"You better come back to me," Parker whispered softly.
Garrett's heart beat furiously inside his chest, and he knew she could feel it. He only hoped she chalked it up to nerves about the mission and not about how her words affected him.
Parker knew what she said could be taken two ways but she didn't care. She just wanted him safe and whole and alive when this was all over.
The weight of her words hung heavily in the air between them. The ringing of Garrett's phone broke the spell, and he let go of his grip on her arms to reach for the clip on his belt to retrieve his phone.
"McCarthy," Garrett answered curtly.
He stared into Parker's eyes while he listened to his CO on the other end of the line tell him about a glitch in the mission already.
It turned out their Navy photographer, Petty Officer First Class Sasha Mitchell, was injured on her ship that morning before she was supposed to fly in from Greece. Sasha was going to pose as Garrett's co-worker and lover for this mission. Under normal circumstances, the co-worker cover would have been enough. But the Dominican frowned on working women unless they were accompanied by their husband. They needed a photographer who could sneak into areas with the team and acquire the photographic evidence they needed. Sasha was the Navy's best photographer and had been on several under cover missions, not to mention she was fluent in Spanish. She had been the perfect woman for the job and now Garrett was going to have to deal with a last-minute replacement that wasn't going to be as efficient.
Garrett hung up the phone and pulled away from Parker. He was irritated that something was already screwed up and he hadn't even left California yet.
Parker asked Garrett what the phone call was about, and he made the mistake of telling her. He should have known that as soon as the words, "our photographer can't do the mission," left his mouth, a light bulb would go off in her head.
Parker felt the old familiar bubble of excitement in the pit of her stomach as she listened to Garrett. It was the same one she always got when a new assignment was given to her or when she stood in the quiet blackness of her darkroom and waited for a photo to develop.
That feeling had been dormant for the past six months while she was on her leave of absence but now it was back. She wouldn't have to worry about Garrett because she could be there with him every step of the way. She wouldn't have to sit back doing nothing, wasting her life away every single day just waiting for another knock on her door.
Garrett stopped his manic pacing when he realized Parker had been unusually quiet the last several minutes. When he turned to face her and saw the determination and excitement written all over her face he wanted to throw up.
Garrett started to shake his head before he even opened his mouth.
"No. Absolutely not, Parker. You can just erase whatever stupid-ass idea is floating around in that head of yours right now."
Parker took his words as a challenge and put her hands on her hips, mustering all of the attitude she possessed. She looked sexy as hell when she was like that―eyes filled with fire and determination, confidence practically exploding out of her. Garrett had to recite baseball facts in his head to make his dick calm down.
"Sorry, McCarthy, but you do not have monopoly on stupid decisions. Why is it okay for you to do this and not me? I want to find out the truth just as much as you do, and I'm the best photographer there is."
Garrett stared at her like she had a second head growing out of her neck.
"Are you fucking kidding me? I'm trained for this. This is what I do. I go into dangerous situations and I get a job done. You're a photographer. You lie around on beaches and climb trees and take pretty pictures. You travel first class, stay in luxury hotels, and drink champagne with your editors. You have no idea what it's like out there in a strange land with people who don't follow the same rules as you. You wouldn't know what the fuck to do in a dangerous situation if your life depended on it. And it would, little one."
Garrett knew the dig about her job was a low blow, and once again, he hated what he was doing to her. He also knew calling her "little one" would have the same effect as if he'd just called her a baby. It was the only way he knew how to protect her, though. He'd rather she hate him than ever put her life in danger.
Garrett waited for the explosion to come. He waited for a kick to the balls or a smack across the face but it never game. Several long minutes passed where neither of them spoke and the silence made Garrett nervous.
"You're right, Garrett. You're absolutely right. It was silly of me to even suggest such a thing. I don't know what I was thinking," Parker replied calmly, a serene smile on her face that was obviously forced.
"Thank you for a lovely dinner. Give me a call when your plane lands. You know, if you're not in too much danger or anything and it's not too much trouble."
Garrett didn't miss the sarcasm dripping from her voice. She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. He could deal with Parker's anger; he could even deal with her hatred. But he absolutely could not handle the dejection that was all over her face.
Parker's usually warm lips were ice cold on his face, and he instantly missed her heat. This went a whole lot further than being pissed at him. She was hurt beyond belief, and if he didn't absolutely believe with every fiber of his being that he was doing the right thing to keep her safe, he would drop down on his knees and beg for her forgiveness.
Instead, Garrett let her walk away. He watched her walk up the sidewalk to her front door and listened to her heels click against the cement. It took everything inside him not to run after her, wrap his arms around her, and kiss away the misery that he'd put on her beautiful face.
He would make this up to Parker. He would work his ass off to find out the truth for her.
Maybe then she would forgive him.
After Parker walked into her condo and threw her purse across the room, the contents smashing against the wall and spilling to the floor, she sunk down to the carpet in a heap of tears and frustration. After she got it all out of her system, she remembered who she was, who she'd been for eight years, and everything she'd gone through. She angrily swiped at the tears that stained her cheeks and picked herself up off of the floor.
Parker had no intention of giving up without a fight. She had never been a doormat for anyone, and she wasn't about to start now. This was what she was trained for, what she was good at. She had a moment of guilt that she was going behind Garrett's back, but it served him right for belittling her like that. Parker knew damn well he only said those things to piss her off and stop her from putting herself in danger, but it didn't matter.
In just a few words, he managed to rip her heart into pieces and make her feel like a fool. He knew exactly what to say to cut her to the core.
Parker never regretted the decision she had made eight years ago. She was alone, had no direction, and desperately needed something to save her from making choices that would inevitably ruin her life
. She accepted her fate and did what she had to do to survive.
"I just need an answer, Miss Parker. Yes or no. It's that simple."
It turned out nothing was ever simple where her life was concerned. She never expected to meet Garrett and Milo a month later or how their friendship would turn her life upside down and inside out. It was difficult trying to be two different people for so long but it was necessary. She would never put the ones she loved in danger because they knew the truth about her.
Right then, though, it broke her heart that she had never been able to be completely honest with Garrett.
She dialed the number she still had written on the fridge from when Milo was still alive and had a moment of panic when it started to ring.
Garrett was going to be pissed that she didn't listen to him. And he was going to hate her when he found out what she'd been keeping from him since the day they met.
The voice on the other end of the line made Parker realize there was no turning back now. With one phone call, she was going to irrevocably change her and Garrett's lives forever.
Garrett tossed and turned all night long thinking about Parker. The look on her face before she walked away from him haunted his dreams until he finally got up out of bed and went to Base two hours before his scheduled briefing.
He picked up the phone at least thirty times during those two hours to call Parker and apologize only to hang right back up. He had no idea what the hell he would say to her, but he knew he needed to do something before he left. Garrett could never go on this mission with Parker mad at him. He hated himself for keeping her in the dark with his suspicions, but he honestly believed he was doing it for her own good.
Garrett glanced at his watch and realized he only had a few minutes until his meeting with his commanding officer, his team, and whatever Navy photographer they were able to find last minute. He just hoped this woman had experience, and he wouldn't need to babysit her the entire time. Garrett had more important things to do than to keep an eye on a green Petty Officer and keep her head from getting blown off. She damn well better be able to keep herself out of trouble.
On his way down the hall to the conference room, Garrett called Parker's cell phone but it went directly to voicemail. He felt like a chicken shit for leaving a message on her cell instead of talking to her in person, but maybe it would be easier that way.
"Parker, I'm sorry about what happened last night. I'm sorry I kept my suspicions from you. I should have been honest with you from the beginning. You and I both know how much of a dick I am, so do I really need to apologize for all the other things I said? You know I didn't mean them to come out the way they did. Take care of yourself, and I'll call you when I land."
Garrett hung up the phone, pleased with the message he left, and walked into the conference room where his CO, Captain Matt Risner, was already waiting for him.
"Lieutenant McCarthy, have a seat. We're just waiting on the rest of your team to get here."
Garrett took a seat directly across from Captain Risner and a few minutes later they were joined by three men, all of whom Garrett had worked with in the past-all good men and all friends of his and Milo's. Garrett trusted these men, and he was glad to be working with them again, even if it was under these circumstances.
"First Class Petty Officers Conrad and Vargas and Chief Marshall, you're all acquainted with Lieutenant McCarthy so no introductions are necessary, is that correct?" the blond, middle-aged man asked as the newcomers all took a seat around the table. His hazel eyes, accented by the fine lines of aging at the corners, took each of them in.
The four men nodded and replied with a respectful, "Yes, sir."
"In front of all of you is the dossier for this assignment. McCarthy will be the Officer in Charge as soon as you land on Dominican soil. He and his partner will be posing as a reporter slash photographer in order to gain access into the President's home. The rest of you will be there under the guise of a camera crew for Fox News," Risner explained as he pulled his six foot, five inch frame out of his seat and walked over to the computer Smart Board hanging on the south east wall of the room. "Your passports and press clearances will be waiting for you on the plane along with your background information. I want weekly status reports on my desk every Friday. McCarthy will have all of the information in his packet to access a secure internet and telephone line that cannot be traced."
Risner pulled a remote out of the pocket of his freshly creased khaki Service pants, aimed it at the Smart Board, and within seconds they were all looking at a map of the Dominican.
"A lot of things went wrong when Roberts was there. He was sent to the Dominican for a simple reconnaissance mission to gather intel on the President at the request of the Commander in Chief. All of the information he gathered has disappeared, and no one in the Dominican will cooperate with us. Roberts was a last minute replacement a few weeks into the mission when one of the men over there was injured and sent back home. He should have met with the team already in place in the Dominican as soon as he touched down. He never made contact with them, and we need to find out why. We need to clean up this mess and get answers before this gets out to too many people. We don't need any more negative press on the military right now."
Garrett took the pause in Captain Risner's speech to ask the question that had been on his mind since the phone call last night.
"Sir, if I may interrupt. Who will the female be working with us in Hansen's place?"
Garrett heard the door open and close behind him but kept his attention on his CO, awaiting his response.
"Actually, McCarthy, she just walked in. I believe you are all acquainted with Annabelle Parker, are you not?"
Parker had to swallow several times as she stood by the door behind the four men in an effort to keep from throwing up. The cat was out of the bag now, and she couldn't take back her decision.
As soon as Captain Risner, Milo's old commanding officer, said her name, all of their heads whipped around to look at her. She avoided the cold stare of Garrett's eyes and instead concentrated on the three men that were shocked but otherwise happy to see her.
She knew Austin Conrad, Cole Vargas, and Brady Marshall from a few of the military functions she'd attended with Milo. They were all good men, and she knew Garrett thought highly of them.
They each smiled when they saw her, and Parker had no choice but to finally make eye contact with Garrett.
He looked murderously at her, and she had to force herself to put her chin up and remain strong. She knew he would be pissed; she planned on it, prepared herself for it. Every action she took last night after walking away from him couldn't have had any other consequence but this.