I don't even… I don't even know what to say. Wait, what does this have to do with Josh's arrest?" Her eyes widened even further.

"Josh was framed, Grace. There's a man in Vegas who makes it his business to sell people, in his case, women and girls specifically. The women we rescued were his merchandise. What happened to Josh was his way of telling us he didn't appreciate what we had taken from him."

Grace fell back on the couch, putting her hand over her forehead. "Oh my God."

CHAPTER 31

Grace

I believed him without a doubt the minute he said it. My heart was breaking and my mind was reeling with everything he'd told me. How had my whole world turned upside down, yet again, in the space of half an hour? I sat on the couch with my hand on my forehead, trying to collect myself enough to ask more necessary questions. But only one came to mind. "What do we do?" I asked.

I looked at Carson and he paused for a couple beats before his face broke out in one of the biggest grins I'd ever seen on him. It shocked me a little bit. "Why are you smiling?" I asked, genuinely confused.

"You said, 'we,'" he said quietly, still grinning.

I blinked at him. "Yeah," I confirmed, "I said we."

"Just like that?" He asked, his smile fading and vulnerability washing over his features.

I pursed my lips, studying him for a minute. "I understand why you wouldn't tell me this before now… before I told you I wanted to be with you. But… did you think I wouldn't believe you when you did tell me?" I tilted my head, waiting for his answer.

He furrowed his brow. "No, I guess I didn't think you'd doubt my story, I just wondered if you'd want to have any part of it."

I sighed and laughed a humorless laugh. "I don't know if I do, exactly." I paused. "But here's the thing, it comes with you. It's what you do. And Carson, I don't know if anyone's told you this lately, but you're a hero."

He laughed. "No, Buttercup. I'm no hero."

I shook my head. "Yes, Carson, you are. I've worked cases, lots of cases actually, that involve women who've been sexually abused in some form or another. I've seen the look in their eyes. I've seen the devastation. Yes, you're a hero. So again, what are we going to do?"

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