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Escape Artist (Silver City Secrets Book 2) by Romeo Alexander (1)

Prologue

Five Years Ago

The earth was dry and hardpacked beneath their feet. Five men marched their way across the arid land, their eyes scanning, watchful and alert. The region of Somalia they crept through was hot and wouldn’t see real rain for weeks. By the time the infamous monsoon season swept through, the small group of men would be long gone, their mission finished.

The team was led by Commander Chip Russell, with his second, Lieutenant Ricardo Hernandez, following close behind. All five men were Navy SEALs, each and every man fiercely loyal to one another. Though none were as close as Hernandez and Russell, who met in boot camp, and passed through their SEAL tests and training together. Their friendship and comradery were established and well-known facts, though only their team suspected there was something more beneath the surface of their bond.

The extra depth to their friendship had begun in basic training. Neither man dared do more while under the scrutiny of drill instructors, followed by SEAL trainers. Neither man spoke of what had begun as a faint spark and grew to a glowing ember, though both could feel the heat. Once freed of constant prying eyes, neither wasted time embracing the other in moments of discretion and intimacy. In quiet, separated from the world, the two grew closer, their passion for each other growing as swiftly and steadily as their friendship had deepened. The only people who suspected were those closest to them, and none of them would dare speak a word of it, content to have their friends and teammates happy and fulfilled.

Even as they marched across the bitterly dry ground, their team could catch glimpses of their feelings in the way their eyes touched, warming for a moment, before glancing away hurriedly. Their minds were focused on their target, known only by the codename, Ladybug. None of them knew precisely what the target’s crimes were, only that he was to be put down as quickly and quietly as possible. Yet even as they kept their well-trained minds on the objective, their secret thoughts, born and burning within their hearts, watched and fretted over the other.

In battle, their deep bond was a help rather than a hinderance. They moved as one, a graceful dance of two huge men, turning and twisting in synchronized movements. Alone, both Hernandez and Russell were formidable. Together, they were reminiscent of the ancient Greek elite forces, the force of the Greeks, the Sacred Band of Thebes. Just as with the Sacred Band, the two lovers fought both for the sake of their mission, and for each other. In the midst of the fight, the men could be counted upon to strike hard and fast, commanding the rest of the small team with quick, efficient, effective leadership.

With several notable victories under their collective belt, the team was pleased but unsurprised when Ladybug was brought down in a swift hail of gunfire. The hastily built compound the team had slipped into was wiped clean of any resistance, and their mission was complete. They knew better than to celebrate just then, waiting until their feet touched home soil before they allowed themselves to acknowledge their victory.

The helicopter that collected them drowned out all noise, but it didn’t hide the shared glance between Hernandez and Russell. Both men made a promise in that glance. A promise to find somewhere private and secure, where the rush of battle and the threat of danger could be expelled from their minds as they wrapped themselves up in each other. The nights following a risky mission were always hot and passionate, as if lovemaking was what they needed to reassure themselves they were safe.

Perhaps these thoughts caused them to miss the danger as the helicopter neared the border of safe airspace. Hernandez saw the missile just a split second before the impact. Afterward, he remembered nothing leading up to the moment of impact so clearly as the image of Russell’s secret smile while the blunt hunt of the missile raced toward them. After that, there was only chaos, screeching metal and a tumultuous crash, a fiery pain, and then darkness.

Days later, Ricardo ‘Rico’ Hernandez awoke in a hospital room, head heavily bandaged, his body a riot of aches and pain. The first thing he remembered upon waking was the overwhelming sense of loneliness and loss. Rico didn’t need the doctor’s quick but gentle explanation of the deaths of his entire team, the black ache in his chest had told him as much. He had nodded his understanding, waiting until the doctor and the accompanying nurse left the room before he allowed his tired mind to sink back into the dark of unconsciousness where he didn’t have to face the truth.

Pain is patient. It awaited him when the painkillers were taken away and his mind could no longer take refuge in their apathetic embrace. Lethargy gave way to a restlessness, keeping him awake into the late hours of the night. There were times, as he allowed himself to be kept in bed in fear of the head injury he had gained, where he was tempted to ask for sleep aids. He knew enough about medicine to understand his head injury would keep the doctors from prescribing him sleep medicine, and he was too stubborn to ask for help.

There was no escape from the pain. The physical pain he could tolerate, ignoring it when he could and pushing through the rest. The true pain came from the understanding of just how alone he was. With the deaths of his team, of his lover, Rico had nothing and no one left. He knew the Navy wouldn’t keep him, not with the way the doctors spoke of his head injury. In just one moment, he had lost his lover, his friends, his home, and soon, he would lose the only thing in his life which had given him purpose. Sure, he would receive medals and honors, be given a discharge that would look good on any record, but it wouldn’t replace what he had lost.

The sight of others in the hospital, frequently visited by loved ones and spouses, did nothing to assuage Rico’s aching heart. Rico tried desperately to ignore them, to see past the loving couples as if they were invisible. It worked for a time, with Rico’s eyes sliding over embracing spouses, deaf to their shared laughter.

Despite his best attempts to ignore the outpouring of love and affection, there came a couple he could not ignore. Rico had first spotted them separately, the woman approaching the injured sailor’s room, and had tried to slip into his state of seeing nothing. The process stalled when he noticed the faintest ring of soft glowing color around her body. A glance into the sailor’s room showed another, identical-colored pattern surrounding him.

Rico couldn’t help but watch as she entered the sailor’s room. The color around them thickened, at first a ruddy purple, widening out in a sheath which wrapped around their bodies. As he watched, the aura became suffused with a brilliant magenta as they neared kissing distance. When she bent to hug the man, streaks of the most brilliant gold shot out through the aura, never distorting the deep purple-red of the main color surrounding them.

For the first time since waking up in the hospital, Hernandez found himself truly forgetting his loss. He could only watch the color around the couple deepen, the glow increasing until he swore it should have filled the room. No one else seemed to see it, yet as Rico watched, he noticed some of the passersby seemed to sense it. A fond smile slipped across the faces of a few who glanced into the room as they passed.

Hernandez shook himself free of the moment when it was over. There was no explanation for what he had seen, save the great blow he had taken in the helicopter crash. It did nothing to alleviate the swelling pain in his chest, and he shoved the thoughts away from his mind.

The sight of those strengthening auras never left him, even if they were left to sit in the shadows of his conscious thoughts. Over the next few weeks of recovery, he found himself thinking of the strange moment. At night, when he was left alone to his insomnia and heartache, the memory surfaced and played along his thoughts. When his officers entered his room, informing him of his discharge from the service, the memories were furthest from his mind as he mourned his future.

It wasn’t until a couple of days before his discharge that Rico thought of the strange moment clearly. He was mobile again, allowed to roam the halls freely so long as he didn’t leave hospital property. Lost in his own thoughts once again, Rico nearly missed the moment that would change everything. If it hadn’t been for the soft laugh, so pure in its happiness, he might have kept walking.

Yet, as he passed an open room, the laugh drifted out, pulling him from his own brooding thoughts. The laugh came from an older woman who sat at the bedside of her equally aged husband. Their hands were clasped together as they spoke, her bent slightly over the bed with a soft smile, and he with a wide, impish grin on his face as he spoke words Rico couldn’t quite make out.

The auras had returned, wrapped around the older couple so tightly it made a dense cocoon of brilliant color. The gold streaks Rico had seen in the young couple were shaped in a distinct border around the outside edges of the elderly couple’s auras, like a barrier. Nothing else seemed to pass through the golden border. Where they touched, the colors were at their most brilliant, shimmering and wavy, never weakening or fraying. Watching the auras where the older couple touched, Rico swore he saw an energy so strong, he was amazed he couldn’t hear the hum of it.

Rico wasn’t sure how long he stood outside the doorway of the old man’s room, watching the couple. As he felt the ache in his heart become the sharp agony of a dagger, knowing he would never have what they had, his mind began working. For all the military training honing his instincts, Rico was still a man of the mind, analyzing facts both as a means to escape the world of emotion.

Rico would never have called himself a religious man but he did have a strong spiritual streak, reaching back into his childhood. Before losing what remained of his relatives at a young age, Rico remembered tales of soulmates, of energies, auras, and faith. A great-aunt, an ancient woman of weathered skin and wise eyes, had spoken of the exact events Rico had witnessed. The stories Rico remembered from his childhood were becoming fact before his eyes.

He was witnessing the entwined fates of two people who were meant for one another. In one instance, he had seen it form in youth, growing stronger with each passing moment. Then he observed it in a couple who had reached an age together which Rico bore little hope of reaching himself one day. Their love, their bond, had deepened so much over the years, the color and brightness around them dimmed everything else in comparison.

Afterward, Rico would continue to see such auras around those destined to be with each other. As the pain in his own soul eased, it made him smile to see such a happy fate in others and to nudge it along when he could. His life continued as he found new paths to travel outside the rank and file of the elite SEALs.

But there was always a thread of bitterness which ran through the center of his happiness at other’s joy. Fate had taken everything that had ever mattered to Rico. All those he cared about were gone and he was forced to make a new life for himself without guidance or support. The only thing fate had decided to give him in return for all his heartache was the ability to know when his own relationships were doomed along with watching others find the loves of their lives.

Privately, Ricardo ‘Rico’ Hernandez held the opinion that he might have been better off without his special sight.

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