Man Beneath The Uniform (Dynasties: The Danforths #2)


by Maureen Child

One

Zack Sheridan scowled at the streetlights shining through the wide window, then glared at the man sitting opposite him in the booth.

"She studies fish?" Danny Akiona, a full-blooded Hawaiian and a Navy SEAL, looked at his friend and laughed.

Irritating as hell, Zack told himself. Especially since, if the shoe had been on the other foot and it was Danny facing this assignment, Zack would be the one laughing.

Zack took another long swallow of his beer. But even the crisp bite of the alcohol couldn't quite take the sting out of his friend's laughter. Leaning back in the red leather booth, he turned to look at the crowd filling the waterfront bar.

Couples sat in booths and singles prowled the edges of the mob, looking to catch someone's—anyone's—eye. Music blared from an ancient jukebox loaded with everything from golden oldies to hip-hop. The waitresses, decked out in skintight, black leather miniskirts, red, belly-baring halter tops and red spike heels, dipped and swayed through the crowd, balancing trays full of drinks.

Zack sighed as he checked out an especially appealing blond barmaid with a size forty chest packed into a size thirty-four top. If he'd been a free man, he'd have made a play for her and enjoyed his first night of leave. But since he was facing thirty days of pure hell, he just didn't have the heart for it.

"Oh, man." Danny chuckled and shook his head. "This is just too funny."

Zack shot him a look hot enough to cook bacon. "I'm glad somebody's getting a laugh out of this."

"It's perfect, man." Danny's dark brown eyes glittered with humor and his perpetually tanned face split into a wide grin. "We get a month's R and R and you get sentenced to baby-sit a scientist." He lifted his beer in a toast. "Here's to the women I'll get now that you're out of action for a while."

He'd be out of action, all right, Zack thought miserably. Thirty long days of riding herd on some babe born with a silver spoon in her mouth and a yen to play with fish.

"Gonna be a long month." Zack shifted a glance out the front window of the bar to the bustling Street beyond the glass.

Even on a chilly February evening, Savannah was crawling with tourists. With cameras slung around their necks and guidebooks clutched like the Bible, visitors wandered narrow streets and the waterfront. Gift shops did a bumper business year round and the locals tidily counted their pennies and waited for summer, when even bigger crowds would show up.

Savannah was a small Southern town disguised as a bustling city. It had a great harbor, beautiful old homes and a couple of really terrific bars. Ordinarily, Zack would be looking forward to a little down time here. He'd be wandering the town looking to pick up a couple of Southern belles. But this trip was all business.

Or punishment, rather.

"It's no surprise, man," Danny said, bringing Zack's attention back to the matter at hand. "Hell, you knew you'd have your ass kicked the minute we got back home."

Zack moved his glass through the water rings it had left on the highly varnished wood table. Glancing at his friend, he asked, "So, do you think I should have done it differently?"

"Hell, no." Danny straightened up in the red leather seat and leaned both forearms on the tabletop. "If you hadn't gone back for Hunter…" His voice trailed off and he shook his head. "Unacceptable. No way. We had to go back for him. Orders or not."

"Hoo-yah." They lifted their glasses and clinked them together.

Zack nodded to himself. He knew he'd done the right thing—the only thing he could have done. But it was good to hear his friend back him up on it. The rules were simple and he lived by them. A Navy SEAL didn't leave a man behind. If a team of six men went in, then six men had better damn well come back out. Dead or alive, every SEAL always came home.

Memories rushed through his brain. Instants, moments, rose up, were recognized and then faded into the next. He remembered it all clearly. That mission two weeks before had gone bad from the beginning. His team had been sent in to infiltrate, rescue, then exit, fast.

But someone had screwed up the intel. The hostage wasn't where he was supposed to be. By the time Zack and the others had found their man, time was short. With only a couple of hours left before extraction, their cover was blown and Hunter Cabot had been shot. Zack and the rest of the team had made it back to the Zodiac boat with the hostage before they'd realized Hunter was missing.

Zack had reported in and had been given the order to cut Hunter loose and get the hell out of Dodge. Just remembering the easy dismissal of a SEAL's life made him furious all over again. Zack's hand tightened around his beer. No way in hell would he agree to leaving one of his team behind. So he'd disregarded orders, left the team to guard the hostage and went back in himself to drag Hunter's ass out.

Now Hunter was recovering in the hospital, surrounded by gorgeous nurses and Zack had been sentenced to serve as nursemaid to a geek.

Yeah, life was fair.

"What kind of fish, you think?"

"Huh?" Frowning, Zack looked at Danny.

"I mean," his friend said, "maybe it's something interesting like sharks. Back home I saw a shark once, big enough to—"

"Please." Zack held up a hand and winced. "No Hawaiian folk tales today, okay?"

Nothing Danny liked better than telling tall tales about the beauty of Hawaii, the big waves, the gorgeous women and just how many of those women were nuts about Danny Akiona. Zack wasn't in the mood.

Danny grinned. "Fine. When do you go see the fish woman?"

"I'm a free man until tomorrow morning, 0800."

"Hell, brudda," Danny used the island slang for "brother," and his voice was almost musical as he added, "that leaves us all of tonight."

Zack smiled, feeling a little better. Eight o'clock was hours away yet. No point in acting like he was in prison until the cell door actually slammed shut. "You're right."

"Damn straight." Danny signaled the waitress for another round of drinks, then looked at Zack. "I say we find us a couple of ladies and then pack in a whole month's worth of R and R into one night. If it's your last, let's make it count, brudda."

One night. Hell, they'd done it before. He and Danny had torn up towns and welcomed the dawn in too many countries to count. No reason why he couldn't have a big blowout the night before starting a new assignment.

Whatever Kimberly Danforth—God, what a snooty name—was like, the fish geek wouldn't have to be faced until tomorrow. And as any SEAL knew, you lived life one moment at a time, 'cause you never knew if you'd get another.

"I've said it before, I'll say it again," Zack said, ordering himself to relax and enjoy the rest of the night. "Hula," he said, using Danny's team nickname, "I like your style."

* * *

Kim Danforth glared at the telephone receiver in her hand and then slapped it back against her ear. Frustration bubbled inside her, blending with the blossoming sense that she was losing this battle. "Dad, this is ridiculous. I don't want a guard dog and I certainly don't need one."

Abraham Danforth's voice, fluid, strong and commanding, came across the line. "Kimberly, do this for me. These threats are not to be ignored."

Fear for her father's safety took the edge off her frustration and she winced. "Dad, first of all, it's only one threat and it was made against you, not me."

There was a long pause and she heard him inhale slowly, deeply. She counted to ten, knowing he was doing the same. Always careful about what he said, Abraham prided himself on his self-control. Even around the family dinner table, he'd always weighed every word, thinking carefully before speaking. Which was only one of the reasons why he made such an excellent senatorial candidate.

"Kimberly, whoever is behind this would know that the surest way to hurt me would be to hurt my family."

Kim sighed. Her father hadn't always been the most involved, caring parent. A man of business, he'd spent most of his energies growing the Danforth bank balances rather than spending time with his five kids. But he loved his children, and she knew he worried most about her, his youngest child and only daughter.

She also knew that a part of her father was using this situation as an attempt to be the kind of father he wished he'd been when she was growing up. The stalker sending threatening e-mail messages to Abraham hadn't threatened his family. Kim knew perfectly well that she wasn't in any real danger—which made the idea of having a bodyguard that much harder to accept. But she couldn't bring herself to turn her father down and give him one more thing to worry about.

Besides, her dad's younger brother, her uncle Harold, had asked her to go along with her father's request. Uncle Harold had said the entire family would be relieved if she was safe.

"Give the old man a break, will you?" he asked.

She smiled and shook her head. There was simply no way out of this. Between her father and her uncle, she was outnumbered and she knew it. Harold Danforth had been a substitute father to her and her brothers. Without the responsibilities of running the Danforth business interests, he'd had more time to give to both his own children and Abraham's.

"Fine," she said. "He can protect me. But he's not living here."

"There's room." Abraham's voice became abrupt as if now that he'd won the argument, he was ready to move on. "Just put him up in your spare room."

"Dad, I'm not letting a stranger stay in my house."

"He's not a stranger. He's the son of—"

"Your old navy buddy, I know," she said interrupting him before she heard the old war stories again. The only war she was interested in at the moment was the personal war for her own independence.

"Zack should be there any minute," her father was saying. "I expect you to cooperate."

"Dad—"

"Have to run now."

The dial tone ringing in her ear kept her from arguing further. "Nice chatting with you, Dad," she said tightly, wishing that just once, she could have gotten in the last word.

When the doorbell rang a few minutes later, Kim was still primed for battle.

She opened the door to a grim-faced man in dark glasses. He seemed to take up a lot of space on her small, flower-filled front porch. Was this Navy SEAL supposed to be her protector? Weren't military men a little better groomed? "Yes?"

The man frowned and reached up to rub his forehead. "Do you have to shout?" His voice sounded creaky, careful.

"I wasn't shouting."

"You're still shouting," he told her and reluctantly took off his sunglasses, wincing at the brightness of the day. "Man, morning sucks."

Kim stared up at him. Way up. A couple of inches over six feet tall, the man was broad in the shoulders, had a narrow waist and legs long enough for two men. His reddish brown hair was cut militarily high and tight. His ancient jeans were threadbare at the knee and faded. The collar of his dark red shirt was twisted, one side up, the other tucked beneath the neck of the shirt. He also wore a dark blue sweatshirt that looked as worn as his jeans. His narrowed eyes were a mixture of blue and green—and the red streaks surrounding the irises told her he'd had a late night.

This couldn't be the man her father was sending, she told herself. Zack Sheridan was a Navy SEAL—not a man she'd expect to show up with a hangover and two days' worth of stubble on his square jaws.

She wished suddenly for a steel security screen door.

"What do you want?"

"Loaded question," he said, his voice a low rumble that seemed to vibrate right through her without even trying. "What I want," he said, "is aspirin, a dark room … and to be anywhere but here."