Standing, Sebastian Cordasic followed her down a carpeted corridor, back ramrod straight, the starch and perfect fit of his marine uniform both familiar and not.
"Right through here." She indicated a closed door, standing back as he grasped the knob.
When Sebastian entered the room, the general rose to greet him and so did his guesta woman Sebastian hadn't seen in three months, ever since his brother Dominic had married her sister, Rachel.
Jillie Everhart, international country music superstar and one of the most beautiful women he'd ever met.
What was she doing at the Pentagon in General Knight's office?
Sebastian knew he should have felt a surge of excitement or relief, but he felt absolutely nothing.
"Commander Cordasic?" General Knight was all smiles. "At ease. You know Ms. Everhart, I understand."
Seb tore his gaze away from her. "Yes, sir." Barely allowing his shoulders to relax, he wondered what this was about. Ever since he'd been placed on a mandatory medical leave of absence, he'd been waiting for a summons from General Knight. A summons with new orders, giving him back command of Shadow Unit, the elite, covert unit he'd once lived for. Orders, no matter what they were, where they sent him, that would finally end nearly a year of boredom.
But where did Jillie enter the picture?
General Knight stared at him, as though expecting him to elaborate. Briefly, Seb wondered if the other man was a country music fan. But then why had Seb been invited to their meeting? It didn't make sense.
Jillie made a sound of welcome, low in her graceful, elegant throat. "Seb." Her voice washed over him like honey, soothing and sensual all at once.
When the only move he made to greet her was a slight dip of his chin, she came to him, pressing her curvy body to his, enveloping him in a floral-scented hug.
"How are you?" Her glad cry was followed by an appraising look. "You look good."
Was that a hint of reproach in her dulcet tone? He cast his mind back to when he saw her at Dominic's wedding. She'd made it clear that she was interested in him, but he'd been careful not to promise anything, knowing he couldn't deliver.
He found her attractive, certainly. Desired her, most definitely. But he wasn't in the habit of beginning casual affairs, and a casual affair was all he could give any woman right now.
Besides, a star of Jillie's caliber had her pick of men. Why would she want to mess around with an automaton like him? With her toned curves and mass of long, golden ringlets, she was beautiful enough to have any man she wanted.
General Knight's frown deepened. "You have new orders."
Seb nodded slowly, but wondered why his superior officer had chosen to give him his orders in front of a civilian. "Where to, sir?"
Jillie's grin widened. Her curly blond hair cascaded down her back in bouncy waves. Her hair matched her personality. He'd never met anyone like herbouncy, bubbly, happy and brimming with life.
Even her choice of clothing reflected her personality. For the occasionwhatever that might beshe'd worn a bright lemon-colored dress. The simple cut of the fabric told him it was probably expensive, no doubt one of those designer labels all the women drooled over.
Again he wondered why she was here.
General Knight cleared his throat. Seb promptly directed his attention back to his superior officer, raising a brow as he waited for the other man to continue.
"We've received new Intel on the same splinter group that held you captive." The general glanced again at Jillie, giving her a faint smile before returning his gaze to Seb.
"Perhaps we should discuss this later, sir?" Seb kept his tone polite. Certainly the general knew better than to let a civvy overhear classified information.
General Knight smiled. "This particular bit of Intel concerns her, too, Commander."
Seb nodded as if he understood, though he didn't really. He didn't see what the bastards who'd made him into an emotionless robot had to do with Jillie and said so.
"We're getting to that." Hands behind his back, General Knight strolled around the bookcase-lined room. With his graying hair and well-toned body, he cut a dapper figure in his uniform.
"They still want you, Commander Cordasic. The capture of a legendary Cordasic was quite a coup for them, and they want you back. What exactly they did to you is still unknown, though we're trying to find out."
If they hadn't found out by now, Seb doubted they ever would. Whatever experiments they'd performed on him had been done while he was unconscious. He'd woken feeling no different than usualor so he'd thought. Later he realized he felt blank. The desire to escape had completely left him, as had the yearning to rejoin his unit. He felt absolutely nothingno fury, no regret, no fear.
The worst thing was that he knew what emotions he normally would feelshould feeland yet he no longer experienced any of them.
Now was no different. Jillie might be delightful eye candy, but she had no more effect on him than anything else.
Again, he focused on the general, waiting to hear the rest. Hearing that the terrorists wanted him recaptured was not a surprise. Evidently they hadn't yet finished their work on him.
Sebastian might not be able to feel, but he knew one thing with absolute certainty. He'd put a bullet through his own head before he'd allow himself to be recaptured and turned into an even worse monster.
"Intel has intercepted conversations that indicate some members of the splinter cell have vowed to stop at nothing to recapture you and are on the way here. Nothing you care about is safe."
Seb started to say he cared about nothing, but as the impact of General Knight's words hit him, he bit back a curse. "My family?"
"Exactly. We'll notify them to take extra precautions."
"I want them guarded."
Seb nodded. "And JillieMs. Everhart? Is she in danger, too?"
Giving both of them an assessing look, General Knight nodded. "Especially after she posted what she did on her blog."
Jillie's creamy complexion turned tomato-red. "I'm sure once the media picked that up and ran with it, the terrorists figured I'd be a good bet for bait."
He met her gaze blankly. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
Now even the general appeared shocked. Both he and Jillie gave Seb incredulous looks.
"How could you not? It's been all over every tabloid for weeks, not to mention the Internet."
Seb shrugged. "I've been down in the Florida Keys at a friend's fishing place. No tabloids there. No TV or computer, either. What did you post on your blog?"
Her blush deepened, but she didn't look away. He had to give her credit for that.
"I made the post after I got back from Vegas the first time. After you and Dominic rescued my nephew Cole from that horrible man, I told my fans about what had happened. I told them I'd met you, though I didn't use your full name. I don't know how they figured that out."
"So?" The old Seb would have felt impatience. "What does that have to do with the terrorists?"
She lifted her chin higher. "I told them I thought I had met The One." As she paused for emphasis, her sapphire-blue eyes searched his face, trying to make certain he understood. "You, Seb. I blogged that you were The One."
While Seb tried to process this, General Knight stepped in to finish. "You've become a minor celebrity, son. Jillie Everhart's fiancé."
"I'm not her fiancé."
"You are now." General Knight forestalled Seb's protest with a wave of his hand. "Until this thing is over and we've captured the splinter cell, I want you to act as Jillie's fiancé." He paused for effect. "This is only one part of your orders."
Seb clenched his jaw and jerked his head in a quick nod. "And the rest of them, sir?"
"According to Intel, the splinter cell wants to use Ms. Everhart as bait to capture you." General Knight's mouth tightened, then relaxed into a smile as he looked at Jillie. "The president's a big fan. He wants to make sure that doesn't happen. Your orders are to protect Ms. Everhart and make sure nothing happens to her. We'll keep an eye on you, and when they make their move, we'll grab them."
From his years in the military, Seb knew protesting would be futile. Still, Jillie was a civilian. He didn't mind being used as bait, but he sure as hell minded them using her. At least, he knew he should mind.
"Once we capture them, we can find out what they did to you, son." The general clapped him on the shoulder. "As well as learn how to undo it. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
General Knight appeared to take Seb's lack of response for assent. "From today on, I want you stuck to Ms. Everhart's side like glue. Where she goes, you go. Her own bodyguards will be replaced by undercover federal agents. You'll step in as team leader."
"The FBI is involved." Seb frowned. "I'd like permission to replace them with my own men."
General Knight shook his head. "Sorry, no can do. You can have a few of your men, of course, but technically the Feds are in charge."
Jillie didn't seem to mind. She smiled sweetly at them both. Too sweetly. He quickly realized what was wrong. She was too quiet. During the time they'd spent together in Vegas, he'd noticed Jillie did everything flamboyantly.
Either Jillie was really worried, or she had something up her sleeve.
His head began to ache. Even before his capture, Seb had preferred to keep things uncomplicated. He was a straightforward kind of guy. All the Cordasics were. It was the way they were wired.
He would have bet Jillie was the same way. She'd been up-front and sincere. He'd felt comfortable around her, able to relax without worrying about underlying meanings and subterfuge.
Her smile widened, making him realize he'd been staring. The fact that she seemed on board with this plan told him she had no idea what she was getting into.
General Knight held out a manila folder. "Everything you need is in here."
Seb took it, dropping his chin in acknowledgment.
"You have two hours." The general consulted his watch. "Go home and pack. Call me in an hour to let me know who you want on your team. I'll make the arrangements to get them to you."
His men. If Seb were the man he used to be, he'd be overjoyed. "Aren't they still in Kuwait?"
The general gave him a sharp look. "Their location is classified. Call me with names. I'll send a driver to pick you up at 1700 hours. Dismissed."
He was no longer considered in the loopno longer given classified information. Nothing surprised him anymore. Seb turned on his heel, nodded once at Jillie and headed for the door while turning the names of his select unit over in his head and wondering how he'd choose just four.
Jillie watched him go, her chest aching. "He doesn't seem too happy," she commented.
"He's a soldier. He'll do what he's told. Once he thinks about this, he'll realize it's a very good plan."
"You'll keep him safe, right?" Her voice sounded sharp, but she didn't care. Sebastian Cordasic was just too important to her to let the military take chances with his safety. "I don't like the idea of the bad guys coming after him."
The older man gave her a fatherly smile. "Don't worry your pretty little head about that, dear. We marines can take care of our own."
"You'd better," she said darkly and then softened her harsh words with a brilliantand utterly falsesmile. "I think we both agree it would be a public relations disaster if the media were to learn of a botched operation."
This time, General Knight took her words seriously. Narrowing his eyes, he studied her with a flinty stare and then nodded. "It won't be botched. Now if there isn't anything else, I have a meeting to attend. My secretary will show you the way out."
His secretary magically appeared as though she'd been listening at the door. Gliding across the room, she smiled at Jillie. "Ms. Everhart? If you'll follow me."
The general held out his hand. Since Jillie firmly believed in hugging rather than handshakes, she stepped around his outstretched arm and gave him a big hug. He appeared at a loss for words.
Stepping back, Jillie gave him a grin and a jaunty little wave before following the secretary out of the room.
It took Seb all of ten minutes to pack what he needed. After tossing in six dark T-shirts, three pairs of jeans, a week's worth of underwear and socks, and an extra pair of black boots, he zipped his duffel closed. He didn't need much. As long as his trusty Ruger and shoulder harness were in place, he was good to go.
Next he had to choose his men. One was a givenRyan Timmons, his second in command. Ryan had led the charge to free Seb from his prison cell in Kuwait. The others weren't so easy, but he eventually settled on Travis Mendenhall, Archie Bell and Charlie Hill. He called the general and gave the names.
Finally, he sat down with a pad of paper and worked out a rudimentary plan of action. Keeping Jillie safe would be easyas long as he kept her away from the general public. With her occupation, that wouldn't be easy, but based on the elevated level of threat, gaining her full cooperation shouldn't be difficult.
After jotting down the key points, he stuffed the pad into the side pocket of his duffel bag.
He was ready.
The rest of the time he spent pacing the confines of his small, impersonal apartment in Bethesda. He had no plants or pets to worry about, and if the place were to burn to the ground while he was on assignment, he'd lose very little. The apartment had come furnished with a ragtag couch, a wobbly kitchen table, and a bed with a saggy mattress. The few personal belongingssome books, CDs and a flat-screen televisionwere easily replaceable and gave no hints about him.
Seb didn't care. He viewed the place as just somewhere to sleep and wait for his next assignment, not as a home to make comfortable and entertain in. Men like him didn't have friends outside their unit, and ever since he'd been freed from prison in Kuwait, the only kind of lover he'd taken had been the kind he'd picked up in a bar. Sexual desire had been the one thing they hadn't taken from him, maybe because it was a bodily urge rather than an emotion.
Excerpted from The Perfect Soldier by Karen Whiddon Copyright © 2009 by Karen Whiddon. Excerpted by permission.
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